Why Russia wants to trade a convicted assassin, Vadim Krasikov, in prisoner swaps

Paul Whelan, Vadim Krasikov and Brittney Griner. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP, Berlin Police, Rick Scuteri/AP)
Paul Whelan, Vadim Krasikov and Brittney Griner. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Sofia Sandurskaya/Moscow News Agency photo via AP, Berlin Police, Rick Scuteri/AP)

Just before midday on Aug. 23, 2019, Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili headed to a local mosque through the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park in central Berlin, to attend Friday prayers. He never made it. A Georgian national of ethnic Chechen descent, Khangoshvili was fatally shot three times, once in the shoulder, twice in the head.

His assassin was fairly recognizable by the wig he wore and the way he’d sped up to his victim so quickly: on a bicycle. But it was his hasty disposal into the nearby Spree River of his low-rent disguise, the bike, the handgun, and his quick change of outfits, that caught the eye of onlookers, who alerted the police.

The 56-year-old man who for months would be known only as Vadim Sokolov, the name found in his Russian passport, was quickly apprehended. His real name, it was later revealed, was Vadim Krasikov. He is now serving a life sentence in a German prison for a “state-ordered murder.”

A poster of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, saying Ermordet (for killed, in German) in front of a caricature of Vladimir Putin saying, in German: Russia Without Putin.
A poster of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, shot dead by an alleged Russian operative in Berlin in 2019, is displayed at a 2020 protest against President Vladimir Putin outside Berlin’s Russian Embassy. (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

The Russian government reportedly proposed trading this convicted assassin as part of a dual swap that never happened. Last week, the WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner was released back to the United States in exchange for Viktor Bout, the convicted international arms dealer who had served 14 years of a 25-year sentence for, among other crimes, conspiracy to kill Americans and providing aid to a designated foreign terrorist organization. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of “espionage” by the Kremlin, remains imprisoned in Russia because the U.S. could not persuade Germany to give up Krasikov, according to CNN.

“How can we get involved in that when he’s not in our custody?” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told ABC on Sunday when asked about Krasikov.

Commentators have remarked on the stark disparity in a democracy’s willingness to trade the “Merchant of Death,” as Bout was known, for an athlete railroaded on the pretext of cannabis possession in an authoritarian country. Yet the abortive Krasikov-Whelan exchange was no less disproportionate, given not only the brutality of Krasikov’s crime but also the heroism of its victim. Khangoshvili was a Chechen dissident who helped both his native Georgia and the United States in their counterterrorism efforts, and faced threats against his life as a result.

Several things about the Kleiner Tiergarten killer stood out immediately to forensic sleuths. For one, the passport belonging to “Sokolov” had been issued by a Russian government body, and no one with his name or particulars could be found in any Russian government database prior to 2019. For another, Krasikov, who resembled Solokov, had been sought by Russian law enforcement for the suspected murder of a businessman, Albert Nazranov, in 2013.

Krasikov had even been issued a domestic arrest warrant along with an Interpol “red notice.” And the evidence was compelling: He was caught on CCTV footage approaching Nazranov on a bike and shooting him at point-blank range — the same way Khangoshvili was slain.

A blurry image marked Life News of Vadim Krasikov on a bicycle, with a red circle pointing to a gun in his hand and an arrow pointing to his bike, as well as a label in Russian saying Exclusive.
Vadim Krasikov is seen on CCTV leaving on a bicycle, gun in hand, after shooting Khangoshvili in 2019. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; CCTV screengrab via LifeNews YouTube)

But then a strange thing happened: Krasikov was removed from both the domestic and international wanted lists in the summer of 2015. That autumn, Vadim Sokolov was born, at least on paper, in the form of an internal Russian passport, albeit one with an unusual number sequence, indicative of an aberrant or hasty manufacture, according to the London-based Dossier Center. Subsequent photographs unearthed of Krasikov in his private life and Sokolov the arrested Berlin shooter proved identical, right down to the elaborate canine tattoo on both men’s left shoulder.

The investigative news outlet Bellingcat further established, based on Krasikov’s telephone metadata, that before traveling to Berlin via Paris and Warsaw, he had been in touch repeatedly with former operatives from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and “had spent extended periods of time on an FSB training base outside Moscow.” Court records reviewed by Bellingcat also suggested it was highly likely that Krasikov had been a member of the FSB’s elite “Vympel” Spetsnaz unit, a special forces team formed in 1981 that had a focus on covert “black” operations inside hostile territory. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vympel was rebranded Department V of the FSB, with a focus on “counterterrorism.” Its units were deployed in both Chechen wars.

German prosecutors were also convinced of Krasikov’s ties to the Russian special services, identifying him as a former colonel in the FSB. In December 2021 he was convicted of Khangoshvili’s murder, with the court ruling that it was “state-ordered.” In response to the verdict, Berlin expelled two Russian spies working under diplomatic cover. “State organs of the government of the Russian Federation took the decision to liquidate Tornike Khangoshvili in Berlin,” the presiding judge, Olaf Arnoldi, stated at the hearing, at which Krasikov was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Participants in a trial, sitting at a long tables and wearing surgical masks, appear before a panel of judges in a wood-paneled courtroom..
The courtroom in Berlin where Krasikov was tried in December 2021 in Khangoshvili’s death. (Christophe Gateau/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Krasikov’s legal team insisted he was, in fact, the fictional Sokolov persona, and innocent of any crime. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s response was the predictable mix of aggressive victimhood and special pleading. Russian President Vladimir Putin had not tried to hide his approval of the motive for Khangoshvili’s assassination, calling the victim a “cruel and bloodthirsty person” in comments at a summit in Paris, before claiming without evidence that he was “one of the organizers” of a 2010 suicide bombing attack in the Moscow metro.

In fact, Khangoshvili was a valuable asset to both Georgian and U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

He had grown up in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, an ethnic Chechen enclave, and commanded a Chechen militia against the Russian army from 2000 to 2004. At the time, the Kremlin was waging its second war to suppress independence movements in Chechnya, a Muslim-majority state in southern Russia that borders Georgia. The Kremlin may have branded Khangoshvili an Islamic “terrorist,” but he had in fact been recruited as an intelligence agent by the Georgian Interior Ministry, which relied on him for six years to help stamp out such activity within its own borders.

In 2019 I met with Khangoshvili’s case officer, Levan (not his real name), a former senior official in Georgia’s Interior Ministry, in Tbilisi, the country’s capital. As I reported at the time for the Daily Beast, information that Khangoshvili provided to the Georgian government “helped neutralize an Uzbek extremist organization” and lowered the temperature among those in Georgia’s Chechen community who were thinking of going off to fight NATO in Afghanistan. So highly regarded was Khangoshvili within the intelligence community in the Caucasus, Levan told me, that the CIA station in Tbilisi even put him to use, paying him for his services — a claim that John Sipher, formerly deputy director of the CIA’s Russia House, found credible.

An undated photo shows a cheerful-looking Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in battle fatigues against a backdrop of vegetation, wearing a military cap with a band in Arabic script.
An undated photo of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. (via WikiCommons)

Khangoshvili also played a critical role in the so-called Lopata Gorge incident in 2012. Seventeen armed Islamist insurgents, including Russian nationals, sought to cross the border from Georgia into Dagestan, Russian Federation territory. Had they been successful, it might have sparked a crisis with Moscow, coming just four years after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. The affair culminated in a violent standoff between the insurgents and Georgian Interior Ministry forces, with 14 killed, three on the government’s side. Khangoshvili, who had acted as negotiator with the militants, saved his own handler’s life after the Islamists threatened to take Levan hostage. Khangoshvili tricked them into wandering into a trap where Georgian special forces opened fire on them.

Even more consequential was his role in disrupting the Russian special services’ operations on Georgian soil — for instance, by foiling attempts of the FSB or networks run by agents of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s handpicked warlord-president of Chechnya, to recruit Georgian Chechens. “There was a case when he brought a Georgian who was recruited by the Russians,” Levan told me. “He got the guy to surrender to our authorities. That person in turn rendered his services to the Georgian state. He became a double agent, thanks to Zelimkhan.” No doubt this increased the Kremlin’s animosity toward him, possibly providing the motive to eliminate him.

Khangoshvili was the target of two prior assassination attempts in Georgia, Levan told me. The first, in 2006, involved a South Ossetian hitman who had second thoughts and turned himself in to the government. Much like Krasikov, this assassin had a criminal record in Russia, having been jailed for armed robbery and recruited, according to Levan, by the Kremlin’s security services. Khangoshvili agreed to cooperate with the Interior Ministry when it told him it had forestalled the plot to kill him. He began spying for Georgia shortly thereafter.

Several officials in white hazmat jumpsuits confer by a temporary canopy by some park benches fenced off by orange and white crime tape, as a security guard looks on.
Police forensic experts secure evidence on Aug. 23, 2019, at the crime scene in Berlin where Khangoshvili was shot dead. (Christoph Soeder/dpa/AFP via Getty Images)

That relationship ended in 2012, when Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili lost reelection to Georgian Dream, a pro-Russian political party headed by the billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Three years later, Khangoshvili was driving in Tbilisi close to his home when he stopped at a traffic light. A gunman fired seven or eight bullets at him at close range, but they all hit him in the arm. Injured, he drove himself to a nearby hospital. No serious investigation was conducted into the attempted murder, however, according to the Human Rights and Monitoring Center, a Georgian nonprofit organization, which noted that the state’s “pro forma” inquiry was “characterized by significant legal flaws.” The shooting was caught on CCTV cameras.

Recognizing that he was no longer safe in his homeland, now that it was under the influence of a government friendly to Putin, Khangoshvili emigrated first to Ukraine, then to Poland, before ending up in Germany. He was in the midst of seeking asylum there before Krasikov succeeded where the other would-be assassins had failed.

Remarkably, when he was killed, Khangoshvili had an official registered address at a hotel in Berlin across the street from the headquarters of the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, although he’d technically been living in an apartment with his wife and child. Nor was that the only embarrassment to Berlin’s establishment upon the news of a daylight assassination of a well-known dissident. After Khangoshvili was killed, he was portrayed in the German press and by members of the German government as a “jihadist,” someone who had been the target of an internecine Chechen clan war, rather than the latest victim of Russian intelligence organs. The Georgian government, meanwhile, offered no comment on the elimination of one of its prized intelligence assets, prompting criticism from the opposition.

A crowd of men, one wearing a long beard and a skull cap, the rest young men in baseball caps, surround pallbearers carrying on their shoulders a dead body wrapped in a multicolored blanket and bound with rope to a stretcher.
Pallbearers carry Khangoshvili’s body at his funeral in Duisi village, in Georgia, on Aug. 29, 2019. (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)

Nathalie Vogel, a German specialist in information warfare and a senior fellow at the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy, accused elements in then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government of deflecting blame from Moscow and toward its victim. “German officials and later some journalists went out of their way to portray Zelimkhan Khangoshvili as a dangerous jihadist, reproducing almost to the letter the disinformation conveyed by Kremlin-affiliated sources,” Vogel said.

“On social media, attempts to link Khangoshvili to terrorist acts were systematically illustrated by old pictures of him as a young, bearded fighter, suggesting that he indeed was a dangerous ‘Chechen terrorist.’ This could not have been further from the truth. Although pious, Khangoshvili was neither an extremist nor a terrorist. He had a modern lifestyle and was in fact a Georgian patriot.”

Clearly, Krasikov is regarded as a Russian worth bartering over for Whelan’s freedom.

Giga Bokeria, the leader of the European Georgia party and former secretary of the National Security Council under former President Saakashvili, told Yahoo News: “Russia is attempting to liberate the murderer of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. The silence of the Georgian Dream government during this whole time about the tragic death of a Georgian security agent who helped protect his country from Russia means being an accomplice in the murder.”

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