Vladimir Putin has claimed the Chechen separatist shot dead in Berlin in what prosecutors believe was a state-sanctioned assassination had been responsible for carrying out killings on Russian soil, frustrating German politicians who have sought clarification over the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder.
At a joint press conference with the leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine at the end of a summit in Paris, Putin described the Georgian citizen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili as “a cruel and bloodthirsty person” whom Russian authorities had sought to have extradited from his exile in Germany.
“In just one of the attacks in which he took part, he killed 98 people. He was one of the organisers of explosions in the Moscow metro,” said the Russian president, without providing further evidence for his claim.
Khangoshvili, 40, was shot in a Berlin park just before midday on 23 August in what has been called a “second Skripal case” after the 2018 attack on the former Russian spy in Salisbury in the UK.
Germany’s highest public prosecutor last week took over investigations after saying he had “sufficient evidence” linking the alleged hitman, who was arrested near the crime scene, to Russian or Chechen government agencies.
The first incident to which Putin referred is likely to be the attack on Russian interior ministry positions in Ingushetia, a region bordering Chechnya, in 2004. It is believed a group of insurgents led by Khangoshvili took part in the attack and he told friends he thought he could be targeted for his role in those events.
The accusation of complicity in the Moscow metro attacks, which took place in March 2010, has not been made before. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up on busy underground platforms during rush-hour, killing at least 40 people. Putin vowed at the time that those responsible would be hunted down and “destroyed”.
Khangoshvili’s associates say that by 2010 he was not deeply involved in the Chechen insurgency, which had become more radical Islamist in nature. Khangoshvili left Chechnya for Georgia in 2004, after which he offered only occasional help and was not involved in planning attacks inside Chechnya, claim those who knew him.
A spokesperson for Germany’s federal prosecutor said on Tuesday she could not comment on the new claims while investigations were ongoing.
Politicians in Germany said the new allegations seemed designed to further muddy the waters around the murder. Nils Schmid, a foreign policy expert for Merkel’s junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats, told the broadcaster ARD he was shocked by Putin’s choice of words, and that carrying out a politically sanctioned killing on German soil could never be justified even if the terrorist allegations proved to be true.
The investigative outfit Bellingcat has identified the hitman as Vadim Krasikov, whom Russia had sought for a similar killing in 2014 only to silently withdraw his arrest warrant a year later, as well as purging his records from state databases and issuing him with a new passport.
Two Russian diplomats have been expelled from Germany as the diplomatic row between the two countries has deepened.
Putin rejected on Monday Moscow’s direct involvement in the murder. He said: “I don’t know what happened to him. It’s a criminal milieu and there, anything can happen.
“But I believe that it is not appropriate to expel diplomats who have nothing to do with this, purely on the basis of preliminary conclusions,” Putin added.
He criticised Germany for not heeding Russian extradition requests and said the Kremlin would retaliate by expelling two German diplomats. “There are unwritten laws in such cases: you expelled our diplomats, we expel yours.”
The Russian president nonetheless claimed he was willing to comply with a German request to aid with investigations into the murder.
Angela Merkel confirmed she had raised the issue in a meeting with Putin before the Paris summit. She said: “I assume the Russian side will provide us with their information.”