BERLIN — The German authorities declared 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 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. He identified the killer as Vadim Krasikov, who is believed to be a Russian contract killer, only as Vadim K., in keeping with German privacy laws.
The Dossier Center, a London 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 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 Wednesday checked against those previously released by the center.
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.
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, 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,” Frank’s office said in a statement.
The victim was previously identified by 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 Russian authorities for a 2013 killing in Moscow that was also carried out by an assassin on a bicycle. 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 Lavrov, said that Russia would take “a little time” to work out its countermeasures, the news agency Interfax reported.
Maria 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,” Zakharova said, according to Russian news agencies. “We will be forced to implement a set of measures in response.”
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, 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 gathered to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary.
According to the prosecutor, the suspect was carrying a Russian passport when arrested Aug. 23 that 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 flown 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, in St. Petersburg, Russia. 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 German authorities tried to contact the company, they discovered 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.