BERLIN — The German authorities declared on Wednesday that Russia was suspected of being behind the daylight assassination in Berlin this summer of a former fighter with Chechen separatists. Berlin also expelled two Russian diplomats, adding new strains to relations with Moscow.
The announcement deepened concerns about Russian contract killings in Europe, after last year’s nerve agent poisoning of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy who was living in Britain. Western countries responded to that by expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats from their countries and German lawmakers called for a similar joint European response to the killing in Berlin.
Peter Frank, Germany’s federal prosecutor, said his office would take over the case, identifying the suspect, who is believed to be a Russian contract killer, only as Vadim K., in keeping with German privacy laws.
The Dossier Center, a London-based research group founded by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a Russian former oil billionaire, and other investigation groups had previously identified the suspect as Vadim N. Krasikov.
The Dossier Center shared with the German authorities what it described as compelling evidence linking the killing to the Russian government, a spokesman said last month. Many of the details cited by the federal prosecutor on Wednesday checked against those previously released by the center.
The German authorities had struggled to identify the suspect since he was taken into police custody in August, after witnesses said they had seen him ride a bicycle up to the victim and shoot him once in the torso and twice in the head before fleeing the scene.
Although the authorities considered Russian involvement virtually from the start, it was only in recent weeks that sufficient evidence was gathered to back those suspicions, Mr. Frank said in a statement.
The additional evidence elevated the killing of the former fighter, a Russian-Georgian citizen identified by prosecutors only as Tornike K., from a simple murder case to a state security threat.
“There are sufficient, real indications that the killing of Tornike K. was carried out either on orders by the officials in the Russian Federation or those in the autonomous Chechen Republic, as part of the Russian Republic,” Mr. Frank’s office said in a statement.
The victim was previously identified by the German authorities by an alias, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former commander of a Chechen separatist force whom the Russian state news media has depicted as a terrorist.
The prosecutor cited photographs of the suspect that matched images of a Vadim K. who had been sought by the Russian authorities for a 2013 murder in Moscow that was also carried out by an assassin on a bicycle. The Russian authorities later withdrew the warrant, although the investigation remained open, German prosecutors said.
Immediately after the announcement, the Foreign Ministry in Berlin ordered two diplomats stationed at the Russian Embassy expelled, citing Moscow’s unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that Russia would take “a little time” to work out its countermeasures, the news agency Interfax reported.
Maria V. Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, denounced what she called Germany’s “politicized approach” to the murder investigation. “We view the German claims regarding the expulsion of two employees of the Russian Embassy in Berlin to be groundless and unfriendly,” Ms. Zakharova said, according to Russian news agencies. “We will be forced to implement a set of measures in response.”
The German authorities’ frustration with their Russian counterparts built over three months as investigators in Berlin investigated the case but received no help from Moscow in identifying the man in their custody.
Eventually, the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel became involved and a complaint was made to the Kremlin about the lack of cooperation. On Wednesday, Ms. Merkel defended the decision to expel the Russian diplomats as a consequence of the inaction. “We took this step because we did not see that Russia was supporting our investigation of this murder,” she told reporters in Watford, England, where Western leaders are gathered to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary.
According to the prosecutor, the suspect was carrying a Russian passport when arrested on Aug. 23 that the Russian authorities confirmed as authentic. Although the document identified him as Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, investigators said at the time that they believed the name was fake.
The suspect had arrived in Europe on a flight from Moscow to Paris, where he picked up a visa that allowed him to work and move freely throughout the European Union, the prosecutor added. Three days later, he continued to Warsaw, where he checked into a hotel for a five-night stay. After only three nights, however, he left and did not return. The following day he was arrested in Berlin.
The man’s visa said he had been employed as an engineer since 2017 at a company called Zao Rust, based in St. Petersburg. But according to records in Russia, the company was founded in 2018 and was in “reorganization” at the time his visa was issued, according to the prosecutor.
When the German authorities tried to contact the company, they discovered that the fax number listed for it was the same as that of two other companies, both belonging to the Russian Defense Ministry, the prosecutor said.
Mr. Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Dossier Center, said in an interview that, “The Kremlin is no longer ashamed of reasonable suspicions that it carries out murders in Western Europe.”
“No democracy can allow this,” he added, warning that “indulging” Russia would not pay off in the long term.
Many German lawmakers have said that they believe the evidence implicating Russia from the Dossier Center — as well as from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and from Bellingcat, an investigative group — is strong enough to merit the case being treated as a matter of state security.
“The federal prosecutor taking over is a good sign that should have come weeks ago,” said Konstantin von Notz, a lawmaker for the opposition Greens and deputy leader of the parliamentary committee that oversees the country’s intelligence services.
Roderich Kiesewetter, a foreign affairs expert for Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, said the new evidence justified sanctions against Moscow.
“Russia has repeatedly ignored Germany’s request, as a partner, for an explanation and to help identify the suspected perpetrator,” Mr. Kiesewetter said.
“The evidence we have now points to the involvement of a Russian state actor,’’ he added. ‘’Therefore, it is correct to respond to the lack of cooperation with diplomatic sanctions to make clear our intention for a swift clarification.”
The one compelling lead the Germans had early on — a mysterious email sent shortly after the shooting that identified the killer as a former St. Petersburg police officer imprisoned for murder — turned out to be a dead end. The German authorities now believe that the officer in question, who was first publicly identified by The New York Times, remains in a Russian prison, 1,500 miles from Berlin.
In a letter sent to The Times, someone claiming to be the St. Petersburg police officer, Vladimir Stepanov, denied that he had anything to do with the killing in Berlin and insisted he was still in prison.
The return address was IK-11, a penal colony in the Russian town of Bor that is said to be reserved for former law enforcement and intelligence officers convicted of serious crimes.
A stamp indicated the letter had been inspected by the prison authorities.
Other countries are watching the Berlin investigation closely.
“We find it sad that a Georgian citizen was killed in the middle of the day in central Berlin and so many questions remain open,” said Elguja Khokrishvili, the Georgian ambassador to Germany. “We hope that the German authorities will pursue this case until we know the truth.”
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Moscow.
Orignially published in NYT.