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Berlin murder strains Germany-Russia relations

December 6, 2019

What do a murder in Berlin, a pipeline in the North Sea and a peace conference in Paris have in common? They are contributing to the growing strains on the relationship between Germany and Russia.

Russian Embassy in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

It has been 103 days since Manana T.'s ex-husband, Georgian Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was murdered in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood on August 23. It quickly became apparent that the Kremlin, which had labeled Khangoshvili a terrorist and an enemy of the state for fighting against Russia in the Caucasus, was somehow involved in the murder. Yet it was not until this week that Germany's attorney general took control of the investigation, saying there was enough evidence to suggest "state actors" in Russia or Chechnya were behind the murder.

"Honestly, I was having my doubts," Manana T. told DW. "I thought the case would simply be forgotten."

The man whom police arrested fleeing the scene after the killing was, in fact, Russian, and he remains in custody, but was he acting on state orders? So far, the Kremlin hasn't shown interest in investigating the crime — "despite repeated calls to do so from high-ranking German officials," according to Germany's Foreign Ministry.

Read more: How Russian media reported the murder of a Chechen in Berlin

'Helpless' in Berlin

On Wednesday, Germany's government expelled two Russian diplomats. "To me, that says things are heading in the right direction," Manana T. said. "I didn't think Germany would put relations with Russia at risk over one man."

Opposition politicians have been more critical of the expulsions. Manuel Sarrazin, the Green Party's spokesman for Eastern European affairs, called the government's move "helpless."

"Considering current staffing levels at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, it is more like a drop in the bucket," Sarrazin told DW. He said he did not doubt that the Kremlin had factored in such potential reprisals before it undertook the mission. "It certainly won't lead anyone in Moscow to say: 'We won't do anything like that again,'" he said.

Read more: Vladimir Putin is not afraid to confront Germany

British resolve

In the wake of the 2018 assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the United Kingdom expelled 23 Russian diplomats and asked allies to do the same. In all, London's EU and NATO partners expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. "That really hit the Russians," the British historian Mark Galeotti told DW. "It was something the Kremlin hadn't expected. But we have yet to see anything similar in Berlin."

Galeotti said Germany's government was moving much more cautiously. "Now that Germany has decided to expel Russians, it will be interesting to see if they encourage allies to do the same," he said. Information gathered by DW suggests no such plans from the Foreign Ministry are in the works. Those asking why Germany has acted so hesitantly are generally told that it is important to wait for the findings of the murder investigation. That stance was reiterated on Thursday after Chancellor Angela Merkel's meeting with Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev.

When Britain called out to allies for support in 2018, Germany expelled four employees of the Russian Embassy. "The facts and the evidence point to Russia," said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the time. "It is clear that this attack cannot go unanswered." The statement was made far before the investigation was complete.

"My first impression is that Germany wants to avoid escalation," Galeotti said. In that context he also mentions talks scheduled to take place Monday in Paris between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The talks will be the first such high-level meeting between the countries in three years. Germany and France will serve as mediators of the Normandy Format meeting. The summit could potentially open the door to finding an end to the ongoing seven-year war in eastern Ukraine.

Mord an Georgier in Berlin
The hit in Berlin was carried out by a man on a bicycleImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Soeder

Risk of tit-for-tat?

Andras Racz of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told DW that Moscow would not seek to escalate the situation before the Paris summit. "Normally, Russia reacts to such moves with retaliatory countermeasures," Racz said. "When Russian diplomats are expelled from a country, Moscow expels a similar number of diplomats from that country. But I think it is highly unlikely Russia will do anything like that before the Normandy meeting." 

Sarrazin, of the Greens, also expressed optimism. "We all hope some progress can be made in Monday's Normandy Format meeting," he said. Though chances of that remain slim, it would be the wrong approach to let the Khangoshvili case overshadow the summit. That was also what the Ukrainians requested. "But, naturally that doesn't mean we can back down one iota in our stance toward Russia," he said.

It is important to consider whether it is productive to cooperate with Russia — an "appeasement a la Nord Stream 2" — in light of the Kremlin's actions, Sarrazin said. "We must recognize that such actions send a signal to people opposed to Putin around the world," he added. "It says such people cannot be protected in our country. If the crime was orchestrated by Moscow then there must be a political price to pay."

Should investigators conclude that the murder was contracted by the Kremlin, Germany would have no choice but to act. "The federal government reserves the right to take further actions in this case in light of the ongoing investigation," according to a press statement released by the Foreign Ministry. At this point, however, such actions seem a very distant possibility.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille