Germanyâ€™s reaction to the murder of a prominent Chechen in Berlin, carried out by a Russian citizen with highly suspicious travel papers, has been criticized as tepid and slow, especially compared to the U.K.â€™s forceful response in a similar case last year. But after an extremely long wind-up, German authorities on Wednesday finally expelled two diplomats and made their suspicion of Russian government involvement official.
The victim in the case, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, had fought against the Russian military during the Chechen conflict and attempted to help Georgia fight off a Russian invasion in 2008. After an attempt on his life in Tbilisi in 2015, he traveled to Germany and applied for asylum. In August, a man rode up to him on an electric bike in Berlinâ€™s Tiergarten park and shot him three times, twice in the head.
The suspected assassin was quickly arrested; he presented a fresh Russian passport in the name of Vadim Sokolov. The investigative outfit Bellingcat soon found out that the holder of this passport had no documented history within the Russian bureaucracy and had provided false information when he applied for the visa on which he traveled to Europe.
On Tuesday, Bellingcat claimed that Sokolovâ€™s real name was Vadim Krasikov. It reported that a man of that name, who resembles Khangoshviliâ€™s alleged assassin, had been sought in Russia in connection with another contract hit, also involving a bicycle. Warrants issued in connection with that case, the site said, were subsequently withdrawn without public explanation.
Apparently, the German federal prosecutor-generalâ€™s office supports this identification. On Wednesday, it took over the case from the Berlin authorities, naming the suspect as â€śVadim K., alias Vadim S.â€ť The reason it intervened, it said, was that the investigation had turned up â€śsufficient factual evidenceâ€ť that the murder had been carried out â€śeither on behalf of State entities of the Russian Federation or of the Chechen Republic as part of the Russian Federation.â€ť That makes Khangoshviliâ€™s killing a German national-security concern.
The case presents a stark contrast to that of former double agent Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned along with his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury last year. Just days after the unsuccessful assassination attempt, the U.K. government publicly accused Russia, appealed to other Western nations for solidarity, and coordinated a response that led to the expulsion of about 100 Russian diplomats around the world, four of them from Germany. Although the Russian propaganda machine did its best to portray this aggressive response as a case of anti-Russian paranoia, nobody outside the Russian spy apparatus had a motive to kill Skripal.
In Khangoshviliâ€™s case, just as in Skripalâ€™s, Russiaâ€™s government has denied involvement. But this time its insistence that the response has been â€śpoliticizedâ€ť is even more egregious, since Germanyâ€™s measured reaction followed a thorough investigation. For three months, Germany patiently asked Russia for more information about the suspect, a Russian citizen who couldnâ€™t be traced under the name he had given, and got no cooperation. The foreign ministryâ€™s statement on the diplomat expulsion said assistance from Russia would still be welcome. And Germany isnâ€™t trying to raise a public-relations storm as the U.K. did.
Of course, Germanyâ€™s relationship with Russia gives it far less latitude for a forceful response. It stands alone against powerful opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is meant to start pumping Russian natural gas into Germany next year, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to help mediate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine next week.
On the other hand, though, a large Chechen diaspora is watching. Between 2012 and 2017, some 36,000 Chechens applied for asylum in Germany; most of them are avowed enemies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his appointee as head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Unless the German government acts forcefully in the Khangoshvili case, some of them will have strong reasons to fear for their lives. Germany has a responsibility to protect them - and to make clear that assassinations arranged by a foreign state on its soil will have consequences.
Germany appears to be resolving this dilemma in the most German way possible: by following the rules. The Berlin investigators worked methodically until they reached a politically charged conclusion. Then federal prosecutors took over, even though the timing was diplomatically awkward. Now the foreign ministry has expelled Russian diplomats after evidence of state involvement became clear.
More publicity - of the German, measured kind - and possibly more retaliatory moves can be expected as the investigation proceeds. It would be counterproductive for the Kremlin to use the same cavalier tactics as it did with Britain. Here in Germany, nobody wants to politicize the Khangoshvili murder. Theyâ€™re just trying to get at the truth.
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Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinionâ€™s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.