A car bomb exploded in a Moscow suburb on Saturday killing 29-year-old Darya Dugina, a Russian media star and social media "influencer." The brutal assassination of a Putin ally is sure to become a critical flashpoint for Russia's Ukraine war, the internal politics of Vladimir Putin's dictatorship and American battles against corruption.
Reality is a scarce commodity in Russia, so SpyTalk coverage of Dugina’s assassination relies on fast-changing reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, L'Espresso and a host of other media outlets and reporters as well as our own reporting.
Darya Dugina was the daughter of Alexander Dugin, a far-right Russian businessman, philosopher, and well-known cheerleader of Vladimir Putin. She had written a book on the Ukraine war, soon to be published, called "The Z Book," after the identifying mark Russia painted on its invading tanks. She has been the target of sanctions by the United States and Great Britain. Two days before her murder, Dugin appeared on state television saying that "the Western man lies in a dream -- a dream that he got from his global hegemony." The day before she died, she lectured about "mental maps and their role in network centric warfare" and claimed that atrocities by Russian soldiers in Ukraine were staged and fake.
Her father, Alexander Dugin holds no official leadership role in Putin's government. There are conflicting reports about how close the two men are, but it is doubtful that —as some have suggested—Daddy Dugin holds a role akin to the former Tsar's notorious guru Rasputin.
Dugin is reliably linked to right-wing American politics and media figures. He has appeared on the Russian media platform Tsargrad (Imperial City), which is also used by American conspiracy monger Alex Jones, who claimed the Sandy Hook school shootings were staged. Tsargrad TV was launched with the help of former Fox News employee Jack Hanick, who was hired by Konstantin Malofeev, an associate of Dugin’s and one-time chairman of the Tsargard board.
U.S. officials have targeted Dugin’s associates. This spring, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Malofeev for evading sanctions. Fox News veteran Hanick -- who celebrated Donald Trump's 2016 victory at a massive Moscow party and blasted Hillary Clinton for not being a true Christian -- was also indicted on various charges, including lying to the FBI. Investigations of the two men are also focusing on a shady transaction involving $10 million and a Texas bank.
Last Saturday night was supposed to be a happy occasion for the Dugins. They attended a festival in a wealthy suburb of Moscow. Then Darya got behind the wheel of their family Toyota Land Cruiser to leave. At the last minute, Daddy Dugin jumped into another car.
According to Russia's official Investigative Committee, Daughter Darya's car exploded on a public highway about 9 pm local time after a bomb planted under the bottom of the car on the driver's side blew up. The explosion was witnessed by her father in the following car.
Who would want to kill Dugin or his daughter?
Russia's Tass news agency asserted that the Russian security services have determined that a female Ukrainian covert operative planted the remotely-detonated car bomb. Tass also claimed the alleged assassin brought her 12-year-old daughter with her on the mission and that they attended the same festival as the Dugins.
Ukraine authorities have denied all allegations of involvement.
Putin supporters are calling for revenge -- probably a stepped-up bombing campaign against Ukraine population centers.
Meanwhile, Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled former member of the Russian legislature, the Duma, claimed an anti-Putin group in Russia -- the National Republican Army -- was behind the attack.
Consider the questions flashed to life by the assassination.
If Ukraine operatives did pull off the car bombing, that means Russia's ostensibly all-seeing secret police and spy agencies failed to detect, much less prevent a high-tech assassination by a "lesser" global power (Ukraine) on Russian soil.
If, on the other had, a Russian group pulled off the bombing, how potentially powerful and violent is the opposition to Putin in Russia?
Was the bombing an "either-or" targeted operation? Kill both father and daughter or kill one of them with the other being a secondary victim?
History shows that most political assassinations given the nod by Putin in recent years have been "sticks" -- jabs of hypodermic needles filled with various poisons, a technological upgrade from the poison-tipped umbrella in a London park technique that was used against dissident Georgi Markov in 1978. But if the Dugins had somehow ended up on an enemies' list of Putin or his supporters, disguising a personal hit as political assassination from Ukraine would serve multiple purposes. As noted, Russian reality is hard to pin down.
One certain consequence of the car bombing is that Putin's strictly controlled media are now reporting violence "out in the streets" of Mother Russia. What that means for his government's credibility with its own citizens– who have been lied to about many things, including Russian casualties in the war, atrocities and justifications for the invasion– is anybody's guess.
SpyTalk journalists Leo Sisti and Jonathan Broder contributed to this essay. James Grady is creator of the Three Days of the Condor movie and related characters in novels and TV. His latest novel is This Train (Pegasus Crime, 2022).
If Ukraine was going to plan such a risky murder plot in order to conduct an assassination as close to Putin as someone as Dugin is, given the scale of horror by the atrocities Putin has visited upon Ukraine, a Ukrainian assassin in my opinion wouldn’t waste a well planned assassination attempt on someone whom Putin couldn’t care less about whether they live or die. If Ukraine was behind such a bombing, it wouldn’t have been targeted at Dugin’s daughter. Rather, it would have been one of Putin’s daughters who would have been killed if Ukraine was behind such a targeted assassination. Just as there is no negotiating between Ukraine and Russia, only killing, there is no point for Ukraine to send a message to Putin with a carbomb. A Ukrainian assassin would have been interested in using a carbomb on Russian territory only as a practical and effective killing device targeted at a specific person rather than as some kind of ambivalent rhetorical messaging device in an “either-or” targeted operation. Perhaps if Dugin’s daughter had been killed with poison it would have been too obviously close to Putin’s own assassination signature. Perhaps Putin was behind the bombing as a way of sending Dugin a message to back off with his rhetoric which is not only criticizing Putin for not being aggressive enough in Ukraine but also gaining Dugin a growing audience in mainstream Russian society for his political and philosophical views. Putin is a terrible historian and an even worse philosopher, however, Dugin, although fantastically and mystically proto-fascist and quite the skewed historian himself, actually does have a grain of talent for philosophizing about present and future possibilities. Thus, perhaps Dugin stole some of the light away from Putin’s support base and potentially poses a threat to Putin’s authority and capability to secure a majority support with which to rule and reign over Russia. And maybe Putin saw Dugin as a potential rival to his power. Just speculating on how Putin himself could be a suspect in the car-bomb murder of Dugin’s daughter.
I've just been to Sicily. When I heard of this assassination, it immediately made me think of the 1992 killing by Sicilian Mafia of anti-Mafia Italian prosecutor Giovanni Falcone. Falcone and his wife had just returned from Rome to Palermo, and were obliterated by a remotely-operated plastic bomb under their car on Highway A29 that connects the airport and downtown Palermo. The incident prompted a rise of anti-mafia sentiment in Sicily. Just saying... not suggesting anything.