Russian Government Helped Berlin Assassin Travel Across Europe to Kill Target, New Evidence Suggests

The mysterious assassin who killed a former militant in Berlin last month was likely assisted by officials within the Russian dgovernment, who facilitated his travel across Europe and wiped his faked records from official databases after the killing, new research indicates.

According to evidence uncovered by the Bellingcat investigative journalism organization, the killer could not have carried out the assassination of Georgian Zelimkhan Khangoshvili on August 23 without help from Russian officials. Khangoshvili fought against Russian forces in Chechnya.

There are conflicting reports regarding the identity of the gunman, who has reportedly refused to speak with German law enforcement since his arrest, though he has met with Russia diplomats.

Earlier this week, The New York Times named the gunman as Vladimir Stepanov, a disgraced St. Petersburg police officer jailed in 2006 for 24 years, having been convicted of being part of an organized crime group that murdered two people.

But additional research by Bellingcat and its partners Der Spiegel, The Insider and The Dossier Center found that Stepanov is still being held in prison. Instead, the organizations said a fake identity—Vadim Sokolov—was used to get the unnamed killer to Germany.

The gunman used a valid, fully registered international passport in the name of Sokolov. Bellingcat classed the name as "a non-existing actual person." This allowed him to leave Russia, indicating the fake identity was also entered into the country's central passport database.

However, following the man's arrest, the record seems to have been removed from the database. All of this, Bellingcat argued, could not have been achieved without government assistance.

Sokolov first visited Paris and Warsaw before heading on to Germany, where he would find Khangoshvili. To do so, he required a visa that allowed him to transit the Schengen area—the 26 European nations that have abolished all passport control at their mutual borders.

Bellingcat reported that Sokolov was issued a non-biometric passport on July 18, 2019, and applied for a Schengen visa on July 29, 2019.

To do so successfully, he would have needed a domestic Russian passport, proof of employment, a bank statement showing sufficient funds to return home, and travel insurance. The assassin required an entire fake personality, one backed up by government documents and databases.

Though Sokolov's information had been purged from the passport database by September, he remained on the government tax database. Bellingcat obtained a copy of his entry, which was created on July 23, 2019. Sokolov was listed as 49 years old in the first entry under his name, which would mean that—if a real person—he was first gainfully employed at that age.

Though the tax registration was linked to a Russian passport issued in 2015, Bellingcat could not find the entry in leaked offline passport databases. A source who searched the passport number in the real-time database found an entry, but it was marked with a tag reading, "A person protected by law...To obtain this file, contact an administrator."

The tax file listed a residential address for Sokolov in Bryansk, a town in the west of Russia close to the Belarusian border. But the ownership records obtained by Bellingcat showed no owner for the property. A site visit found an elderly man living there, who said he knew no one of Sokolov's name living there now or in the past.

Bellingcat and its partners also contacted the employer listed on Sokolov's visa application—a St. Petersburg construction firm called ZAO "RUST." The company's listed fixed-line phone number was the same as a number listed by a Russian Ministry of Defense-owned company, though researchers could not establish whether the two were linked.

Investigators were able to speak to the company CEO, who denied employing anyone by the name of Sokolov or issuing a certificate of employment to the named man. He also said the company was currently going through a period of reorganization, so would not have been able to issue an employment certificate during the period specified.

Bellingcat's report concluded that there was "overwhelming evidence that the arrested assassin acted with the full support of the Russian state," citing the mountain of evidence and documents that required state approval.

The organization noted that it would not be possible to have secured such materials "without the direct involvement of a state apparatus."

Russia, assassination, Georgian, police, passport, Bellingcat
The spot in Berlin, Germany where a Chechen man named Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead by an assassin on September 5, 2019. Sean Gallup/Getty Images/Getty