No major European country is as enamored with Vladimir Putin’s Russia as Germany. There, even the most serious Kremlin violations of international laws and norms will find defenders across the political spectrum. Pro-Russian views are so commonplace in Germany that there’s term, Russlandversteher (“Russia-understander”), for those who incline to Moscow’s viewpoint.
The perennial challenge facing Russlandversteher, however, is that Putin’s regime keeps resetting the bar with its outrageous conduct. Assassinations abroad perpetrated by Kremlin killers, most infamously the near-murder of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England with a weapons-grade nerve agent in March 2018, strain the ability of even Putin’s most ardent German fans to defend. Now, they face the even more embarrassing prospect that Russia has perpetrated a state-sanctioned assassination, what Kremlin spies term “wetwork,” right in Germany’s capital.
The crime occurred last Friday at midday in Kleiner Tiergarten park in the heart of Berlin. A 40-year-old Georgian national named Zelimkhan Kangoshvili, a pious Muslim, was walking to pray at his local mosque. He had entered Germany in early 2017, claiming asylum for himself, his wife, and their five children, which was granted after German authorities determined that Kangoshvili was neither a terrorist nor an extremist.
Two minutes to noon last Friday, as Kangoshvili was pacing to his mosque, his killer approached him from behind and shot him multiple times in the head at close range. Death came quickly. Several witnesses attested that the killer fled at once on a bicycle. He didn’t get far, dumping a plastic bag in the nearby Spree river which turned out to contain the murder weapon – a Glock 26 with a silencer – as well as a wig. Two alert 17-year-old witnesses notified the police, who found the killer hiding behind bushes with a scooter which was intended to facilitate a getaway that never happened.
The suspect was taken into custody without delay. A 49-year-old Russian national, he has been identified only as Vadim S. by German police. Investigators were immediately suspicious of his motives since the suspect possessed a large amount of cash as well as paprika, which is used by professional criminals to throw police dogs off their scent.
The murder weapon, a so-called Baby Glock with a silencer, is favored by professional killers, while the method of execution, the vaunted “double-tap” to the head at close range, indicated this was no random crime or robbery gone wrong.
That the Kangoshvili killing was a mafia hit loomed as a serious possibility. Chechen criminal syndicates control much of the drug trade in Berlin, as in several German cities, and the victim was a member of Georgia’s Kist minority, who are ethnic kin of the neighboring Chechens. However, with help from German intelligence, detectives learned that Vadim S. had gotten to Berlin via an unusually circuitous route.
The murder suspect entered the Schengen zone in Paris, having applied for his visa in Russia in late July, arriving by air from Moscow. He then made his way to Germany to kill his target. It’s not yet known if Vadim S. visited other countries before the Berlin murder, but German police believe that he surveilled Kangoshvili before shooting him. This all smacks unmistakably of spycraft more than mafia methods.
Moreover, Kangoshvili, who lived in Germany under multiple aliases for protection, was a wanted man in Russia. He feared for his life since enemies, presumably on Kremlin orders, tried to assassinate him before, including in Georgia in 2015. A German friend asserted that Kangoshvili had received threatening messages via SMS and WhatsApp before his murder.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB, placed Kangoshvili’s name on a public list of known terrorists, asserting that the wanted man was an Islamist militant. Although the victim was pious Muslim who had fought in the Second Chechen War against Russian forces in the early-aughts, Kangoshvili’s friends insist that he was no jihadist radical, a view that’s confirmed by German security services who approved his asylum in their country.
German authorities have offered unsubtle hints that last Friday’s murder was a political assassination, not a mob hit or random crime. Russia’s increasingly rogue military intelligence arm, known as GRU, has been mentioned by German investigators. GRU operatives tried to murder the Skripals last year, while that spy service has become Vladimir Putin’s weapon of choice for wetwork and related unsavory secret activities around the world.
Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s protégé and Chechen strongman, must also be considered a short-list suspect. Kadyrov boasts of killing his enemies wherever they may be and several Chechens who got on his bad side have indeed been assassinated abroad, particularly in Turkey, over the last decade – attacks that Western counterintelligence experts assess are Kadyrov’s handiwork.
The Kangoshvili killing is reminiscent of the assassination of Umar Israilov, another veteran of the Second Chechen War and Kadyrov enemy who was gunned down in broad daylight in Vienna at the beginning of 2009. Two years later, three Chechens were convicted of Israilov’s murder and Austrian police had no doubt that Kadyrov stood behind the crime.
Regardless of who exactly ordered the murder of Zelimkhan Kangoshvili, that his killer’s trail leads to the Russian Federation does not appear to be in any doubt. It remains to be seen how energetic German investigators will be in attempting to determine who exactly sent Vadim S. to Berlin and why.
This is an awkward moment for Germany’s prominent Russlandversteher, who have denied and explained away the Putin regime’s crimes at home and abroad. Now, in a bloody act that’s reminiscent of the Cold War – when secret police killers from the East roamed West Germany without excessive interference from the local authorities – the unpleasant nature of Russia’s government has been forced onto the front pages of German newspapers, at least for a while. If Berlin doesn’t take the Kangoshvili assassination seriously, this won’t be the last episode of Kremlin wetwork to be visited on German soil.