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On August 23, 2019, Georgian national and former Chechen rebel commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili (40) was fired on by an assailant on a bicycle, in a Berlin public park. Khangoshvili died on the spot, shot twice in the head. German police quickly apprehended the suspected killer and found in his possession a recently issued Russian passport with a Schengen visa.
The alleged assailant has since refused to speak to German investigators. The Russian authorities have denied any connection or responsibility, at the same time accusing Khangoshvili of being a “terrorist.” Moscow asserts that, between 2003 and 2004, during the Second Chechen war, he was involved in attacks and killings of Russian soldiers and members of local pro-Russian law enforcement in Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Khangoshvili was born in the Pankisi Gorge (Kakheti region of Georgia), in a village dominated by Kists (a.k.a. Kist Chechens), a group whose direct ancestors emigrated to Georgia from Chechnya proper in the 19th century. Wanted on criminal charges in both Georgia and Russia, Khangoshvili had been living with family in Berlin, seeking asylum (Interfax, December 4).
The German government believes the hit on Khangoshvili could have been ordered by Russian or (pro-Moscow) Chechen authorities and has accused Moscow of refusing to cooperate in the investigation despite repeated requests. On December 4, Berlin publicly pushed back, expelling two Russian diplomats—apparently, intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover—as a reprisal for Russia’s stonewalling of the German investigation.
The Russian foreign ministry denounced the expulsions as a “baseless, unfriendly act” and promised retaliation. The German embassy in Moscow is bracing for reciprocal tit-for-tat expulsions. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov rejected German suggestions of the Russian state’s involvement in the killing of Khangoshvili as “totally baseless.”
The chair of the State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) foreign affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, denounced the expulsion of Russian diplomats as an “act of Russophobic hysteria.” Duma deputy Andrei Lugovoy told journalists in Moscow, “The Russian special services do not kill people abroad anymore—it is all German fantasies” (Interfax, December 4).
According to British authorities, Lugovoy is the prime suspect in the August 2006 lethal poisoning in London, by Polonium-210, of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) security service colonel–turned–fierce Kremlin critic.
The German move to officially censure Moscow for its apparent involvement in the Khangoshvili case comes at a particularly inconvenient time for the Kremlin, which is preparing for the upcoming “Normandy” format summit of Russian, Ukrainian, German and French leaders, on December 9, in Paris. Russian officials had apparently hoped last summer’s Khangoshvili case would gradually fade away.
But German authorities possess ample evidence and witnesses to try the suspect killer, who carried a Russian passport with the name “Vadim Sokolov”—evidently an alias. However, as long as “Sokolov” continues to refuse to talk and Moscow persists with its stonewalling, it will be difficult for Berlin to legally tie the murder to concrete officials with names and addresses in the Russian capital or in Chechnya.
Khangoshvili was a prominent Chechen fighter, and the German government never showed much sympathy toward the Islamist-inclined Chechen resistance in the North Caucasus during the Second Chechen war. After serving some time in prison, “Vadim Sokolov” could be either exchanged or extracted once his case again fades from the headlines; but for now, the killing has suddenly spilled into the open as a major political factor disrupting bilateral Russian-German relations at a critical time for the Kremlin.
The Paris “Normandy” summit will be the first direct meeting between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won an overwhelming electoral victory on April 21, 2019, over the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. No serious breakthroughs are expected in Paris regarding the resolution of the Donbas conflict in eastern Ukraine.
A draft communiqué has already been prepared, but, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kuleba, it is “very diplomatic” and noncommittal (Gazeta.ru, December 3). The low-level, semi-frozen conflict in Donbas has continued for over five years, and Moscow looks to be in no hurry to offer any serious concessions to enforce a solid ceasefire or political solution. Meanwhile, another Russo-Ukrainian conflict requires a swift resolution.
The existing contract to ship Russian natural gas to Europe via Ukraine expires in less than a month, on New Year’s Eve; but after months of negotiations, both sides’ positions remain far apart. At a presser in Sochi, on December 4, Putin insisted Russia wanted to continue to transit its gas to Europe using Ukrainian pipelines, but the Ukrainian transit proposals “are economically unacceptable” (Kremlin.ru, December 4).
Ukraine wants a long-term transit contract, a Russian pledge to send substantial volumes of gas via Ukrainian pipelines, and a hike in payments—all of which Moscow rejects, proposing instead a short-term (one year) contract. In a year’s time, Russia hopes alternative pipelines through the Black Sea and Turkey (TurkStream) and via the Baltic Sea to Germany (Nord Stream Two) will come online to allow the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to sell gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine. Those direct transit routes to Europe would give the Kremlin additional leverage with which to squeeze Kyiv politically (Interfax, November 19).
The coming weeks will be critical to finding some compromise, or, starting on January 1, 2020, flows of Russian gas to Europe will substantially decrease. Russia will lose revenues, Ukraine will lose transit payments, and Europe will obtain less gas in the middle of winter. Moscow hopes the European Union will help pressure Kyiv into making concessions, and Moscow needs Berlin to fully cooperate in finishing Nord Stream Two as quickly as possible. With the deadline fast approaching, Putin appears increasingly agitated:
At the December 4 press conference in Sochi, he suddenly viciously tongue-lashed Bulgaria for dragging its feet on building vital infrastructure to pump Russian gas from Turkey to Serbia and further on to Hungary. While accusing Sofia of undermining the project, Putin praised Serbia for having its gas infrastructure “90 percent ready” to integrate with TurkStream (Kremlin.ru, December 4).
The Khangoshvili case has turned into a major nuisance, with strategic, economic and political repercussions. But will the fallout be enough to seriously alter Moscow’s modus operandi? This is not the first time that a politically motivated murder of opponents and undesirables’ on foreign soil has had major negative repercussions for the Putin regime—yet, the practice has not stopped and will most likely continue.