August 23, 2019. Tiergarten park, central Berlin. In a drive-by shooting, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili – an ethnic Chechen holding a Georgian passport – is killed by an assailant using a bicycle to hunt down his quarry. After the suspect was detained, the case evolved, first, into something approaching an espionage thriller, and then into a bilateral Russian-German spat.
The German authorities asked their Russian counterparts to assist in the investigation. But the Russian statements were either vague or contradictory when it came to the alleged identity of the murderer, while German investigators had reason to assume he was in fact Vadim Krasikov, mafia contract killer and formerly of Federal Security Service special operations. Moreover, the German federal prosecutor deemed there to be sufficient grounds to believe that it was Russian intelligence services, in the form of the military intelligence directorate known by its former acronym GRU, that most likely ordered and organised the murder. The suspect is now said to be in urgent danger as Russian services attempt to silence – assassinate – him. As such, the German authorities have relocated him to a secret detention facility.
The German government has long stayed silent on the case, even after Bellingcat published its investigative results on the suspect and the US intelligence community openly urged Berlin to consider the case as an act of Russian state terrorism. Did Berlin choose to keep the investigation a low priority in order not to upset Moscow? Indeed, in general terms Moscow still enjoys considerable benefit of the doubt among the German public (more than, say, Washington or Ankara), and especially among fringe opposition parties. So it seems logical that the government and federal prosecutor waited until the evidence of Russian state support for the assassination became rock-solid. Once it did, they then openly accused Russia of ordering the murder and expelled two Russian officials.
Still, the investigation is far from over, and in the meantime the Kremlin has changed tack by trying to justify the murder rather than denying it. Once the recent Normandy summit in Paris was out of the way, Vladimir Putin claimed that Khangoshvili had been involved in a terror plot in Moscow. He claimed that the Russian government had sought his extradition for trial, but that Germany refused to cooperate. The German government swiftly rebuked Putin’s claims, stating that it had received no such Russian request either to extradite Khangoshvili or assist in investigations against him. There has also been no indication that he was involved in the terrorist attack cited by Putin or any attack of a similar kind.
Berlin stayed silent about the case for months, leaving conspiracy theories to rush into the void
Furthermore, it is known that that Khangoshvili worked with both Georgian and US intelligence to unmask and detain Chechen Islamist fighters attempting to join the Islamic State group in Syria. This therefore also contradicts the Russian description of a merciless Islamist. But, unfortunately, several media outlets in Germany – especially fringe media close to the extreme right or left – picked up the Russian disinformation. Moscow stubbornly continues to defend its justification for the murder, seemingly confident that it can win over its German audience. The approach seems to be paying off, as even government figures like Horst Seehofer have started to openly contradict the chancellor, German police, and prosecutors. Putin may now feel further emboldened to press home his advantage.
This case sheds light on two weaknesses not only of the current government, but of German politics and political culture as a whole. Firstly, the German culture of restraint and consensus proved counterproductive in this situation. Because Berlin stayed silent about the case for months, all sorts of speculation, conspiracy theories, and ill-informed content rushed in to fill the void. The Kremlin has since had an easier time inserting its own narrative into the domestic debate, and the German government has appeared reactive and behind events.
Secondly, Germany still deals with Russian malign activities on a case-by-case basis, and it does not broaden the debate to match the bigger landscape of election interference, propaganda, and subversion. All this needs a more comprehensive approach. Members of Germany’s political class feel uneasy about issues of intelligence, espionage, and covert investigations – the legacy of past political regimes. But their European and transatlantic partners have long now expected them to move past this and take on counter-intelligence efforts themselves.
Such Russian behaviour is on the increase, and this brand of assertiveness is imitated by other authoritarian regimes. For this reason, experts have called for more and better coordinated action to counter this problem. But Germany’s real and imaginary domestic constraints mean that it makes no political effort to address this either at home or in Europe. The Tiergarten hitman travelled to Paris and Warsaw before the murder in Berlin, indicating that foreign intelligence operatives make use of the Schengen area to disperse their traces among EU member states. And the recent discovery of a GRU hideout in France only makes the international dimension of Russian intelligence penetration even more obvious. While counter-intelligence investigations remain the purview of national authorities, the nature of this threat ought to command a pan-European effort to counter it.
These are actually mutually reinforcing trends. Berlin is cautious because large segments of the population want it to stay on good terms with Moscow. But many of those who think the government needs to court the Kremlin do so because they perceive Russia as much more powerful. Any strong and decisive action taken by Germany, they reason, will put the two countries on a path of escalation that Germany can never surmount. And, again, the weaker and more submissive the government appears, the more the public is convinced of this argument. The Tiergarten murder presented an opportunity to do the opposite, perhaps surprising and even shocking Russia with newfound German determination. For the moment, homegrown German caution remains the order of the day.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.