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Vadim Krasikov and the Geopolitics of Murder

Vadim Krasikov and the Geopolitics of Murder

Russian agents and assassins operate with impunity across the West. Putin is vigorously executing his agenda–we need one of our own.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Alexei Navalny was close to being released, his supporters say, before he died in an arctic penal colony on February 16. Members of the Russian opposition leader's team claim that arrangements for a prisoner swap were underway. Navalny would have been exchanged, along with two U.S. citizens, for Vadim Krasikov, a convicted murderer who sits in a German prison.

Through my role with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I’ve followed Putin’s hostage-taking spree over the last year, the Krasikov case in particular. I was in Berlin twice in late fall working on the case of RFE/RL’s detained journalist Alsu Kurmasheva. Here’s what I know.

Not far from where I used to live in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate, fifteen minutes by bike, is the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park with playground swings and a beer garden by a church. It was in the Kleiner Tiergarten on August 23, 2019, that Vadim Krasikov murdered Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity. It’s my view that the Tiergarten-Mord, as it’s known in Germany, marked the beginning of Berlin’s Zeitenwende, a deep shift in foreign policy thinking. 

The circumstances are jarring. It was clear and eighty degrees around midday when Krasikov approached his target by bicycle; Khangoshvili was walking along a wooded path. Using a Glock 26 with silencer, Krasikov fired at point-blank range. The victim, a veteran of Chechnya’s war for independence, was rumored at the time to be cooperating with Germany’s BND intelligence agency. A shot in the back followed by two to the head finished Khangoshvili.

German authorities took note. The murder in broad daylight took place a short walk from the Chancellery and Parliament buildings.

The assassin was well prepared. Krasikov had been in close contact with members of the Vympel group, a network of companies comprising former officers of Spetsnaz GRU, the special forces of Russia’s military intelligence. On the eve of his Berlin trip, Krasikov visited an FSB training facility. The forty-nine-year old Russian citizen—born in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan—entered Germany under a false identity. 

For Krasikov, the Tiergarten job was apparently not his first bicycle murder Bellingcat researchers believe Krasikov was the killer who executed a Russian businessman in Moscow in June 2013. In this case, too, the assassin approached his target on a bicycle and shot him with a handgun at close range, both in the back and the head.

In Berlin, he slipped up. Krasikov was arrested after teenagers told police they had seen a man in the bushes throwing a bike, a gun, and wig into the Spree River.

In December 2020, a Berlin court convicted Krasikov of murder and sentenced him to life in prison. That the court pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin was a shock in German politics. It was a Kremlin-commissioned crime, concluded the presiding judge. Then came Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and any remaining scales fell from German eyes. Big changes are afoot in how Germans think about Russia and European security.

Krasikov’s name has figured in possible prisoner swaps for a couple years now. U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner came home in December 2022 in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Back in Russia, Bout promptly joined an ultra-nationalist party and traveled to Russian-occupied Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Contract killer Krasikov was said to be Vladimir Putin’s focus for a swap ever since the Griner-Bout trade. The Russians hinted at a deal, Krasikov for Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich. March will mark one year in pre-trial detention for Evan. The Germans have been reluctant to put a notorious murderer back in circulation. Up until now anyway.

Putin’s trade bait has also included RFE/RL reporter Alsu Kurmasheva, ex-Marine Paul Whelan, and history teacher Marc Vogel. He added recently to his list Ksenia Karelina, a U.S.-Russian dual national who came to the United States as a ballet dancer eight years ago. Karolina works at the Ciel Spa in Beverly Hills. In January, she went to visit her grandparents in Russia—and found herself accused of harming national security by providing financial assistance to a foreign state. The thirty-three-year-old LA spa manager had apparently donated $50 to Razom, a U.S. charity helping victims of the war in Ukraine. Karelina faces up to twenty years in prison. 

Russia keeps collecting hostages. There’s a related story beyond prisoner exchanges, of course, that has to do with how Putin eviscerates his opposition.

The man Putin had killed in Berlin in summer 2019 was a Chechen military commander once trained to fight Russians in Georgia’s breakaway region South Ossetia. Putin also imprisoned rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky for a decade. He has democracy advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza serving a twenty-five-year sentence at a maximum-security facility in the Siberian city of Omsk. Alexei Navalny died suddenly this month at age forty-seven in an Arctic penal colony. There’s resolve in all this.

In 2018, former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent at their home in Salisbury, England. Former Gazprom media chief and ex-Putin advisor Mikhail Lesin died in his bathroom at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Blunt-force trauma to the head was the cause of death. There were reports that Lesin was about to meet with Justice Department officials. Then there was the remarkable case nearly twenty years ago that may have started all this. Ex-FSB agent and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko died in London in 2006 after contact with radioactive material at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar.

It’s been a chilling two decades and it’s not over. Last August, German prosecutors said they were investigating the attempted murder of Berlin-based Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko. She was one of two Russian exile journalists who experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning after attending a Khodorkovsky-organized conference in the German capital.

Today marks an anniversary. On February 27, 2015, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow on a bridge just steps away from the Kremlin. Russian security services were well prepared. Nemtsov had been tailed by an agent from an assassination team for a year before his murder. He was followed on more than a dozen trips by train and by plane.

We need a bigger picture. In 2012, Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for outdated Cold War thinking. John McCain called Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Jeff Sessions ridiculed the idea that Russian agents could influence American politics. In the first year of the war, we convinced ourselves that Ukraine would be a cake walk. Putin’s forces were so dilapidated, his stockpiles depleting, and Russian generals inept. No, Russia is not China, but we have a dangerous habit of underestimating our enemies.

Russia has stumbled. There was miscalculation in Ukraine. There were the botched poisonings of the Skripals and then Navalny in August 2020. In Germany, Putin overestimated the pro-Kremlin lobby created by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But as The Economist and a recent report from the UK think tank RUSI document, the Putin regime has been learning. Covert operations are improving. The Wagner Group’s assets have been divvied up and reconstituted, posing new threats in Africa, and by extension elsewhere. Who would have imagined Ukrainian special forces fighting Wagner mercenaries in Sudan? Cyber and sabotage remain very much in the mix. And in Europe, propaganda and disinformation efforts are better coordinated—and ramping up.

In the single month of January, bots were spreading on X (formerly Twitter) hundreds of thousands of German-language posts daily from a network of fifty thousand Russia-linked accounts. French officials recently identified a network of sites pumping disinformation into France, Germany, and Poland. The French also say the FSB has been behind antisemitic graffiti campaigns across Paris.

There’s a Putin doctrine that goes like this: Spread defense. Create mayhem across the West. Assert dominance in the east. Anti-Putin bloggers get kidnapped now and taken back to Russia from places like Georgia and Kazakhstan. In Serbia, safe haven is disappearing for Russian critics of the war.

We forget that Putin is a true KGB man and that there’s deep habit and careful method in all this. From the Stasi files we know the KGB’s East German allies ran some four thousand agents and influencers in West German politics and media, in businesses, churches, and civil society.

The French were shocked to learn this month that former L’Express director Philippe Grumbach—a man who rubbed shoulders with the great and the good in French politics and society throughout his career—had served as a KGB agent for twenty-five years during the Cold War. In 1974, West Germans were stunned to learn that an East German spy served as a close aide to Chancellor Willy Brandt. We’re slow to learn.

No one is suggesting we start jumping at shadows. But today, as we see Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran working to restrain American power and disrupt and diminish the West, it’s not clear we grasp how much damage Vladimir Putin for his part can do. In Eastern Europe—and in Western Europe increasingly—no one thinks Russia’s war on Ukraine is only about Ukraine. Or that hostage taking is random. 

Who knows whether Putin would have released Navalny and American hostages. We should know by now that Putin has a vision and acts with impunity.

The Tiergarten murder started one Zeitenwende. We shouldn't wait for the next "incident" to start our own transformation in thinking.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and member of the RFE/RL board. He’s co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Police line tape at a crime scene. (Flickr: BCEmergency)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaPolitical PhilosophyUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraine