Germany is to expel two Russian diplomats after a Russian hitman was sentenced to life in prison for the “Kremlin-sponsored” assassination of an exiled Chechen dissident in central Berlin.
Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said the contract killing constituted a “grave violation” of her country’s sovereignty as relations with Moscow slid to their lowest point in two years. Russia swiftly announced that it would take retaliatory action against the “unfriendly” gesture.
Leading politicians in the Bundestag said the murder was an act of Russian “state terrorism” that appeared to have been approved by President Putin’s inner circle.
The victim, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, 40, had fought against the Russians as a guerrilla commander during an uprising against the Kremlin-backed government in Chechnya. He sought asylum in Germany but was shot dead as he cycled through the Little Tiergarten park in August 2019.
Yesterday the court of appeal in Berlin convicted Vadim Krasikov, 56, an alleged agent for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), of murdering the exile in daylight with numerous witnesses.
The judges said the killing had been ordered and assisted by the Russian authorities. “The crime was meticulously prepared by agents stationed in Berlin,” Olas Arnoldi, the presiding judge, said as he issued the verdict.
In response Baerbock, 41, summoned the Russian ambassador and told him two diplomats in his embassy had been declared persona non grata, in addition to the two suspected spies Germany had expelled in late 2019. “It’s very clear that actions such as the Tiergarten murder seriously strain our relationship [with Russia],” Baerbock said. “The German government will do everything that is necessary to defend people’s safety in our country and respect for our legal order.”
Germany’s Russia policy under Olaf Scholz, the new chancellor, is in a state of flux. The US and its allies are urging Berlin to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia should Putin attack Ukraine.
While Baerbock has struck an assertive tone during her first days in the foreign ministry, Scholz has been markedly more circumspect. Delivering his first speech to the Bundestag as chancellor shortly before the trial verdict, he said that he had “great concern” about Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border but stood ready for “constructive dialogue” with Moscow.
“Against the backdrop of our history, we have to have a relationship with Russia,” Scholz told MPs. “We of all nations must be ready to try to break out of the cycle of escalation.”
Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen whose asylum application was rejected by the German authorities, was walking home from prayers at his mosque when Krasikov approached him from behind on an electric bicycle. The Russian fired three shots with a silenced Glock pistol. At least two bullets hit the victim’s head. Krasikov was then seen hastily shaving and changing his clothes by the bank of the river Spree before dumping his bicycle and his gun in the water. When Krasikov was arrested moments later, he pretended that his name was Vadim Sokolov and to be visiting Berlin on a tour of Europe. He also produced a passport to corroborate his false identity.
However, Bellingcat, the investigative news website, alleged that Krasikov was in fact a trained assassin who had carried out at least two other murders in Russia. It also analysed his phone records and found that he had been in extensive contact with the FSB, spending several days at a “tactical shooting” centre run by the agency.
Jürgen Hardt, 58, the foreign policy spokesman for the conservative opposition in the Bundestag, said Krasikov’s falsified passport suggested that the murder had been approved by Putin’s inner circle. “In Russia identity fraud is only possible with support and cover from the highest political levels,” he said.
Friends and family members of Khangoshvili told The Times that there had been at least two previous attempts on his life, in 2009 and 2015.
Sergei Nechaev, the Russian ambassador to Germany, dismissed the court verdict as “biased and politically motivated”. He warned that it would “seriously aggravate the already difficult Russian-German relationship” and that the “unfriendly act will not be left without a reaction”.
The Kremlin has “categorically rejected” the claim that it had anything to do with the murder. Putin described the victim as a “bandit” and a “cruel and bloody killer” but said that Russia had played no role in the attack.