Germany's federal prosecutors Thursday charged a Russian national for the killing last year of a Georgian rebel fighter in Berlin and said Moscow ordered the assassination. The development is likely to further strain Berlin's already rocky relations with the Kremlin, according to diplomats.
The German government expelled two Russian diplomats last year over the murder in August of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen Georgian, who fought against Russia in the Second Chechen War and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
The prosecutor’s office said in a press statement it had charged a 49-year-old Russian, identified as “Vadim K, otherwise known as Vadim S.” He accepted the “government order to kill,” the prosecutor’s statement said, in the hope of financial reward or because he shared the desire to “kill a political opponent.”
Prosecutors said that “state authorities of the Central Government of the Russian Federation” ordered the killing “at an unknown date prior to July 18, 2019,” because of Khangoshvili’s opposition to Russia. Prosecutors say Vadim K flew days before the slaying from Moscow to Paris and from there to Warsaw, before arriving in Berlin. He used a passport under the name Vadim S issued weeks earlier by Russian authorities.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters the Russian ambassador had been called in for talks, adding that the federal government “explicitly reserves the right to take further measures.”
Juergen Hardt, foreign policy coordinator of Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives in the German parliament, said Berlin should mull further sanctions against Russia. “As long as top Russian officials shield the perpetrators of the Tiergarten murder, the federal government must not shy away from sanctions. It must also win over our European partners for such a move,” he told Reuters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in December described Khangoshvili as a “bloodthirsty and brutal man,” adding that he’d been involved in a bomb attack on the Moscow metro in 2010. But the Russian leader denied Moscow was behind the assassination, which took place in broad daylight in Kleiner Tiergarten Park in central Berlin as Khangoshvili was returning home from a mosque he attended.
Khangoshvili was shot twice in the head by the assassin, who used a Glock 26 handgun equipped with a silencer. The accused assassin was apprehended shortly after, when two teenagers spotted him discarding the Glock pistol, a bicycle and a wig into the nearby Spree River.
“I don't know what happened to him,” Putin said.
In February, Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, in collaboration with Der Spiegel magazine, accused Russia’s FSB security agency of being behind the murder. Their investigation led them to accuse Eduard Bendersky, chairman of the Vympel Charitable Fund for Former FSB Spetsnaz Officers, of overseeing the operation “apparently to provide a veneer of deniability.”
Bellingcat unmasked publicly the alleged Russian military intelligence officers behind the attempted poisoning assassination in 2018 in Britain of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The identities were subsequently confirmed by British police, who charged the men in absentia.
Bellingcat alleges the FSB provided false identity papers for Khangoshvili. It also claimed “Russian authorities attempted to scrub all public data relating to the killer’s true identity, as well as data linked to his immediate family.”
The German government in Berlin warned last year Russia’s ambassador in Germany, Sergey Nechayev, who was summoned to the German foreign ministry to explain the killing, of possible sanctions being imposed on Russia for the slaying. German officials publicly complained that Moscow had refused to assist in the investigation — an allegation denied by Russian authorities.
Despite “repeated high-ranking and insistent calls,” Russian authorities would “not sufficiently cooperate in the investigation of the murder,” said the foreign ministry at the time. Moscow retaliated by expelling two German diplomats. And Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: “I categorically reject any link between this incident, this murder and official Russia.”
Russian officials say the killing might have been the result of a Chechen grudge.
Germany last month threatened sanctions for a 2015 cyberattack on the German parliament.
Chancellor Merkel said in May German intelligence agencies had turned up hard evidence that Russia was behind the cyberattack on the German parliament, dubbing the hacking “outrageous.”
Tensions have been escalating between Berlin and Moscow since the assassination of the former Chechen rebel fighter in the German capital. Merkel raised the incident in December with Putin during an international summit in Paris to discuss a Ukraine peace deal.
Merkel has so far been cautious in her comments about the killing, confining them to accusing Moscow of stonewalling the German probe into the assassination — one in a series of alleged Kremlin-linked killings and attempted slayings in the past few years in European countries of Russian dissidents and opponents of Putin’s Kremlin.
Khangoshvili was a military commander against Russian troops between 1999 and 2004. He moved back to Georgia after the war and worked for the Georgian interior ministry but continued, according to friends, to help Chechen insurgents. Russian officials accused Khangoshvili of being a “jihadist.”
But friends say he wasn’t a radical Islamist. “He was always against Chechens going to fight in Syria or Afghanistan; he thought our only battle was with Russia,” said Saikhan Muzayev, a friend who saw him in the German capital three months before he was killed.
Khangoshvili arrived in Germany and sought asylum in 2016 after surviving an assassination attempt on him the previous year in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, according two friends.
Western intelligence agencies in December say they had linked up to 15 members of Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, to a series of murders, including the botched attempt to poison Skripal in 2018 in the English town of Salisbury.
According to British, U.S., French and Swiss security officials the agents conducted operations between 2015 and 2018 from a “base camp” in the French Alps, near where the ski chase was filmed for the 1999 James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough.