Boris Reitschuster is a Berlin-based journalist and specialist on Russia.
On Aug. 23, an assailant gunned down a Chechen dissident during broad daylight at a park in the center of Berlin, just a short walk from the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now, a week later, Germans are still agonizing over the shooting’s likely effect on their country’s relationship with Russia.
The victim, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was a 40-year-old ethnic Chechen from Georgia. Starting around 2001, he fought on the rebel side — against Russian troops — during the Second Chechen War. The Kremlin, correspondingly, considered him a terrorist. For his supporters, he was a fighter for the independence of Chechnya.
Khangoshvili had already received a number of threats, and had survived two previous attempts on his life, before fleeing to Germany, where he applied for political asylum and entered into cooperation with law enforcement authorities.
Khangoshvili’s suspected killer was captured near the scene after throwing his pistol —which reportedly had been equipped with a silencer — into a canal. Police discovered that he was carrying a Russian passport in the name of Vadim Sokolov, and they soon determined that he had arrived a few days earlier from Moscow. The German news magazine Der Spiegel, the Insider (Russia) and the open-source reporting collective Bellingcat are now reporting evidence that the man’s passport ties him to the Russian security service, known as the FSB.
The case has exploded like a thunderclap in the sleepy German political scene. Newspapers are full of speculation about the political background of the killing. “Just like in the Cold War,” headlined the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Reporters are wondering whether Germany has now its own “Skripal case,” referring to Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector who (along with his daughter) narrowly survived an attack with a nerve toxin in Britain in March 2018. (British authorities have publicly linked that incident to Russian military intelligence.)
You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the Kremlin is behind this latest incident. In 2006, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, granted the security service the right to track down and eliminate terrorists abroad. Just a few weeks later, Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB defector and vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died after being poisoned with radioactive polonium. A British inquiry later determined that Russian intelligence operatives were likely behind the murder.
So you might think that Germany’s leaders would react with horror and indignation — as countries generally do in cases of foreign-orchestrated assassinations on their soil. Yet, you’d be wrong. German politicians have been conspicuous by their silence; almost none have reacted to the news. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who was in Moscow two days before the killing in Berlin occurred, has remained silent. Shortly after the assassination, the leaders of four states in eastern Germany called for Russia to be invited back into the Group of Seven.
Many Germans probably agree with them. Despite Moscow’s annexation of Crimea five years ago and its continuing orchestration of conflict in eastern Ukraine, many in Germany want better relations with Russia. Quite a few Germans (many politicians among them) support the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline across the Baltic Sea. Critics say that Putin is using the project to divide the European Union and to finance his war in Ukraine. Yet they remain in the minority. German business leaders routinely denounce sanctions against Russia.
Will the Khangoshvili assassination change anything? “This killing was a demonstrative act,” says Igor Eidman, a Russian dissident and political commentator. “It’s about intimidating Putin’s critics in the West and showing that the Russian secret services can do whatever they want with impunity even in the heart of Germany.” Even though the politicians have remained silent, Eidman said, the media, at least, have woken up: “I have the hope that this incident will finally put an end to German society’s obliviousness about Russia.”
Perhaps. But his optimism sounds like wishful thinking. Even journalists are hedging their bets. Some media outlets are depicting the killing as “the result of a conflict within the Chechen diaspora in Berlin.” German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle bent over backwards to avoid blaming the Kremlin. On its website, it noted that the federal prosecutor’s office had, so far, declined to get involved, and that it would only do so “if it had evidence that a ‘foreign power’ was behind the crime.” It was only the media, the author of the article stressed, that are “speculating about the possible involvement of Russian intelligence agencies.”
Germans’ incredible naivete about Russia isn´t likely to change — even if there is clear proof of Russian government involvement in the Berlin killing. Needless to say, conclusive evidence will be difficult to come by, given the nature of Moscow’s intelligence operations abroad.
It’s difficult to escape the impression that most members of the political elite (and many ordinary citizens, as well) prefer not to look too closely at the incident. Murder is so messy, after all — especially when it’s committed right in the middle of your capital, in full view of witnesses. Why let something like that get in the way of a flourishing relationship?