Saturday, December 21, 2019

How Russian Agents Hunt Down Kremlin Opponents

Very dramatic.

At Der Spiegel, "Putin's Killers in Europe":

In the summer of 2013, a killer in Moscow rode a bicycle toward his victim. The Russian businessman Albert Nazranov saw him, and a short brawl ensued. The killer shot the man in the head and upper body at close range. Then he rode away. All of that can be seen in surveillance footage of the crime.

In the summer of 2019, a killer also rode a bicycle toward his victim, only this time in Berlin. He shot Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, of Georgia, in the head and upper body at close range, before riding away. That's how witnesses described the scene.

Reporting by DER SPIEGEL, Bellingcat, The Insider and The Dossier Center now reveals that not only were both murders very similar -- they were also likely carried out by the same person. A forensic comparison of both perpetrator photos reveals clear similarities. The man who carried a passport bearing the name Vadim Sokolov in Berlin was the Russian Vadim Krasikov, the killer who is thought to have also struck in Moscow.

German General Federal Prosecutor Peter Frank has now assumed responsibility for the investigation into the Berlin murder case at the federal level because, he says, they are of "special importance." Germany's chief prosecutor believes that Russian government authorities deliberately issued Krasikov's new identity, an assumption based on the fact that Moscow took the surprising step in 2015 of revoking an international search warrant for Krasikov and issuing a new identity card to him with the name "Vadim Sokolov" a short time later. It's not likely to have been a coincidence.

The Chief Federal Prosecutor's Office is accusing the Russian government or one of its henchmen of having murdered Khangoshvili in broad daylight at the end of August, a hitjob on German soil against a man who had come to the country as an asylum-seeker,

A similar crime committed in the United Kingdom last year sparked an international crisis when suspected agents with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU conducted an attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter using the Russian neurotoxin Novichok. Twenty-nine countries expelled 146 Russian diplomats in response to the crime. Berlin also forced four representatives of Russia to leave the country.

A Slow Political Response

Despite the similarities, officials in Berlin seemed to be struggling in coming up with a political response to the Khangoshvili murder. For some time, officials said evidence in the case was too unclear. They argued that a fake ID in Russia could also be obtained through bribery and that it couldn't automatically be assumed that the Russian government had been involved.

But last Wednesday, just as the German federal prosecutor took over the case, the government in Berlin also adopted a tougher line. They ordered the chargé d'affaires at the Russian Embassy to the Foreign Ministry, where officials informed him that two staffers in the defense affairs division of the embassy, both of whom are believed by German security authorities to be members GRU intelligence service, would be expelled from Germany.

The Foreign Ministry justified the decision by saying that the cooperation by the Russian authorities has been "insufficient." "We view the expulsions as a very strong message to the Russian side to provide us with immediate and comprehensive support in clarifying the identity and background of the alleged perpetrator," said Helge Braun, chief of staff at Angela Merkel's Chancellery. "Given that there has been a lack of support for months, I have absolutely no comprehension of how Russia could be outraged or even be thinking about countermeasures."

Addressing a question about the case at last week's NATO summit in London, Chancellor Merkel stated: "We took this action because we have not seen Russian support in helping us solve this murder." Merkel has left open whether she will take up the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Ukraine summit in Paris on Monday. But it's difficult to imagine that she wouldn't.

The government in Berlin wants to wait until the investigationsproceeds further before considering whether to take further punitive action against Moscow. Officials in the Chancellery are still wary about comparing the foreign policy fallout of the Khangoshvili killing with the Skripal case. But the circumstantial evidence is strong and there is much to suggest that Georgian national Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was killed for political reasons, even if Russia, as so often in the past, has denied all accusations...