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Is the Kremlin guilty?

December 15, 2021

A verdict in a brazen murder in Berlin that shocked Germany has been reached. A Russian man may have been in the dock — but President Putin and the Russian state were also blamed, says Christian F. Trippe.

A poster bearing the face of Zelimahn Khangoshvili along with others carrying words 'murdered' in German
The murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was not an isolated case, as this protest in front of a Berlin court suggestsImage: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Vadim Krasikov has been handed a life sentence after being convicted of murdering Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen of Georgian nationality, at a Berlin park in broad daylight. The court concluded that Krasikov gunned down Khangoschvili at point-blank range on August 23, 2019, in Tiergarten, in the middle of the German capital. The Russian's accomplices have not yet been tracked down, but the investigation is ongoing. But the Berlin court suspects that those behind the crime are in Russia

The judge largely agreed with the prosecutors who argued that Krasikov, alias Sokolov, was following orders from the Russian intelligence service, known as the FSB. The prosecution's case was based primarily on circumstantial evidence. The evidence was largely compiled by journalist networks rather than investigators, who were able to double-check much of this research — but not all of it.

That is problematic on several counts, not least in terms of procedural law in Germany.

Diplomatic fallout 

The foreign policy fallout is bound to be considerable  — no matter whether Germany's highest criminal court upholds the ruling or not. Krasikov's defense team has already indicated that it plans to appeal.

But even if Germany's highest court were to overturn the judgment due to procedural errors, its political impact will remain. And that is devastating.

Part of the truth of the historic judgment in the trial is that Russia did not help investigate the allegations against its citizen, Vadim Krasikov; Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the murdered man as a "terrorist."

Christian Trippe
Christian F. Trippe is head of DW's Eastern Europe serviceImage: DW

It is highly probable that the murderer got his orders from somewhere within Russia's shadowy power apparatus. But does all of the evidence add up to a watertight legal case that proves this was a political assassination  — or, as the judge put it, an act of "state terrorism? We can probably expect the detailed written verdict in January.

For now, the court ruling certainly means a cold start for the German government in its already beleaguered attempts to achieve a working relationship with Russia. Moscow views new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock with deep mistrust and sees her as a puppet for US interests.

Germany's top diplomat very much reciprocates this mutual aversion with her fight against Russian neo-colonial ambitions. Baerbock‘s declaration that she intends to conduct a values-driven foreign policy is seen as the antithesis to Putin's power politics.

Triumph of the rule of law

In the eyes of Moscow's ruling elite, the Berlin court‘s ruling will, in turn, buttress their mentality that the West is conspiring against Russia. And Putin needs this narrative to get his people to commit to his aggressive course while, at the same time, using it to explain the deterioration of the social situation in Russia: The West is to blame, the West means us harm. The murder verdict against Krasikov furthers this precise narrative laid out by the Kremlin, which is as utterly wrong as it is powerful. And yet it will grow a little louder.

The ruling shows just how valuable an independent judiciary is. The rule of law stands above any foreign policy intentions  — whether it be in Wednesday's judgment in Berlin or at appeal in Germany's highest criminal court in Karlsruhe in the future.  

This article was originally written in German