German-Russian relations have been plunged into crisis after German federal prosecutors said there were “sufficient indications” that the Russian state was behind the murder of a Chechen rebel in a Berlin park in August.
The case will refocus attention on the campaign of assassination that the Kremlin has unleashed on its political opponents abroad. The killing of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili occurred just a year-and-a-half after the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent in the English town of Salisbury.
Germany’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday it had expelled two Russian diplomats over Moscow’s failure to help investigate the Khangoshvili murder, in a sign of the damage the case has inflicted on relations between the two countries.
“It’s clearly an event in bilateral relations that we unfortunately didn’t get any active assistance from Russia to try to solve this case,” Angela Merkel, chancellor, said on the sidelines of the Nato summit in Britain on Wednesday.
Ties between Moscow and Berlin were already strained by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its military support for pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. But the Khangoshvili case threatens to send them to a new low.
The latest twist in the investigation comes just days before Ms Merkel is due to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin at a summit in France which aims to bring an end to the east Ukraine conflict.
Speculation has long swirled that the Kremlin was behind the assassination of Khangoshvili, a Chechen rebel who held Georgian nationality.
For weeks, the German authorities refused to comment publicly on any Russian role. But on Wednesday the federal prosecutor’s office said that it was taking over the investigation and that there were “sufficient factual indications” to suggest the murder was “ordered either by the government agencies of the Russian Federation or those of the Chechen Republic”.
The federal prosecutor handles particularly serious cases that impinge on national security or are linked to the intelligence services of a foreign state.
Khangoshvili, who was also known as Tornike Kavtarashvili, was shot dead in a Berlin park on August 23 while walking to his mosque. His killer approached him on a bicycle and shot him in the head and back. The alleged assassin, a 49-year-old man with a Russian passport, was arrested soon afterwards. He has denied any involvement in the attack.
On Wednesday the German foreign ministry said that despite “repeated high-level and urgent requests”, the Russian authorities had failed to co-operate adequately with the murder probe.
It said the latest request for help had been conveyed in a conversation between Andreas Michaelis, state secretary at Germany’s foreign ministry, and Sergei Nechayev, the Russian ambassador to Berlin, at a meeting on November 20.
The foreign ministry said it still expected “serious and immediate co-operation from the Russian authorities”, especially as the federal prosecutor was now handling the case.
Mr Nechayev said he was “deeply disappointed” by the German move, which he described as “unjustified” and “unfriendly”, and said Russia would retaliate.
“There was never any proof that Russian state structures were complicit in this incident, and there still isn’t any,” he said. He accused Germany of “trying to politicise the crime” and pre-empt the results of the investigation.
Prosecutors said Khangoshvili had been designated a terrorist by the Russian authorities, who accused him of membership of the “Caucasian Emirate” terrorist group. He is alleged to have trained active members of the organisation on Georgian soil and been responsible for smuggling them abroad.
Khangoshvili himself told German authorities that he had taken part in the Chechen insurgency against Russian rule, and commanded a Chechen militia during the second Russian-Chechen war that fought Russian troops.
German prosecutors said Khangoshvili found out at the end of 2008 that the Russian authorities were planning to assassinate him in Georgia or abduct him and take him to Chechnya. In May 2015 an unknown assailant shot him in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, but he survived the attack. He later moved to Ukraine, and from there to Germany, where he applied for — and was denied — asylum.
Prosecutors were initially unable to establish the real identity of Khangoshvili’s alleged killer. But in their statement on Wednesday, they named him as Vadim K, a Russian man who had been wanted by police for a 2013 murder in Moscow. In July 2015 the Russian police search file was deleted, and less than two months later, a passport was issued in the name of Vadim Sokolov, whose ID photo was identical to that of Vadim K.
One possible clue that the Russian state was involved, prosecutors said, emerged from Vadim K’s employment details. In his visa application he listed as his employer a company called ZAO RUST, which shares a fax number with two firms belonging to the Russian defence ministry.
Prosecutors said that Vadim K, alias Vadim Sokolov, flew from Moscow to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport on August 17 this year, having acquired a visa for the Schengen document-free area from the French authorities. Three days later he flew to Warsaw, leaving his hotel there on August 22 — a day before Khangoshvili’s murder.
German media reports at the time said that immediately after the attack, a group of youths saw Vadim K. changing his clothes behind a bush and threw his bicycle in the River Spree. Witnesses alerted the police, who promptly arrested him.
Investigators had initially thought the case might be related to organised crime or Islamist terrorism. But prosecutors said on Wednesday that there were “no indications so far that the crime was ordered by a non-state actor”.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow