Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded one of Russia’s highest decorations to a woman who was killed in a car bombing outside Moscow late Saturday that may have been intended for her father, an ultranationalist who has sometimes been called “Putin’s brain.”
On Monday, Mr. Putin harshly condemned the attack that killed 29-year-old Daria Dugina, a journalist and political scientist who was known as a strong backer of the Kremlin in her own right. In a statement published on the Kremlin’s website, Mr. Putin called the car bombing “a despicable, cruel crime” that ended the life of a “bright, talented person with a real Russian heart.”
“She honestly served the people [and] the Fatherland,” Mr. Putin said. “She proved by deed what it means to be a patriot of Russia.”
The gesture did nothing to quell questions in Moscow and Kyiv over who masterminded the attack, who was the target and how it will affect a war that will mark its grim six-month anniversary on Wednesday.
Like her father, hard-line ideologue Alexander Dugin, Ms. Dugina was an outspoken defender of Russian culture and power and supported Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Kyiv’s top Army general, disclosed Monday during a forum with military veterans that almost 9,000 “Ukrainian heroes” have been killed so far, according to Ukraine‘s Interfax news agency.
SEE ALSO: Russia blames Ukrainian spy agency for death of prominent pro-invasion figure
Russian losses are estimated to be far higher, but it was the first update on the cost of the war for Ukraine in months for the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Russian investigators said Ms. Dugina died when a bomb hidden in her Toyota Land Cruiser detonated on a highway outside Moscow. The explosive device was planted under the vehicle’s floorboard on the driver’s side, according to the state-owned Tass news agency.
Less than a full day after the bombing attack, Russian intelligence officials pointed the finger of responsibility at Ukraine. They said the culprit was a Ukrainian woman named Natalya Vovk who fled to Estonia after the assassination.
“One theory is that she could have planted an explosive device in Dugina’s car with the help of [her] child,” a Russian law enforcement source told Tass.
The Russian security service, the FSB, said in a statement that Ms. Vovk and her 12-year-old daughter were attending the “Tradition” literary and musical festival, where Ms. Dugina was an “honored guest.” Reports say her father, Mr. Dugin, was supposed to have been driving the Toyota that night but changed his mind at the last minute.
The FSB, the successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB, said Ms. Vovk, 43, and her daughter fled to Estonia shortly after the car bombing. Russian officials said Ms. Vovk was working for the Ukrainian “special services” and entered Russia in a car with license plates issued by the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, set up by the Kremlin in far eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Dugin also blamed Kyiv for his daughter’s death and used the moment to encourage Russian soldiers to continue their fight in Ukraine. “Our hearts yearn for more than just revenge or retribution. It’s too small — not in Russian,” he said in a statement published on the pro-Kremlin network Tsargrad TV. “My daughter laid her maiden life on her altar, so win, please! Let it inspire the sons of our Fatherland to the feat even now.”
Ukrainian officials denied any role in the car bombing and were quick to ridicule Moscow’s theory.
“I understand that hallucinogens of various genesis lead to a loss of connection with reality, but the representatives of Russia should understand: the world sees the war live and with it, your crimes,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy, said in a Twitter post. “Attempts to blame Ukraine for the terrorist attacks … or the car explosion in the Moscow suburbs have no chance.”
Daria Dugina and her father were leading figures within Russia’s ultranationalist community, promoting the concept of “Novorossiya” or “New Russia.” It sought to position Russia as a defender of traditional values and the natural sovereign over any Russian-speaking country or population. Each had been targeted for economic sanctions by the U.S. and British governments for their roles in promoting their hard-line views and attacking the West.
There are several possible explanations for the fatal car bombing. It could have been the result of an internal power struggle within the Kremlin or a strike from an unknown terrorist group.
Matthew Schmidt, a foreign affairs analyst and Russia expert at the University of New Haven, said Ukraine is the least likely culprit because Mr. Dugin and his daughter were merely propagandists.
“The problem with the Ukraine thesis is that they risk far more than they gain. They risk Western support,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times. “Neither of the Dugins have ever killed anybody or ordered anybody to be killed.”
Alexander Dugin may not have been a front-line soldier in the invasion of Ukraine, but he has pushed for Russia’s annexation of its smaller neighbor for decades. His book “The Foundations for Geopolitics” is required reading at Russian military academies and argues that “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning,” according to the Financial Times newspaper.
Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of Russia’s parliament called the State Duma who lives in Kyiv and is bitterly critical of Mr. Putin, said the National Republican Army — a mix of Russian activists, military personnel and politicians — claimed responsibility for the car bombing.
The group called Mr. Putin a “usurper of power and a war criminal” who has violated the Russian Constitution, unleashed a war among Slavic peoples and sent Russian soldiers to a “certain and senseless death.”
“We will overcome and destroy Putin,” the group said in a manifesto published by Ukraine’s Interfax news agency. “We declare all Russian government officials and regional administration officials to be accomplices to the usurper. We will kill every one of them who fails to resign.”
At this point, it’s impossible to know definitively who killed Ms. Dugina, Mr. Schmidt said. In addition to discounting Ukraine as the perpetrator, he doubts Moscow’s powerful oligarchs had a role to play in her death because they share Mr. Putin’s vision of a “Greater Russia.”
“And as long as Putin controls the security services, everybody knows that he’s capable of killing people and he’s done it,” the professor said.