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As Questions Swirl Over A Pro-War Russian Blogger's Killing, Analysts Say It's Clear What Comes Next: More Repression

Police officers stand guard at the scene of an explosion in St. Petersburg that killed Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky.
Police officers stand guard at the scene of an explosion in St. Petersburg that killed Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky.

Two days after a bomb hidden in a statuette exploded inside a crowded St. Petersburg cafe, killing a prominent blogger who avidly supported Russia’s war on Ukraine, questions are swirling about who masterminded what seemed like a professional hit.

But amid a swirl of speculation and claims focusing mainly on Ukrainian special forces or infighting in the Russian elite, there is one thing analysts and government critics agree on: The Kremlin will use the bombing to clamp down further on opponents of its authoritarian rule.

“It is clear that the authorities will do everything with this story to maximize repression,” Maksim Reznik, a former St. Petersburg lawmaker and member of the opposition, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Reznik said he did not believe that the attack was carried out specifically as a pretext for further tightening the screws, pointing to Ukraine and to disputes among factions in Russia as more likely explanations. Kyiv has denied that it played any role in the bombing.

The Kremlin had been steadily moving down the path of greater repression for years and did not need a violent act to justify more, said Reznik, who has himself been subject to persistent political pressure as a prominent opposition figure in St. Petersburg.

The April 2 attack at a cafe in the center of the city killed Maksim Fomin -- a widely read pro-war blogger who went by the name Vladlen Tatarsky -- and injured at least 32 other people, authorities said, some seriously.

Tatarsky was giving a presentation about his war zone experiences when the bomb went off. The cafe was formerly owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, an ostensibly private mercenary company that has played a major role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top state criminal investigation agency, arrested 26-year-old Darya Trepova the following day on suspicion of involvement in the killing of Tatarsky, accusing her of handing the blogger a bust – apparently in his likeness -- that it said contained the bomb.

Meanwhile Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee claimed the same day that the attack was planned by Ukraine's special services and by "agents" allegedly collaborating with Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). It provided no evidence.

Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition leader, was imprisoned in 2021 on charges that he and his supporters contend were trumped up to sideline him from politics. In 2020, he barely survived a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and Russia's Federal Security Service.

Before his imprisonment, Navalny had organized some of the largest anti-government protests held over Putin’s nearly quarter-century in power as president or prime minister. The government also banned the FBK, which produced hard-hitting investigations on Kremlin corruption, branding it an extremist organization.

Trepova joined spontaneous anti-war protests in St. Petersburg on February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. She was detained and sentenced to 10 days in jail. The FBK said Trepova was not a member of its organization and denied any involvement in the bombing.

'Political Benefits'

Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a political analyst who is now based outside Russia, said that Russia’s security services, having failed to stop a bombing in Putin’s hometown and the nation’s second-largest city, are nonetheless trying to reap “political benefits” by alleging the direct connection between Ukrainian security forces and Navalny’s organization.

The 46-year-old Navalny, who has vehemently opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, still remains an influential voice inside Russia despite being behind bars.

Krasheninnikov said he feared Russian authorities could start jailing individuals they don’t like as terrorists if they find even the most remote connection to Navalny, such as attending one of his rallies or liking one of his posts.

“Of course, this scares me very much. It could seriously affect the remaining members of the opposition in Russia, activists who once participated in opposition activities,” he said.

It would not be the first time Putin has used an incident deemed a terrorist attack as a trigger for political repression. In 2004, after attackers seized a school in the town of Beslan, setting off a hostage crisis that ended with more than 330 people killed, the then second-term president took several steps that rolled back political plurality and democracy in Russia.

Krasheninnikov and Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, see a precedent in the 1934 murder in St. Petersburg of Sergei Kirov, a member of the Soviet Politburo. The motive for Kirov’s killing is unknown, but Soviet leader Josef Stalin used his slaying to justify further political repression in the country.

“Politically, this will probably be a cause of further reprisals against civil society and increased pressure on Ukraine,” Kolesnikov told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

Vladlen Tatarsky (aka Maksim Fomin)
Vladlen Tatarsky (aka Maksim Fomin)

Tatarsky was born in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and joined pro-Russian forces in 2014 after escaping from prison, where he was serving a sentence for bank robbery. He later launched a blog where he wrote about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, garnering more than 500,000 followers.

Though Tatarsky was just one of many Russian military bloggers commenting on the war, analysts said he might have become a symbolic target for Kyiv because of his presence at an event in the Kremlin in September 2022 and the notorious comments he made there.

Tatarsky attended a ceremony during which Putin signed documents that Moscow baselessly claims made Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions parts of Russia. In a video shot at the event and posted on the Internet, Tatarsky said “we will defeat everyone, we will kill everyone, we will rob everyone as necessary. Just as we like it."

Tatarsky had also called for the "total annihilation of Ukraine.” Putin posthumously awarded him the Order of Valor, a state medal, citing his “courage and boldness,” according to a published decree.

A senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mykhaylo Podolyak, suggested that Tatarsky’s killing was the result of an internal conflict in Russia, saying that “spiders are eating each other in a jar.”

Reznik did not discount that possibility. He said that members of the Russian elite understand that Moscow has lost the war in Ukraine and are positioning themselves for an eventual post-Putin world.

“There is a struggle for power, for one’s own life. People need to take positions that will allow them to bargain with the West for their own skin. Therefore, today they are solving internal issues, getting rid of competitors,” he told RFE/RL.

Tatarsky reportedly had ties to Prigozhin and Wagner, and the explosion took place near Prigozhin’s headquarters.

Intended As A Warning?

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Tatarsky’s assassination may have been intended as a warning to Prigozhin.

Prigozhin’s public criticism of Russia’s military leadership has been the most visible evidence of tension between rival camps in Moscow over the war, in which Russia has suffered numerous setbacks in the more than 13 months since an invasion that Putin apparently expected to bring Kyiv to its knees within days.

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)

Tatarsky and other nationalist “milbloggers” have urged the military to conduct the offensive more aggressively.

Krasheninnikov, however, dismissed the notion that Tatarsky’s killing was part of an internal struggle, saying the blogger was a low-level figure.

He said that, if Putin needed to rein in Prigozhin, he could do so in other ways that were less detrimental to stability, pointing to the arrest and conviction of former Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev on a bribe-taking charge that he said was the result of a set-up.

Ulyukaev was sentenced in 2017 to eight years in prison but was released last year.

Prigozhin, meanwhile, said that radicals not affiliated with the Ukrainian government may have been responsible for the killings of Tatarsky and Darya Dugina, the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right ideologue who backs Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Dugina died in a car-bomb blast in August 2022.

Krasheninnikov and Reznik dismissed the idea that Russian partisans were behind Tatarsky’s murder. Krasheninnikov said Russia’s security services keep a close eye on anti-government groups and that it would have been near impossible for them to get explosive material and access to a laboratory to make a bomb.

Ivan Preobrazhensky, a Russian political scientist now based outside the country, suggested that, given Russian law enforcement agencies’ history of fabricating evidence and prosecuting people based on political expediency, it may never be clear “who blew up the cafe.”

However, he told Current Time, “the Russian authorities will probably use this [killing] to advance some sort of political aims. There’s almost no doubt about that. Absolute cynicism is a classic for the Russian authorities.”

Regardless of who was behind it, Reznik said the bombing in St. Petersburg would undermine public perceptions of Putin, who has portrayed himself as a guarantor of stability and security.

“This will deliver a huge blow to Putin's image,” he said.

Current Time contributed to this report.
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    RFE/RL's Russian Service

    RFE/RL's Russian Service is a multi-platform alternative to Russian state-controlled media, providing audiences in the Russian Federation with informed and accurate news, analysis, and opinion.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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