Nearly two years ago, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian asylum seeker of Chechen origin, was gunned down in broad daylight in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. The killer approached his victim on a bike, fired three shots from a pistol and cycled away from the crime scene, according to eyewitnesses. He then stopped to change his clothes and shave off his beard, before throwing his bicycle, his old outfit and his gun into the Spree River. Two teenagers observed the assailant’s getaway routine and called the police, resulting in his quick apprehension shortly after he had tried to blend in with a tourist crowd.
Upon his arrest, the killer insisted he was 50-year-old Vadim Sokolov and claimed he was just a tourist who had come to see Berlin after visiting Paris and Warsaw. He had official Russian ID papers corroborating this identity and has stuck to the same story since his arrest in 2019. However, a series of investigations spearheaded by Bellingcat showed that Sokolov was a nonexistent persona; rather, the real person who has lately been standing in a glass-walled cubicle in a German courtroom is 56-year-old Vadim Krasikov.
As Bellingcat established through extensive analysis of leaked Russian government databases, court records, travel data sets and Interpol search warrants, Krasikov had committed at least two prior murders, one of them conducted in a manner remarkably similar to the Berlin assassination. In June 2013, in a parking lot in a Moscow suburb, Krasikov approached his victim on a bicycle and, after chasing him and firing three shots into his upper body, fled the scene on the same conveyance, with the bizarre spectacle all captured on a security camera. Following that murder, Krasikov’s name was put on both Russian and Interpol search warrants, only to be silently withdrawn from both in 2015. At about the same time, the new identity of “Vadim Sokolov” appeared in Russia’s passport database.
Through telephone billing records and telecom metadata, Bellingcat also established that in the months before his trip to Germany, Krasikov communicated with more than a dozen former members of Russia’s security services (FSB) from the Spetsnaz (special operations) unit known as Vympel. (Founded in 1981, Vympel was reconstituted in the post-Soviet era as the FSB’s Department V, tasked with counterterrorism.) Just days before his undercover trip, he had visited the FSB antiterrorism center and spent several days at a highly secure FSB compound dedicated to training in tactical shooting “in extreme circumstances.”
The German prosecutors adopted this evidence as their own, and a large part of the 67-page indictment of Krasikov cites Bellingcat as the main or only evidentiary source for its conviction that the killer in the courtroom is in fact an FSB-trained assassin responsible for murdering Khangoshvili on behalf of the Russian state. The implications of this accusation — if confirmed in the court’s verdict — are bound to bring unprecedented diplomatic consequences, as threatened by Angela Merkel’s government.
Like many Chechen emigres who have been assassinated across Europe and the Middle East, Khangoshvili was a veteran of the Caucasus region’s separatist wars with the Russian state. But he was also an intelligence asset recruited by Georgia’s Interior Ministry’s counterterrorism unit as a trusted liaison with the various Islamist insurgents in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge region. Khangoshvili also helped the Interior Ministry disrupt clandestine FSB attempts to recruit among Georgia’s Muslim population, according to his former handler. Khangoshvili had earlier survived a close-range assassination attempt in Tbilisi in 2015, which went uninvestigated. Fearing his life was still in danger, he left Georgia, traveling first to Ukraine, then Poland and finally ending up in Germany, where he’d been seeking asylum before his daylight murder.
The final verdict of Krasikov’s trial had been expected at the end of July. However, the public prosecutor requested an extension of the court hearings to introduce newly discovered evidence — and bring in a surprise witness. The witness, prosecutors told the court, would be in a position to identify the defendant and shed light on his background as a former member of Russia’s security apparatus.
At a hearing in Berlin’s regional court in Moabit on Thursday July 29, prosecutors presented dozens of photographs from Krasikov’s 2010 wedding in Moscow and honeymoon in Egypt. They had obtained this photo evidence from Ukrainian law enforcement, which earlier this year had conducted a search of the homes of Krasikov’s Ukrainian in-laws. During the raid, the authorities found a marriage certificate identifying their son-in-law as Krasikov, as well as hundreds of digital photographs showing that Krasikov unmistakably resembled the self-styled “Sokolov” present in the Berlin courtroom. Even more damning than the facial similarities were several shirtless photos that displayed Krasikov’s two prominent tattoos, one of a snake on his forearm and another of a stylized lynx on his right arm — the latter being reminiscent of the emblem of SOBR RYS, a Spetsnaz unit of the MVD, formerly the troops of the Interior Ministry and now the nucleus of Russia’s National Guard. These same tattoos can be seen on the arms and shoulder of the defendant, based on leaked German police photos.
During the hearing, German prosecutors introduced the witness, identified only as Oleksander V., an entrepreneur from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and described as married to the sister of Krasikov’s wife, Tatyana. (She and their child were relocated to Russian-occupied Crimea in the days following his arrest and now live there under new identities, using passports with numbers from the same range as those used by known FSB operatives.)
Oleksander V., who appeared uneasy after the presiding judge Olaf Arnoldi advised him of his criminal liability for perjury, successfully identified Krasikov in the many wedding and honeymoon photographs shown to him. In one, the defendant is shown wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of an FSB unit. The witness also told the judge that per his knowledge and family lore (he had only met with Krasikov a few times, the last time 10 years ago), his brother-in-law worked in “a sabotage unit of the Russian armed forces.”
Oleksander V. did not know or would not share the name of this unit, but if it were indeed part of the Russian military, it would have been subordinate to military intelligence, the GRU. Despite their well-known rivalry as sister services, GRU Spetsnaz units have sometimes cooperated with their KGB (later FSB) counterparts. The most famous example was the curtain-raiser of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan when a team led by 700 operatives of the KGB’s Alpha and Zenith Spetsnaz units dressed as Afghan soldiers, raided Tajbeg Palace in Kabul in December 1979 and assassinated Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin.
In court, Oleksander V. shied away from positively identifying his brother-in-law. He said the accused resembled the man he knew, but also differed in appearance, possibly due to aging and weight gain. The witness said the accused looked “heavier” than the Krasikov he last saw. This last-minute hesitation by what the prosecutors hoped to be a star witness stopped short of unequivocal corroboration of the prosecution’s claim that “Sokolov” is in fact Krasikov.
Judge Arnoldi pressed the witness on whether he had been coerced into testifying by the Ukrainian security services. He had not been, he said, although he added that law enforcement officers had visited him several times to ask if he was ready to testify. The judge also asked Oleksander V. if he felt he was under threat over his testimony. He didn’t answer directly, but implied that he was likely already on the Kremlin’s “naughty list” over his support for Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian soldiers and mercenaries in eastern Ukraine. His court appearance, he stated, would not make him any safer.
What transpired between the judge and the witness away from public view — during a short recess in the judge’s chambers — might indicate Oleksander V. was more worried for his safety than he let on in the courtroom. A transcript of that conversation, based on the witness’s own recollection, seen by New Lines, suggests that he asked for personal safety guarantees from the court in order to speak freely. The judge told him that he could only guarantee his safety while in Germany, but not in Ukraine upon his return.
At least two sources with knowledge of the witness’s thinking, based on conversations with him after the court hearing, claim that Oleksander V. recognized the accused as Krasikov, but decided not to make a conclusive identification absent total protection. Moreover, the sources say, Oleksander V. shied away from sharing further details he claims he knows about Krasikov’s connections with Russia’s security services. He’d be ready to return to court and make full disclosures if either the Ukrainian or German authorities offered him and his family practicable safety guarantees.