Note: This story has been updated on Dec. 16, 2019.
During a news conference in Paris on Dec. 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin answered a question about his government’s alleged involvement in the assassination of a Georgian man in Berlin last August. German law enforcement officials arrested an alleged triggerman who is suspected of being a Russian agent.
A video of Putin’s comment in Russian was posted on Facebook by MBK Media South (@mbkmediasouth), a Russian media outlet.
“You talked about the murder of a Georgian,” Putin said. “That is not entirely true. I know that a man died in Berlin, he is not simply a Georgian. This is a man who took active part in combat actions on the side of separatists in the Caucasus. He is not ethnically a Georgian. This man was wanted by us, he is a militant. Moreover, he is a cruel and blood-thirsty person. In just one of the attacks in which he took part, 98 people were killed by him. He was one of the organizers of explosions in the Moscow metro. I don’t know what happened to him. It’s a criminal milieu and anything can happen there.”
Putin did not offer any evidence of his claims regarding the slain man’s alleged involvement in a Moscow metro bombing or the killing of 98 people in an attack. In addition, news reports have hypothesized that the shadowy Russian suspect in the Berlin killing has ties to Russian defense or security services.
Parts of Putin’s claim are false; others are misleading.
The Khangoshvili Case
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, 40, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, was killed in Berlin on Aug. 24 in a broad daylight. Witnesses told police the killer rode up on a bicycle, shot Khangoshvili twice and pedaled away. The suspect was captured after being seen dumping a wig, handgun and his bicycle in the Spree River.
The Berlin general prosecutor said the murder was a professional operation. According to Western media reports, German prosecutors suspect it was a state-sponsored contract killing. Russian officials have strongly denied any connection.
A prominent figure in Chechen diaspora circles, Khangoshvili served as a field commander in the second Chechen war with Russia (August 1999-April 2009) and as an intermediary between Georgian security services and the Chechens. More recently, he helped organize resistance in the Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine. Following several assassination attempts, Khangoshvili sought asylum in Germany with his family.
The Alleged Assassin
Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper reported on Dec. 6 that the country’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, had obtained “valid information from a trustworthy source” that a Russian state agency was planning to kill Khangoshvili’s suspected assassin in a German prison. As a result, German authorities transferred the suspect to an undisclosed detention facility.
The German prosecutor’s office said the suspect carried the passport of a Russian citizen under the name Vadim S. The man refused to speak with investigators and demanded a meeting with Russian embassy officials. German media said he had traveled to Berlin from Moscow via Paris and had return ticket to Moscow.
Der Spiegel reported the name in the suspect’s Russian passport as Vadim Sokolov. An investigation by Der Spiegel, Bellingcat and the Russian Dossier Center identified him as Vadim Krasikov, a Russian national. Krasikov, their report contends, had potential ties to Vympel, an elite unit inside the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB. The link was based on Krasikov’s alleged association with two other Russians, purportedly Vympel veterans, who had been charged in the 2007 killing of a businessman in a small Russian town.
The Bellingcat report also argued that Sokolov/Krasikov may have been the target of an arrest warrant related to the killing in 2013 of another businessman, Albert Nazranov, in Moscow. Also a bicycle-shooting attack, the episode was caught on security cameras and widely broadcast by news media.
A Chechen Veteran
Putin’s assertion that Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was “wanted” in Russia could not be verified. As Polygraph.info previously reported, neither the name Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, nor his adopted name Tornike Kavtarashvili, are on the official list of terrorist suspects wanted in Russia. If Russia is seeking his extradition for terrorism, details have not been disclosed.
Update, Dec. 16, 2019: The allegations made by Putin against Khangoshvili “have never been communicated to the federal government in the past,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview with ZDF on Dec. 13. They were made only after Germany launched an investigation into his murder, he said. “There is nothing, neither with us, nor with the Interior Ministry, nor with the authorities responsible for requests for legal assistance,” Hass said.
In a 2016 interview with Accent, a Georgian media outlet, Khangoshvili spoke about fighting alongside Chechen separatists during the second war.
“As for the Russian military, I repeat, I fought in the Chechen war,” Khangoshvili said in that interview. “I had no enemies in Georgia.” He claimed that the Russian special services were behind a failed attempt to assassinate him in Tbilisi in 2015.
What Putin Distorted
In his Dec. 9 comments, Putin said 98 people were killed by Khangoshvili in an attack. The figure of 98 killed appears only once in reports of battles between Russian and rebel forces in Russia’s North Caucasus region.
That was in the official Russian death toll from a June 2004 attack by a force that Russian authorities said consisted of 250 Chechen and Ingush rebels launched simultaneously on security, military and police in Ingushetia and Dagestan, republics that neighbor Chechnya in Russia’s North Caucasus region.
The rebels claimed more than a thousand fighters participated in that raid. The attack reportedly killed 98 Russian troops and security officials and wounded 104.
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili’s brother, Zurab, told Polygraph.info that in the summer of 2000, his brother crossed the Caucasus Mountains to join separatist forces in Chechnya and returned to Georgia in December 2004.
Zurab confirmed that his brother participated in the 2004 attack in Ingushetia: “Yes, he participated in that operation, but there were about a thousand of them. He was wounded in the leg and that is why he returned home.”
Assuming this is the attack Putin intended, he was correct that Khangoshvili took part. But it is misleading to attribute all 98 fatalities in the raids to a single fighter.
The Moscow bombings
There have been seven explosions in the Moscow metro that the Russian authorities determined were terror attacks:
- Jun. 11, 1996 – four dead, 16 wounded;
- Jan. 1, 1998 – three wounded;
- Aug. 8, 2000 – 13 dead, 118 wounded;
- Feb. 5, 2001 – 20 wounded;
- Feb. 6, 2004 – 41 dead, about 250 wounded;
- Aug. 31, 2004 – 10 dead, 46 wounded;
- Mar. 29, 2010 – 41 dead, about 100 wounded.
Putin did not specify which metro attack he meant, but Khangoshvili’s name isn’t mentioned in any of the investigations of those attacks, nor has he been accused of involvement in or indicted for any of the Moscow metro bombings.
In his Accent interview, Khangoshvili denied any involvement in terrorist attacks.
“The Russians are blaming me for many things, including terrorist attacks,” he told the Georgian media outlet. “This is a lie. No one can provide any evidence that a single civilian was injured or killed in any of my actions!”
Zurab Khangoshvili called Putin’s assertion about the Moscow metro bombings “false, and an attempt to distract the Germans from investigating Russian intelligence involvement” in his brother’s murder.
Likewise, he said Chechen rebels did not consider the 2004 raid in Ingushetia a terror attack, but rather a “military operation carried out under the command of legitimately elected president of Ichkeria [Chechnya], Aslan Maskhadov, during the war with Russia.”