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Germany Expels Russian Diplomats As Prosecutors Work On Murder Investigation


Germany has expelled two employees at the Russian embassy there. This comes as federal authorities take over an investigation into a murder in Berlin earlier this year. The German government now suspects Russia ordered the killing of a former Chechen rebel commander who was living there in the German capital. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to try to untangle all of this.

Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So a lot of details to keep straight, so let me begin with the crime. A man was gunned down in Berlin three months ago. Who was he?

SCHMITZ: His name is Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. He was here in Berlin to try and get asylum. And many years ago, he had fought as a rebel commander for the Chechens against the Russian military. So on August 23, he was walking through a park around midday in central Berlin when a man approached on a bicycle and shot him twice, killing him. The suspect was arrested when police discovered him ditching a bicycle, a gun with a silencer and a wig into a nearby river.

KELLY: OK, so they've got the guy, though. Who do they think it is? Who's the suspect?

SCHMITZ: Well, that's taken a while for them to figure out because the man was not cooperating under questioning. He has a Russian passport, but authorities suspected the name on it was fake. Now, according to German investigative website Bellingcat, it's believed the man's name is Vadim Krasikov. German prosecutors believe it could be the same man who was a suspect in the murder of a Russian businessman in Moscow six years ago. The victim in that attack was also approached by a man on a bicycle and shot, so there are similarities there.

KELLY: And you said he had a Russian passport, maybe a fake Russian passport. But why does Germany now suspect this was the Russian government that maybe had its fingers on this?

SCHMITZ: Well, according to the Bellingcat report, Russia had issued an arrest warrant for Krasikov after the Moscow murder six years ago. But then a year later, Moscow suddenly withdrew that warrant. A year after that, according to flight records, Krasikov traveled around Russia freely, which is evidence that he wasn't wanted by Russian authorities anymore. And in the meantime, Bellingcat reports that nearly all records of him were purged from Russian state databases, and that implies that the Russian state had orchestrated his change of identity and, according to Germany's highest prosecutor, now was also behind an assassination on German soil. The Kremlin, I should mention, denies it has anything to do with this man.

KELLY: This would not mark the first time, though, that Russia has been accused of carrying out an assassination or an attempted assassination on foreign soil. I'm thinking of Sergei Skripal, the former KGB officer who was poisoned in Britain just last year. After that, Britain slapped sanctions on Russia. Do we expect that Germany might follow suit?

SCHMITZ: Well, that's the big question for Angela Merkel's government. Does Germany take any action against Russia apart from expelling two employees from the Russian embassy? Analysts I'm speaking to are not holding their breath on this. Germany has closer relations with Russia than the U.K. or the U.S., and Germany depends on Russia economically. The Nord Stream gas pipeline delivers Russian gas to Germany. And its second iteration is now nearing completion, which will make Germany even more dependent on Russian energy. So Russia has a lot of leverage over Germany, and placing sanctions on Russia would likely not be a smart move for Germany, which is already teetering on the edge of recession.

KELLY: So for now, they've kicked out these two staffers from the embassy, and we watch and wait to see where it goes next.

SCHMITZ: We wait to see what they do.

KELLY: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting there from Berlin.

Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Mary Louise.


Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.