In his blog “In Moscow’s Shadows,” Dr Mark Galeotti has posted his first thoughts on the assassination of Chechen-born Georgian-citizen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin, and feels that the hit was perpetrated by a criminal “hired” by Russian services to do the dirty deed.
On 23 August, Chechen-born Georgian-citizen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a long-time enemy of the Kremlin and its Chechen satrap Kadyrov, was gunned down in Berlin. The assassin shot him in the shoulder, and then twice at close range in the head, using a silenced 9mm Glock 26 pistol.
The killer then ditched gun, wig and his very 21st century escape vehicle – an electric bike – in the river Spree. What could have been a clever move to change his look and profile and make sure he was not caught with the murder weapon on him proved his undoing. He was observed doing this suspicious thing, reported to the police, and soon arrested.
It turns out he is a Russian going by the name ‘Vadim Sokolov’, although with characteristic speed Bellingcat has burned through this legend. There seems to be no such person, the address he gave for his visa was spurious, and his passport seems to be a cover one issued for the purpose.
Inevitably, given their role in the Skripal case and certain similarities about the way the passport was issued, some have assumed this is another GRU*, military intelligence, operation. My own take, though, this that this looks more like an operation carried out by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Why?
When it’s not actually Chechens tasked by Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s more often the FSB (whose anti-terrorism/political security remit gives them primacy on Chechnya-related cases, and which is increasingly interpreted to include foreign operations) that goes after Chechens.
The tattoos on ‘Vadim Sokolov’ (crown, snake, panther) preclude him from being a regular intelligence officer, and also don’t sound like military ones of the sort some ex-para/ex-Spetsnaz GRU officers sport. Rather, they sound like criminal/prison tattoos.
The FSB has form hiring gangsters to kill Chechens, something I explore in my ECFR Crimintern report, such as the carjackers from Moscow who murdered Ruslan Israpilov in Turkey in 2016.
There has been the suggestion this may have actually been a settling of personal scores, but the capacity to have a fake passport** issued is not totally beyond criminal figures, but increasingly expensive and problematic. It would have been much easier to use a hitman already in Europe.
Of course, these are just first thoughts, and we’ll have to see how the case develops.
(*Yes, I know technically they are called just GU these days – but everyone still uses the older name, and it is likely to be restored.)
(**Yes, from a the FMS office that previous provided GRU fake passports, but I suspect this just means it’s the “spook’s office” rather than specifically servicing only one agency.)
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