Ukrainian spies, Russian dissidents or an inside job: Who killed Daria Dugina, daughter of Putin’s ally?

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The roadside explosion that killed a pro-war Russian journalist in Moscow had all the elements of a Hollywood film: politics, a mysterious plotline and a tragic twist of fate.

But the claims and allegations emerging in the aftermath of the blast are making the incident look like the most sophisticated of thrillers, with a cast of characters made up of warmongers, exiled politicians, aspiring revolutionaries and a female spy crossing enemy lines with her daughter in tow.

And in a region conditioned by its totalitarian past to see conspiracies, there are still others alleging a false-flag attack or Russian provocation claimed the life of Daria Dugina, who was killed by a car bomb Saturday night while driving a vehicle that belonged to her controversial father.

That man, Aleksandr Dugin, an influential philosopher sanctioned by Canada for promoting and defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said of his daughter’s death: “Our hearts yearn for more than just revenge or retribution … We need only Victory.”

The killing, which has brought the far-removed war in Ukraine into disturbingly close range of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin palace, was officially pinned by Russian officials on a 43-year-old Ukrainian special agent alleged to have used her daughter to disguise her deadly mission.

Together, they slipped out of Russia and into Estonia hours after the explosion, which occurred along a highway some 50 kilometres west of Moscow.

At the same time, the killing was claimed by an underground group of dissident Russian partisans calling itself the National Republican Army. According to an exiled Russian politician who is acting as their public face, Saturday’s killing marked the opening of “the second front of the war against Putin’s fascism.”

Putin, who is no stranger to propaganda, also sought to harness the 29-year-old Dugina’s death by posthumously awarding her the Order of Courage “for courage and dedication shown in the performance of professional duty.”

In a telegram to express his condolences for “a vile, cruel crime,” Putin said that Dugina “proved by deed what it means to be a patriot of Russia.”

It was a rallying cry of sorts from a country lost in the fog of the Ukraine war, which marks its six-month anniversary on Wednesday — a day that also happens to mark the day Ukraine declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

A few verifiable facts are visible through the flames and smoke of Saturday night’s explosion.

Dugina, who also served as her father’s press secretary (and was also subject to Canadian economic sanctions), was attending a festival in celebration of traditional Russian culture — art, song, history and faith — held at the Zakharovo Estate, a place where the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was said to have learned how to speak Russian from his nanny.

Aleksandr Dugin was part of the lineup, delivering a 6 p.m. lecture titled “Tradition and History.”

At the festival, Dugina joked that in addition to her own work as a journalist, commentator and press secretary, she was also her father’s bodyguard, protecting him at the event “from fans and city lunatics,” Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian businessman who accompanied during the day, wrote on his Telegram channel.

Malofeev said that Dugina and her father left the festival at about 9:25 p.m. with Dugin driving his daughter’s car and Dugina driving his Toyota Land Cruiser.

Dugina’s idle musing about serving as her father’s protector “turned out to be prophetic,” Malofeev wrote.

“Dasha took the blow directed against her father.”

The blast occurred about 10 minutes into the drive back to Moscow. Russia’s Investigative Committee said that an “explosive device” was placed on the underside of the vehicle on the driver’s side.

Video of the apocalyptic aftermath, circulated on social media, shows Dugin pacing back and forth on the road with his hands in his hair, a car alarm ringing incessantly, while a fire truck arrives on the scene to attend to the car fire raging across the road.

On Monday morning, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, announced that it had “solved” the murder after conducting “urgent operational search measures.”

The crime, it said in a statement, was carried out by a Ukrainian citizen by the name of Natalia Pavlovna Vovk, 43. Vovk was accompanied by her 12- or-13-year-old daughter, Sofia Mikhailovna Shaban.

The FSB released surveillance video allegedly showing the pair crossing the border into Russia on July 23 at 9:25 a.m. in a Mini Cooper car with a licence plate registered to the Donetsk People’s Republic, the disputed breakaway region of eastern Ukraine that is one of the epicentres of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

While in Moscow, Vovk allegedly rented an apartment in Dugina’s building “in order to organize the murder of … Dugina and obtain information about her lifestyle,” the FSB statement said.

The domestic security agency, which is the successor to the Soviet KGB, released other security camera images that purported to show the same car bearing licence plates from Kazakhstan and from Ukraine.

The latter plates were affixed to the car on the night of the car bombing and seen in images captured at 11:26 p.m. along the M9, or Baltic Highway, and at the border to Estonia, which Vovk and Shaban crossed at noon on Sunday. 

Claims that Vovk was in fact a member of the Ukrainian military’s Azov Regiment, coupled with a purported military identification card, were rejected by the regiment itself

In a statement, officials alleged that the attack was in fact a false-flag incident carried out by Russia to whip up anti-Ukrainian anger ahead of a reported public trial that will be held for Ukrainian soldiers captured in Russian-occupied Mariupol, after they held out for weeks in the underground defences of the Azovstal steel plant.

“In this way, Russia warms up the public opinion of its citizens regarding the ‘necessity’ of such a court,” the Azov Regiment said.

David Satter, an author and historian specializing in Russia, cast doubt on the likelihood of Russian security agencies carrying out such an “odious” act as killing one of their own citizens — and a civilian — for propaganda purposes.

“I don’t think the Russian authorities have need to go and kill someone in order to conduct mass repression or to prepare the groundwork for a show trial,” he said by telephone from New York. “They can do all those things anyway.”

Casting further mystery on the killing, the exiled Russian politician who claims to speak for the National Republican Army — Ilya Ponomarev — wrote on his Telegram channel Monday that Vovk and Shaban “did not directly participate in the action” that killed Dugina, but were “safely evacuated at the request of our Russian friends.”

Apart from Dugina’s death, the details of the case and the findings of the search for those responsible can neither be discarded nor fully accepted — not at the moment, at least.

What’s left are allegations and the chilling possibility that an underground movement has had its first taste of blood in the fight to overthrow the Putin regime.

“By killing Dugin, or killing his daughter — and I suppose they meant to kill Dugin — they announce their presence and make it clear that there’s now a new actor on the scene,” Satter said.

“If it’s the beginning of some type of internal terrorism, and if the group is effective, it will definitely have an effect on the dynamics of the conflict, no question.”

Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllanSHARE:


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