Russia’s speed at “solving” the car-bomb assassination of the daughter of prominent Russian far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who has played a prominent role in justifying and drumming up support for President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical ambitions, has attracted considerable skepticism.
Just two days after the killing, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that an agent of Ukraine’s secret service had planted a bomb under the car of Darya Dugina, Dugin’s 29-year-old daughter, at a festival outside Moscow on August 20, killing her as she drove home. Dugina herself was a rising star in Russia’s far-right community and a familiar face on right-wing media and at far-right events.
The FSB, however, does not have a reputation for solving political killings quickly or telling the truth.
The murders and attempted murders of prominent Kremlin opponents have remained unsolved or only partially resolved even after decades. No investigation was even opened into the near-fatal poisoning of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in August 2020.
But Dugina’s case was supposedly cracked in less than 36 hours.
The FSB claims Natalya Vovk, a 42-year-old Ukrainian, entered Russia by car with her 12-year-old daughter; rented an apartment in the same Moscow building where Dugina lived; tracked Dugina for weeks; planted the bomb during the festival; and later that night fled to Estonia in the same car she brought to Russia, changing the license plates along the way.
Moscow further alleges that Vovk is a member of the Azov Battalion, a right-wing group the Russian authorities claim is neo-Nazi and banned as “extremist.”
The FSB’s version raises some potentially embarrassing questions. How could a Ukrainian agent successfully get into and out of Russia when border guards are supposedly closely screening every Ukrainian, including searching their phones?
Why would Ukraine target the Dugins, whose influence many have seen as both exaggerated and waning, when there are higher-profile proponents of the war in Russia?
These and other questions -- as well as the dearth of hard evidence and the bewildering speed of the purported investigation -- are leading some observers to speculate that the attack may be a sign of infighting within the Russian elite, as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, now beginning its seventh month, grinds on with unexpectedly high losses and few tangible victories.
"Most likely, the struggle between the ‘peacemakers’ who insist on ending the war and…the ‘hawks,’ to which Dugin belongs, has escalated in Putin's entourage,” Viktor Nebozhenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told RFE/RL.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, evidently made with the participation of just a handful of insiders, shocked many within the Russian elite. Putin, it is believed, expected to take Ukraine within days and install a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv.
As the invasion stalls and Russia suffers some high-profile setbacks, including the loss of the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet and of at least nine military aircraft at a base in the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, nationalist groups -- which view Dugin as one of their leading ideologues -- are openly complaining that Russia has made too little effort to subdue Ukraine and are pushing for more aggressive tactics.
Nebozhenko said those seeking a negotiated settlement with the West may have sought to “remove Dugin…to strengthen their position."
Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Russian and Ukrainian right-wing movements, countered that, if Dugina’s death is the result of Kremlin infighting, then it would only play into the hands of those who want to escalate the war.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, agreed. She said Dugina’s death will provoke the “radicalization of the conservative camp.”
Who Is Aleksandr Dugin?
Dugin is a far-right Russian author, former professor, and ideologue who some say helped sow the seeds of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
His call for the creation of an authoritarian Eurasian state incorporating Ukraine and led by Moscow found support among some elements of the Russian elite.
“Dugin’s ideology has influenced a whole generation of conservative and radical activists and politicians, who, if given the chance, would fight to adapt its core principles as state policy,” analysts Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn wrote in a March 2014 article.
His neo-Eurasianist movement has been described by political scientists as fascist, and Dugin has readily espoused violence.
In the early stages of the Moscow-backed uprising in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Dugin told Russian state television that “Ukrainians need to be killed, killed, killed.”
Putin has sometimes echoed Dugin's expansionist language and views, but the extent of the ideologue's influence on the Kremlin leader is unclear.
Some analysts say the ideologue’s influence peaked around 2014, when he expressed frustration with what he saw as Putin’s wavering support for the pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In July 2014, Dugin warned that the separatists could lose the war against Ukrainian government forces without more backing and said the Kremlin’s hesitation “is seen as a sign of betrayal by the patriots.”
He warned at the time that a Russian "war [with Ukraine] is inevitable. Either we start to fight now, or we shall have to fight later."
That same frustration among Russian conservatives and nationalists with the Kremlin is again coming to the fore as Ukraine grinds Russia’s invasion to a crawl and carries out successful counterattacks.
Some analysts interpret the August 20 car bombing that killed Dugina as a government message to those right-wing elements that could potentially stir up trouble.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst and Kremlin critic, called the murder of Dugina a “warning” by the Russian security services to her father for his criticism of Putin.
Piontkovsky described the FSB claim that Vovk killed Dugina as “monstrous in its self-revealing stupidity.”
Still, Stanovaya said Dugina’s murder will only serve to deepen the dissatisfaction of right-wing elements who are exasperated with the war effort and build support for a more radicalized Russian leadership.
She warned that the frequency and brutality of ideological conflicts in Russia will only rise.
In his first public statement after his daughter’s killing, Dugin seemed to justify such concerns.
“Our hearts are not simply thirsting for revenge or retribution,” he wrote on August 23. “We only need victory [over Ukraine]. My daughter sacrificed her maiden life on the altar of victory. So, please win!”