Bottom Line Up Front
- On December 4, Germany officially declared Russia was suspected in a brazen assassination in Berlin last August.
- German authorities believe Vadim Krasikov, currently in custody, is the killer of an ethnic Chechen Georgian national known as Zelimkhan Khangoshvili.
- This would be the first known Moscow-ordered assassination in Germany since the end of the Cold War.
- Blatant assassinations in Western countries are becoming a more commonly used tactic of Russia’s foreign policy.
On December 4th, German officials officially stated that Russia was behind the brazen assassination of a former Chechen military commander of Chechen Georgian descent, on a Berlin street last summer. The authorities quickly arrested a Russian national using the passport of someone named Vadim Sokolov but who was recently identified as Vadim Krasikov. Krasikov had been implicated in a 2014 assassination in Moscow similar to the August killing of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin. Following the end of a Paris summit this week which brought together leaders from Russia and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Khangoshvili a ‘cruel and bloodthirsty person’ and accused him of involvement in the March 2010 Moscow metro bombings that killed 98 people. German authorities believe Moscow enabled and directed Krasikov to travel under a false name to kill Khangoshili. This would be the first known Kremlin assassination operation in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In response to the incident, Germany announced the expulsion of two Russian employees from the Russian embassy in Berlin, designating them ‘persona non grata (PNG)’ in diplomatic terms. Russia dismissed the new accusations, as it has all previous ones, calling them ‘absolutely groundless’ and promising its own diplomatic retaliation.
Russia is no stranger to rogue assassination operations in foreign nations. In 2006, Moscow assassinated Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian intelligence officer who defected to the United Kingdom, poisoning him with radiation. In a move straight from the Kremlin’s playbook, the Russian government dismissed evidence that it had murdered a dissident in London, while also saying Litvinenko earned his fate by working against Russia. That murder was seen, correctly, as a clear warning to others considering similar actions that could be construed as disloyal to Putin. That warning was reinforced in March 2018 when Russian operatives used Novichok, a Russian-created nerve agent and chemical weapon, to attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who served as a British double agent, and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, England. The attack nearly killed the Skripals and a British police officer, and resulted in the death of an English woman named Dawn Sturgess who came in contact with the nerve agent after it had been discarded by the Russian operatives.
As with Russia’s assassination of Litvinenko and it’s attempted high-profile assassination attempt of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, both demonstrated unambiguous signs that Moscow would not be deterred by international law from conducting malign operations on foreign soil. Putin wants it to be clear that Russia will stop at nothing to silence its critics or enact revenge on its enemies. International condemnations mean little to Moscow, which only seems to respond to sanctions or other punitive measures. Even the sanctions and widespread diplomatic expulsions that followed the Skripal assassination attempt have not dissuaded the Kremlin’s use of these malign operations as a tool of foreign policy. The West, while condemning these incidents, expelling Russian nationals and implementing targeted sanctions, continues to work closely with Russia in other fields, especially the energy sector. The assassination in Germany will undoubtedly complicate already tense relations between the two nations, but not enough to disrupt planned natural gas projects. To that end, it seems likely Russia will continue to rely upon state-sponsored assassinations as a tool in its foreign policy tool kit. For Moscow, the economic costs pale in consideration to the perceived benefits of silencing critics and deterring future dissidents.