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Vladimir Putin wants hitman operative returned to him

 September 11, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming to secure the release of an assassin imprisoned for life in Germany, potentially offering Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and other detainees in his country as part of an exchange.

In 2019, a shocking incident took place in Berlin's Tiergarten park. Vadim Krasikov, an alleged Russian operative, was accused of assassinating Zemlikhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen insurgent leader, in broad daylight.

The murder, witnessed by several families and workers, occurred near a children’s playground. German courts concluded that this murder was a deliberate message from Russia to its enemies, suggesting that no matter where they sought refuge, they would be pursued.

The victim, Khangoshvili, had been labeled by Moscow as the leader of a 2004 attack in Russia, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Putin’s intervention

As the trial unfolded, Putin showed particular interest in Krasikov's fate.

Before the 2021 verdict, Putin even ordered Nikolai Patrushev, his top security adviser, to look into a potential prisoner exchange to free Krasikov.

This move revealed Putin's high regard for the assassin.

Prisoner swap talks

Western officials have reported that Moscow has consistently raised Krasikov’s case in prisoner-swap discussions.

They believe Krasikov could play a pivotal role in U.S. efforts to secure the release of detainees in Russia, such as U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

Gershkovich, arrested on March 29 while on a reporting assignment, is facing espionage charges which he, along with U.S. officials and the Journal itself, vehemently deny.

One top Western official highlighted Putin's singular interest in trading only for Krasikov, reminiscent of past instances in which Putin has sought the return of agents captured during undercover operations abroad.

While various countries have indicated that a multilateral prisoner exchange might be possible, involving detained Russians in the West in exchange for Western citizens in Russia and imprisoned dissidents like Alexei Navalny, many obstacles remain.

President Joe Biden has indeed expressed interest in a potential prisoner swap for Gershkovich, but specifics remain elusive.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov mentioned that any swap considerations would only occur following a formal verdict in Gershkovich's case.

German dilemma

Berlin, for its part, remains silent on the idea of trading Krasikov, especially after German legal experts stated last year that convicted murderers cannot be traded.

Krasikov's crime is especially grave, making negotiations around him particularly delicate.

The German court ruled that the assassination, carried out near the office of the country's chancellor in broad daylight, was commissioned by the Russian state.

Unmasking Krasikov

After committing the murder, Krasikov attempted a swift escape. He changed disguises near the Spree River, disposing of critical evidence.

However, his activities drew attention, leading to his quick arrest. For two years, German authorities struggled to confirm his identity as that of Krasikov.

He had been using an alias, Vadim Sokolov, even having a Russian passport under that name. It wasn't until 2020, with assistance from police in Kyiv and investigative platform Bellingcat, that his real identity as a veteran of Russian covert operations was confirmed.

Krasikov has consistently denied both the assassination and any association with the Russian security services.

Yet, in December 2021, a German court convicted him of murder, describing the act as state terrorism. He received a life sentence.

Russia has disputed this verdict, labeling it politically motivated and blaming Western intelligence for the claim that Moscow ordered the killing. They insist that the convicted individual is Sokolov, not Krasikov.

Krasikov's early life

Background information paints a vivid picture of Krasikov's life.

Born in a Kazakh village, he served in the Soviet army and later joined Russian elite military units. Twice married, Krasikov led an affluent lifestyle in Moscow, often seen in designer clothes and trading in luxury cars. He even once bragged about a meeting with Putin.

German authorities have linked Krasikov to another murder, captured on surveillance footage in 2013, further establishing his possible ties with Russian security services.

Currently, Krasikov is imprisoned in a high-security facility in Bavaria, Germany, enjoying significant amenities as provided by German law. Reports suggest he spends time reading Soviet-era novels about Kremlin secret agents.


  • Vadim Krasikov, an alleged Russian operative, assassinated Zemlikhan Khangoshvili in Berlin in 2019.
  • The assassination was seen by German courts as a political message from Russia.
  • A 2021 German court ruling convicted Krasikov, terming the act as state terrorism and sentencing him to life.
  • Vladimir Putin seeks to exchange the imprisoned assassin in Germany for detainees in Russia, perhaps including WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich