In Depth

Zelimkhan Khangoshvili: Germany formally implicates Russia in murder

Former military commander was shot while walking through Berlin park in August

Germany has expelled two Russian diplomats in retaliation for what it now considers a Russian state-sponsored assassination in Berlin, and has opened a formal investigation to establish conclusively if Moscow was behind the attack.

Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen descent, was murdered in the German capital in August by a gunman carrying a legitimate passport from Russia, but in a false name.

A former Chechen rebel commander, Khangoshvili was a known enemy of the Kremlin, but also of Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, a federal subject of Russia, and his assassination has drawn comparisons to the nerve-agent poisoning last year of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

Western governments responded in unison to the Skripal attack, expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats in a gesture of solidarity, but in the case of Khangoshvili such collective action has been conspicuously absent - largely down to Berlin’s delay in attributing blame.

The assassination

Khangoshvili was travelling to midday Friday prayers at a local mosque on 23 August when, as he passed through Kleiner Tiergarten park, a man with a silenced automatic pistol rode out from behind a bush on an electric bicycle and shot him once in the shoulder, then twice in the head.

The assassin, who was wearing a wig, escaped, but a suspect fitting his description was caught within minutes after ditching his bicycle in a river and attempting to merge into a crowd.

Private investigations yield results

The suspect was travelling under a valid passport, reportedly bearing the name Vadim Andreevich Sokolov. However, an investigation by news magazine Der Spiegel and civilian investigative group Bellingcat concluded that “no such person exists in Russia’s sprawling, comprehensive national citizen database”.

“This discovery makes Russia’s claims that the killer is not connected to the Russian state implausible, as no person in Russia is in a position to obtain a valid Russian passport under a fake identity without the involvement of the state bureaucratic and security apparatus,” Bellingcat said.

In contrast, it took German authorities over three months to come to any official conclusions as to the suspect’s motive.

On Tuesday, in collaboration with The Dossier Center, a London-based research group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled Russian oil billionaire turned Kremlin nemesis, Bellingcat named the suspect as Vadim Nikolaevich Krasikov.

Krasikov, they claimed, carried out the killing of Khangoshvili backed by the Russian state.

On Wednesday, Peter Frank, Germany’s federal prosecutor, revealed that his country had come to the same conclusion. “There are sufficient factual grounds to suggest that the killing... was carried out either on behalf of state agencies of the Russian Federation or those of the Autonomous Chechen Republic, as part of the Russian Federation,” he said.

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Political dynamics

In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that US officials believed Moscow was responsible for the assassination and that Washington had shared intelligence about the case with their counterparts in Berlin.

Germany’s delay in going public with its findings, despite international partners doing just that, can perhaps be put down to wanting to be absolutely sure its accusations are true, but also to other political factors.

“Angela Merkel has reasons to avoid turning this into a cause celebre,” writes Mark Galeotti in Raam Op Rusland. “Her political position is complex, Germany is still committed to the controversial Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which Washington is trying to block, and Berlin is still hoping to be able to broker some kind of deal over the Donbas.”

Russia has said the diplomat expulsions are “unfriendly and unfounded”, promising to respond in due course. The Kremlin has denied any Russian involvement, saying: “This is absolutely groundless speculation.”

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