Germany to expel Russian diplomats after court accuses Kremlin of ‘state terrorism’

Germany must expel two Russian diplomats after a judge accused Russia of “state terrorism” for ordering the killing of a former Chechen rebel in a Berlin park in 2019.

A German court on Wednesday sentenced Russian national Vadim Krasikov to life in prison, after convicting him of the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin who was living as a refugee in Germany.

Judge Olaf Arnoldi said Krasikov “acted on the orders of the Russian central government”, describing the murder as an “execution”.

Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s new foreign minister, called the murder a “serious violation of German law and of Germany’s sovereignty”.

She said she had summoned the Russian ambassador, Sergei Nechaev, and told him that two members of the embassy’s diplomatic staff would be declared personae non gratae.

The culmination of Krasikov’s year-long trial and Germany’s decision to expel Russian diplomats in response risk plunging relations between Berlin and Moscow into a new crisis.

Nechaev described Wednesday’s court verdict as “a biased and politically motivated decision” that would “strain the already strained relationship between Germany and Russia”.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Moscow would respond “appropriately” to Berlin’s “hostile actions”.

The verdict could put pressure on Germany’s new chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was sworn in just a week ago, to toughen up his policy on Russia. His predecessor Angela Merkel had threatened consequences if the court found that Khangoshvili’s death had been ordered by the Kremlin.

It also comes at a time when East-West tensions are already threatening to boil over. The United States has warned that Russia, which has deployed around 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, could be on the verge of invading its western neighbor. The G7 group of nations has warned Moscow of “massive consequences” and “significant cost” in the event of an invasion.

Krasikov, 56, killed Khangoshvili in the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park in central Berlin, on August 23, 2019. He approached him from behind on a bicycle and shot him twice with a Glock pistol equipped with a silencer, shooting him again in the back. of the head while he was lying on the ground.

Khangoshvili, who had fought against Russia in the Chechnya war and had been living as an asylum seeker in Germany since 2016, died at the scene. The judge said accomplices stationed in Berlin – whose identities have not yet been established – had “prepared meticulously” for the murder.

Russian authorities considered Khangoshvili a terrorist, with Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, claiming in 2012 that he was a member of a militant organization known as the “Caucasus Emirate”.

The execution-style murder sent relations between Moscow and Berlin into a tailspin, with the two countries carrying out tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in late 2019.

Russia has denied any involvement in the killing of Khangoshvili. But when asked about it at a press conference in December 2019, President Vladimir Putin called the dead man a “bandit”, adding: “In Berlin a fighter was killed who was wanted in Russia, a bloodthirsty man and brutal”.

Krasikov’s lawyers claimed at the start of the trial that it was a matter of mistaken identity – that their client was not Vadim Krasikov but Vadim Sokolov, a 50-year-old construction engineer who was unrelated with the Russian state and the FSB. They said he had nothing to do with Khangoshvili’s murder and went to Berlin as a tourist.

Robert Unger, Krasikov’s defense attorney, said after the trial the judge did not present “a single viable piece of evidence” that his client was acting on orders from the Russian government. “The circumstantial evidence that does exist is in our view not sufficient for such a verdict,” he said.

In his summary on Wednesday, the judge stressed the “particular gravity” of Krasikov’s guilt, wording that means he is unlikely to be released from prison after serving the minimum life sentence of 15 years.

In his statement, Baerbock said the new German government wanted to pursue an “open and honest exchange” with Russia, but that this had to be “on the basis of international law and mutual respect”.

“It’s abundantly clear that actions such as the Tiergarten murder are straining that exchange,” she said.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow

Thelma J. Longworth