The death of the diplomat came nearly a year after an investigation by CNN and Bellingcat revealed that an FSB toxins team of about six to 10 agents trailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny for more than three years before he was poisoned in August 2020 with the lethal nerve agent Novichok.
An excellent factual summary: (Bellingcat) Russian Diplomat Who Died at Berlin Embassy is Senior Intelligence Figure’s Son
Limited by policy typical of reputable news organizations, CNN does not directly speculate that the diplomat/spy was executed. With the understanding that what follows is speculation informed by precedent, we can be more direct.
With the notable exceptions of Vitaly Yurchenko and Oleg Gordievsky, the sanction for Soviet/Russian nationals guilty of treason has been death. Yurchenko escaped punishment because his cover story had propaganda value that would have been destroyed by disclosure he had been an ambivalent traitor.
Gordievsky, a double agent, ultimately escaped punishment with exfiltration by British intelligence. (Haaretz) How Double Agent Oleg Gordievsky Changed the Course of History.
Gordievsky’s survival had another factor. Perhaps in response to the horrors of the Stalin era, the post-Stalin KGB developed a standard of internal adjudication with some of the protections customary in the West. The KGB did not prejudge traitors in their ranks. In 1985, in an informal weekend retreat, Gordievsky was interrogated with remarkably effective truth drugs. As the drugs produce complete amnesia, Gordievsky himself would not have known what he said. As his personality is controlled rather than impulsive, it is possible he did not reveal enough for conviction by then prevailing KGB standards . He was blacklisted, set free, then exfiltrated.
During the Stalin era, many executions occurred in the offices of superiors; post-Stalin, with more formalized adjudication, in prisons. There was little need to terminate a double agent in the target country; the double remained tied to the motherland by cultural distance from the West, with family held hostage to loyalty. Soviet tradecraft was excellent, which meant that a Soviet double had the skills to avoid detection until fingered by a U.S. double, such as Aldrich Ames.
This skill also resulted in lack of awareness by the double that he had been fingered. He would simply be called back to Moscow on pretext, subjected to a trial/interrogation which obtained the important “confesssion”, and legally executed. Now that tradecraft has crumbled, there is a reasonable possibility a double knows he has been detected, and will bolt, escaping punishment.
…the diplomat was the son of the deputy director of FSB’s Second Service and the head of the FSB’s Directorate for Protection of Constitutional Order, Gen. Alexey Zhalo. …As previously reported by Bellingcat and its partners, the FSB’s Second Service has been linked to the assassination of Georgian asylum seeker…
It is natural to wonder if the son was in the same line of work as his father. While nepotism remains strong, and the post would have formerly been part of the nomenklatura, this is unlikely. Germany is sufficiently porous there would be no need to cloak “assassin supporting services” with diplomatic cover.
His real job, with cover of “second secretary”, likely involved contact and recruitment in the German government. He may have decided to go double. Sadly for him, Germany is so permeated with Russian spies that the person he approached may have been an agent for Russia, who fingered him.
Why did the Russians not call him back to Moscow on pretext?
- He could have known he was fingered, the consequence of poor compartmentalization — tradecraft.
- He could have been warned by his father.
- His father could have assented, to avoid the stain.
- He could have been acting for his father, as a conduit to the West.
Hence the necessity of execution on embassy premises, before he could bolt. Watch for the untimely demise of Gen. Alexey Zhalo.