Putin's Killers in Europe How Russian Agents Hunt Down Kremlin Opponents
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.
A screen capture from the surveillance camera footage of the murder of Russian businessman Albert Nazranov in Moscow.Foto: Überwachungsvideo
The sky over Berlin was steel blue on August 23 when, just before noon, Khangoshvili set out for his Friday prayers. His route to the mosque took him through the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park in Berlin's Moabit district.
Investigators firmly believe that the Georgian had been spied on and the killer knew the route he would take.
Guests were enjoying the sun in the park out in front of Café Alverdes when a man approached on a black mountain bike at 11:58 a.m. and abruptly began shooting. Two bullets fired from a 9mm pistol with a silencer struck Khangoshvili in the head.
The shooter, who fled by bike, stumbled briefly, injuring his leg, before taking a side street south for several hundred feet toward the bank of the Spree River, where he changed his clothes in the bushes. He packed his clothes and the Glock 26 pistol into a bag and sank it into the river at Lessing Bridge. He also threw the bicycle into the river as well as the wig and hair trimmer he likely used to alter his beard.
He continued his escape on a Volteboard e-scooter -- one that had been purchased, not rented. The perpetrator probably would have succeeded in escaping unscathed had it not been for two teens who had coincidentally been at the banks of the river and saw the whole spectacle as it unraveled. They watched as the man rapidly transformed himself and called the police, who then arrested the suspected killer at a nearby train station. One of his bags contained a powder designed to throw-off sniffer dogs, making it harder to track him. His return flight to Russia had been booked for the same weekend. The man denied the accusations against him at his arraignment and has remained silent ever since.
Initially, the Berlin Public Prosecutor's Office and a Berlin police homicide unit handled the investigation into the shooting. When local Chief Prosecutor Ralph Knispel, an expert on organized crime, appeared at the scene of the murder, there was initial speculation in the media that criminal gangs might be behind the slaying. But Knispel had another, more prosaic reason for being there: He is on call on Fridays.
But the speculation continued anyway. Given that the victim was a Chechen with a Georgian passport, many wondered if the murder might have been linked to gang rivalry. For a time in Germany, Khangoshvili had been classified as a potential Islamist threat, and some speculated that the link to his murder could be found there.
An Enemy of the Russian State
But investigators soon uncovered indications that Russia saw him as an enemy of the state. Khangoshvili comes from the Pankissi Valley in Georgia and when the second Chechen War broke out in 1999, many young people in the valley set out to join the fighting. Khangoshvili also took part, becoming a commander and a confidant of Chechen separatist leader and President Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed by the Russian secret service in 2005.
Khangoshvili returned from the war in 2004 and was possibly under surveillance from that point onward. Khangoshvili's ex-wife Manana T. says she is sure that she saw the spies standing on the street watching him. After her father was kidnapped, the two no longer felt safe and they fled to the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Once there, though, she says they kept receiving warning messages. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, Manana T. recalled being told: "They're looking for you. You're in danger." She said her husband was shot at in the center of Tbilisi in 2015, but the perpetrator was never found.
The reason for the threat was likely Khangoshvili's role in the Chechen war, but also the fact that he subsequently worked for the Georgian security authorities. It is believed that information from him was passed on to the CIA in the United States -- current and former intelligence officials from Georgia, Ukraine and the U.S. have confirmed as much. "If the Americans or us needed information from the Chechen diaspora in Turkey, for example, Zelimkhan was our man," said a former Georgian official. "His work has saved lives," said another source.
In 2015, Khangoshvili fled to Ukraine, where he provided support for the Ukrainian government. At the time, many "Kadyrovsty," as the infamous fighters of the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov are known, were fighting in the eastern part of the country. At the end of 2016, Khangoshvili reached Germany, where he registered with the authorities under a different name.
At his asylum hearing in the city of Eisenhüttenstadt in the state of Brandenburg, he reported that he had fought against Russian troops and that he had already been the subject of an attack, which is why he was seeking asylum. Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, researched his claims and sent a warning note to authorities in Brandenburg and Berlin on Feb. 21, 2017, with a copy also being sent to the Federal Criminal Police Office and the Federal Police. If Khangoshvili's presence in Germany became known, the agency warned, he could be in danger from "Chechens loyal to Kadyrov" or "pro-Russian actors," for example.
Shortly afterward, officials rejected his application, with the police classifying him as an Islamist threat at almost exactly the same time. That classification was based on a Russian claim that Khangoshvili belonged to a terrorist group called the Caucasian Emirate. It was only later, in June 2019, that officials in Berlin withdrew the Islamist threat classification. They had placed him under surveillance but found no indication that he might present any kind of threat. They also didn't see his murder coming.
Although investigators suspected from the very beginning that Russia could be behind the murder, they lacked evidence. The turning point came about a month ago when officials at the Berlin State Criminal Police Office discovered a five-year-old Interpol red notice in the files -- a manhunt request from Russia. The man in question was alleged to have murdered Vadim Kraskov in Moscow in 2013.
The manhunt photo was strikingly similar to the one of detained murder suspect Sokolov. Experts who have seen the image say it is "highly likely" that it is the same person.
Comparisons of the photos conducted by DER SPIEGEL and Bellingcat using facial recognition software and three different photos of Krasikov and one of Solokov showed matches of 82 to 90 percent.
Facial recognition software found close matches between photos of Krasikov and Solokov.Foto: Bellingcat/ DER SPIEGEL
German investigators became suspicious about the fact that Russia had withdrawn its search request for Krasikov in the summer of 2015 for no apparent reason and only two months before an ID document was issued for the first time under the name "Sokolov." It's a strong indication that government agencies may have intervened. Perhaps a Russian secret service agency wanted to save an assassin from imprisonment so they could use him for their own purposes.
In their joint reporting and research into the killing, DER SPIEGEL and Bellingcat learned that Russian prosecutors had linked Krasikov in 2008 to the murder of an entrepreneur and local politician in the Karelia province that had been committed one year earlier. The case was reopened in the spring of 2015, according to local media reports, apparently because two men confessed they had been involved in the murder. But the case never went to trial.
Krasikov, as Russian flight databases show, later traveled to Kyrgyzstan under his real name. And beginning in 2016, he flew numerous times to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia.
The question investigators are now seeking to address is that of who helped Krasikov aka "Sokolov" commit the murder in Berlin. Who spied on the victim, who supplied the perpetrator with the gun, the bike and the electric scooter? Was this an assassination ordered from Moscow or from the Chechen capital Grozny? Or was it part of a large-scale execution program directed by the Kremlin?
A Trail of Death in Europe
Either way, it does appear that a death squad dispatched from Moscow has left a trail of death in Europe over the past several years. "You can see there is a concerted program of activity," Alex Younger, the head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence, said in a rare briefing with journalists on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference earlier this year. "And yes, it does often involve the same people." The suspected assassins usually shoot their victims, but they also don't shy away from the use of poison.
After a dinner in April 2015, Emilian Gebrev suddenly began feeling discomfort. His eye wouldn't stop itching. It got worse the next day.
The Bulgarian arms manufacturer, who had supplied enemies of Russia, vomited and collapsed in a restaurant in Sofia before falling into a coma at the hospital. He had been poisoned, but doctors were unable to determine the substance used.
Gebrev barely survived that attack as well as another that followed a month later. Investigations by the authorities didn't go anywhere until the poison attack on Skripal and his daughter three years later.
The arms manufacturer from Bulgaria followed the reports and was puzzled by them. There were obvious parallels to his case: The victims had been on the Kremlin's radar for some time, they came into contact with a mysterious substance, and they barely survived. Gebrev informed the Public Prosecutor's Office, and the British and Bulgarian authorities began cooperating on the cases from that point on. No end is in sight yet for the investigations.
Links Between Attacks
But deeper research does show connections between the two murder attempts. Forty-five-year-old Denis Sergeev, a senior GRU officer and graduate of Russia's Military Diplomatic Academy, played a central role. Beginning in 2012, the agent, operating under the alias "Sergey Fedotov," traveled often to Europe and didn't have any difficult obtaining his visas.
Shortly before the Skripal assassination attempt, Sergeev traveled to England with a passport issued with the name Fedotov. It is believed that he acted as the local coordinator for the poison attack on Skripal from a London hotel room, a suspicion based on flight information and mobile-phone connection data.
It's likely he played the same role in the attack on the Bulgarian arms manufacturer. On April 24, 2015, Sergeev, alias Fedotov, set off for Bulgaria by direct flight from Moscow. He had booked his return flight for a week later. But Fedotov then took a last-minute flight via Istanbul back to Moscow on the evening of April 28, the very date that Emilian Gebrev collapsed in the restaurant and then fell into a coma. Just a coincidence? Unlikely.
Sergeev wasn't the only GRU employee to fly to Bulgaria during the period in question. Confidential documents from flight databases and passenger manifests document trips of eight GRU agents to the country. Presumably, they are all linked to the attempted murder. The GRU people were also in the country at the time of the second attack on the Bulgarian.
Attacks like these are coordinated by a unit that carries a five-digit number: 29155. The agents in the Skripal and Gebrev cases are members of this secret unit of the Russian military intelligence service GRU.
A Russian Campaign to Destabilize Europe
At the beginning of October, the New York Times became the first media organization to reporton how Western intelligence services now unanimously believe the unit has been responsible for a whole slew of subversive actions in Europe. There have been indications of the existence of the group for some time now.
Reporting by Bellingcat, The Insider and DER SPIEGEL reveals a detailed picture of the mission, structure and members of the unit -- and how it is linked to the Russian power apparatus.
The reporting shows that the team of around 20 soldiers and a highly decorated major general serves as a tool for a broad-based campaign by the Kremlin that aims to destabilize and weaken Europe. The GRU agents with Unit 29155 are just the kind of men for this kind of job -- they're ready when things get rough and they are trained for these types of sensitive operations abroad involving sabotage, subversion and assassinations. They're like shadow fighters.
By establishing the team within the military intelligence service, it falls under the authority of the Defense Ministry. However, the connection data from phone calls made during missions indicate that the agents sometimes received instructions from people close to the Russian president. The belief is that they are Putin's killers.
Vladimir Putin: The reporting shows that people close to the Russian president were communicating with the agents at the times of the crimes.Foto: Alexei Nikolsky/ Sputnik/ Kremlin Pool/ EPA-EFE/ REX
Research conducted into numerous sources, including registries of Russian civilians, passport databases and websites of military academies, shows that the members of the squad for the most part have similar backgrounds. They are between their late 30s and mid-40s, graduates of respected academies and tend to have combat experience, such as in the wars in Chechnya or Ukraine. They often served in special military forces. Above all, though, they are ruthless.
The team was likely established in 2009. Entries in Russian military forums suggest that the unit was set up as a training department for special operations. A 2012 Defense Ministry decree mentions a bonus payment for a special "sub-unit" of this department -- a likely reference to the 20-member hit team.
The unit's presumed commander is Major General Andrei Averyanov, a graying man in his early 50s. According to entries in insurance databases, he lives in an upscale residential district outside Moscow.
A video shows an elegantly dressed Averyanov at his daughter's 2017 wedding, escorting her to the altar. One of the guests who can be clearly identified in the video is Anatoliy Chepiga, aka "Ruslan Boshirov," one of the two suspected perpetrators behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Britain.
'We'll Get You No Matter Where You Are'
On the one hand, the agents operate in the utmost secrecy, but on the other, they make amateurish mistakes, such as in the Skripal case, where they were captured on numerous surveillance cameras and were quickly identified. "Too much is invested in these people to just use them up and throw them away," says a German security official. "On the other hand, though, the use of a rare neurotoxin is essentially a calling card. They want to ensure that the message is clear: 'We can do what we want.' And thus far, it must be said, the consequences have been slight." A second official says: "It's a form of communication: 'We'll get you no matter where you are.'"
It is difficult to determine where and how often members of the secret unit have struck in Europe. GRU agents travel under assumed names in many European Union countries. There are indications that the unit was involved in the failed 2016 overthrow attempt in Montenegro. The Spanish judiciary, meanwhile, is investigating possible destabilization efforts by the GRU in the conflict over Catalonia's independence. Investigators are particularly interested in two trips to Barcelona taken by the agent Fedotov. Then, on Wednesday, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that members of the Russian unit met regularly in the French Alps.
German investigators are now wondering whether Averyanov's men may have had something to do with the murder in the Berlin park. And is it possible the killers from Moscow have been involved in previous crimes in Germany?
Both German prosecutors and the Federal Criminal Police Office have taken an interest in the second question when it comes to an investigation independent of the Berlin park murder. According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, the recently launched investigation, codenamed "Novi," has turned up indications that the two alleged Skripal assailants spent three days near Frankfurt in 2014. The investigators would like to find out what they were doing there.
According to the most recent reporting by DER SPIEGEL and Bellingcat, Averyanov likely also had contacts in Germany.
What Did Putin Know?
Is Russian President Vladimir Putin continually informed of the missions undertaken by the GRU unit? Are all attempts apparently aimed at destabilizing the West approved by him? The cyber-attacks, the hacks, the troll factory offensives, the assassinations of state enemies -- all of it?
Not necessarily, but way back in 2006, Putin signed a law that expressly allowed the state to commit murder overseas. "The truth was that Putin had been using deadly force to wipe out his enemies from the first days of his presidency, and the West had long been looking away," British journalist Heidi Blake writes in her recently published book "From Russia with Blood." Even the Soviet Union, she writes, had been expert in the art of killing without leaving an evidence trail.
Blake and her team spent two years investigating mysterious deaths suffered by people with links to Russian oligarchs. The victims had all fallen into disfavor with Putin and fled to Britain. Such as Boris Berezovsky, a Russian mathematician, engineer and businessman who was found dead in his apartment in 2013, hanged by his cashmere scarf. Eight of his close friends and business partners also lost their lives under strange circumstances. In 15 such cases, the journalists found a clear evidence trail leading to Russia.
Blake says the cases are part of Russia's propaganda operation. In her book, she quotes from a televised Putin interview in which he said that he is capable of forgiveness, "but not everything." When the interview asked what he is unable to forgive, Putin answered: "Betrayal."
Germany's Own Skripal Case?
Even shortly after the murder in the Berlin park Kleiner Tiergarten, German politicians began speculating that it may have been a political assassination. German diplomats under the leadership of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas began spreading the word three days after the murder that a political affair was on the horizon and it was unclear how it might end. They spoke of "our own Skripal incident."
The Chancellery and Foreign Ministry initially agreed on a conservative strategy: For as long as the case remained a murder investigation under the leadership of the Berlin city-state authorities, they didn't want to get involved. Only when federal prosecutors took over, according to the plan, would political measures be taken.
During the fall, frustration grew within the German government. After investigators failed to get anywhere with a request for assistance sent to Russian authorities, the government elected to get the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, involved.
Via their liaison in Moscow, the BND inquired with the Russians if they could perhaps provide assistance outside of normal official law-enforcement channels, which is not an abnormal request among intelligence agencies. The response was noncommittal. When the BND asked more directly if they could investigate in Russia themselves, the tone became harsher. A German operation, the BND was given to understand, would be interpreted as a hostile act and the Russians threatened to even go so far as to arrest the BND agents. Cooperation from Moscow, it now became clear, would not be forthcoming. In response, the Chancellery elected to expel two Russian agents from the country, a step taken just as German federal prosecutors took over the murder investigation.
Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament and a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, called it an "appropriate measure." He added: "We want good relations with Russia, but not when suspicions of a state-ordered contract killing in Germany are not investigated according to the letter of the law."
'A Joint European Reaction Is Necessary'
The focus of the investigation, Röttgen said, must include an exploration into the question as to whether the Berlin park murder fits into the Russian pattern of killing agents who have defected and other enemies of the state. "Should that be proven, a joint European reaction is necessary, as happened in the Skripal case."
Michael Link, a leading member of the Free Democrats in German parliament, agrees. "We can't jump to conclusions before the investigation is complete. At the same time, though, the parallels to the Skripal case cannot be ignored," Link says. He says there are suspicions that the Kremlin may once again have committed vigilante justice in Europe. "For the German government, that means they must seek out support and urgently place the issue on the agenda of the European foreign ministers meeting scheduled for Monday."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2019 (December 6th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.
Roderich Kiesewetter, the foreign policy spokesman for the conservatives in parliament, believes the expulsion of the two Russian agents was the correct response. "Depending on the results of the federal prosecutors' investigation," he said, "a clear and unified European response cannot be excluded."
Vadim Krasikov, aka Vadim Sokolov, the suspected murderer in Berlin, lived for many years in Irkutsk. He has two grown children, a daughter and a son. When DER SPIEGEL reached his wife by phone, she was surprised. Her husband left her 16 years ago, she said, and she hadn't heard anything from him since then. "I thought he had died long ago."