The investigative journalism group Bellingcat says a probe into the 2019 killing of a former Chechen separatist commander in Berlin shows that the attack was planned and organized by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian national, was shot dead in broad daylight in a Berlin park on August 23 in a case that has prompted political fallout between Berlin and Moscow -- including tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats -- after Germany said evidence suggests either the Russian government or authorities in the Russian North Caucasus region of Chechnya likely ordered the killing.
Moscow denies the allegations of the German government.
A suspect who'd traveled to Germany on a Russian passport issued in the name of Vadim Sokolov was detained by police in Berlin shortly after the killing.
He is now on trial in a German court on charges of murder and weapons violations. In December, Bellingcat identified him as Vadim Krasikov -- a man also suspected in the 2013 killing in Moscow of a Russian businessman.
Many commentators have drawn parallels between Khangoshvili’s assassination and the 2018 poisoning in Salisbury, England, of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
In a report following a monthlong probe, Bellingcat said it found that preparations for the killing of Khangoshvili were supervised directly by Eduard Bendersky, chairman of the Vympel Charitable Fund For Former FSB Spetsnaz Officers, and other senior members of the fund.
Bellingcat said phone metadata it obtained shows that a plot to kill Khangoshvili with Krasikov as the assassin “was in the works no later than March 2019."
Sergei Goncharov, the honorary president of an association uniting veterans of FSB's elite special-forces unit Alpha, said allegations that the murder was an operation carried out by Vympel were false.
"The allegations of this [murder] being an operation of Vympel are yet another attempt to bully Russia," Goncharov told state TASS news agency.
The investigative group said billing records show that starting in early 2019 and ending just before his trip to Berlin, Krasikov was in frequent communication with as many as eight members of the Vympel Association of Former FSB Spetsnaz Officers. It said three of the people Krasikov communicated with hold senior positions within the organization.
Bendersky is a former officer of the FSB spetsnaz -- or special military force -- and the current owner of several private security companies that employ ex-spetsnaz soldiers.
He also appears often on Russian state media as a de facto spokesman for Department V -- the FSB successor to the former KGB Vympel unit which, in his words, has recast itself from engaging in overseas subversive operations into domestic anti-terror operations against insurgent groups in the North Caucasus region.
In an exclusive RFE/RL report in December, Bendersky was identified as the father-in-law of a Russian man who has been indicted by U.S. authorities for allegedly overseeing a massive cybertheft ring. The man, Maksim Yakubets, married Bendersky's daughter in the summer of 2017; Bendersky himself was shown in wedding photographs and videos attending the ceremony.
Yakubets was named by U.S. and British authorities as the alleged mastermind behind a cybercrime group called Evil Corp.
According to the U.S. government, Yakubets had worked for the FSB since 2017, including on government projects such as "acquiring confidential documents through cyberenabled means and conducting cyberenabled operations on its behalf."
Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, was part of the separatist insurgency against Russian forces in Chechnya.
His killing fits a pattern of assassinations targeting former Chechen insurgents that have shown signs of Russian state involvement.
Khangoshvili was shot dead by a gunmen who approached him on a bicycle in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten park.
Bellingcat said in a December 3 report that Krasikov’s records have been purged from Russian state databases.