Car-bomb killing sows unease among cheerleaders of Putin’s war

Investigative Committee of Russia via AP
In this handout photo taken from video released by Investigative Committee of Russia on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022, investigators work on the site of explosion of a car driven by Daria Dugina outside Moscow.

A top Russia propagandist who cheerleads for the war against Ukraine was walking in a Moscow park this weekend when one of her personal security guards sprinted ahead, alarmed by a child’s ball on a nearby bench. It could have been a bomb.

“If I had the task of eliminating you, I would have done just that – I would have put just a ball along your path,” the bodyguard told Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the state-owned RT television network who recounted the episode on Telegram.

Hours after Simonyan’s park stroll, another strident pro-war propagandist, Daria Dugina, was killed by a car bomb in a Moscow suburb. The daughter of far-right nationalist Alexander Dugin died in a fiery blast near one of the most exclusive enclaves for the capital’s powerful, wealthy elite.

Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, on Monday accused Ukraine’s security service of organizing the attack, saying a Ukrainian woman escaped to Estonia with her young daughter after carrying it out. Ukraine officials denied responsibility, and some suggested Russian security services or other internal forces were at fault. There was also rampant speculation in Russia that Dugin was the intended target.

Denials and details aside, Dugina’s murder rocked the Russian TV anchors, journalists and other commentators who serve up propaganda justifying President Vladimir Putin’s invasion as a war against Western global power and “Nazis” in Ukraine. The killing immediately heightened a sense of vulnerability among Russia’s most elite and visible warmongers, who now realize that they might be targets and that the government is potentially unable to protect them.

It also raised the prospect of a serious escalation in the war as Putin comes under increased pressure, including from Dugina’s grieving father, to hit Ukraine hard.

Saturday’s car bombing followed massive explosions in southern Russia and occupied Crimea this month, as well as mysterious fires in buildings and warehouses across the country. Suddenly, the war that still seems a world away for many ordinary Russians has hit extremely close to home, a point that will be reinforced by a civil memorial ceremony for Dugina in central Moscow on Tuesday.

The bombing undercuts the Kremlin’s implicit contract with Russia’s largely passive population during Putin’s long tenure in office: that only he can maintain security, peace and economic stability. All three are now in question.

Russians have been rattled by video of Dugina’s car exploding in a fireball, by images of crowds of holidaymakers fleeing occupied Crimea after the bombing of an air base there and by attacks on ammunition depots in southern Russia. They are also feeling sanctions bite, as prices soar and real wages fall.

And where it was once Putin’s enemies and critics who feared being shot or poisoned, now it is the Russian leader’s most prominent public allies who are insecure, relying on private bodyguards and other protective measures against unseen and unpredictable threats.

“By now it should be obvious to everyone that there are no safe places,” pro-Kremlin war reporter Yury Kotenok tweeted, adding that Russians could no longer ignore the war. “Moscow is now a front-line city.”

Simonyan, who has used her prominent RT perch in recent days to call for stronger military strikes on Ukraine in retaliation for Crimea attacks, announced on Telegram on Sunday that she never goes anywhere without protection, not even for a walk in the park.

Simonyan said that before Dugina’s killing, she thought it was “funny, really” when her security guard went for the ball. “And after two hours it turned out that no. Not funny at all,” she wrote.

The Kremlin’s domestic narrative of peace and stability has taken a back seat to Putin’s as-yet unsuccessful push to conquer Ukraine.

This struggle, pro-Kremlin analysts warn, could take years of more war, which would mean protracted Western sanctions and long-term economic stagnation – all in pursuit of a goal prized by Putin and his circle of hawkish hard-liners, but not so much by regular citizens.

A former opposition lawmaker, Ilya Ponomarev, said an underground Russian guerrilla group had claimed responsibility for killing Dugina, although neither he nor the National Republican Army provided evidence.

Ponomarev told Ukrainian television that the group informed him in advance that it was targeting Dugin and his daughter. On Monday, he insisted that the Ukrainian woman named as a suspect by the FSB was not involved.

Pro-Kremlin journalists and Russian nationalists began blaming Ukraine even before the FSB announcement. They called for a massive escalation in attacks, with some demanding that Russia bomb every government building in Ukraine.

On Monday, state television anchor Olesya Loseva called Dugina’s killing “a signal to us all.”

“Some will say that this is an indicator of the defeat of the Ukronazis on the battlefield,” Tigran Keosayan, a pro-Kremlin film director and Simonyan’s husband, posted on Telegram. “Others will say that a terrorist attack in the capital once more crosses red lines.”

In a complaint underscoring that Russia’s war has not gone to plan, Keosayan called for destroying the offices of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Kyiv’s Bankova Street.

“I don’t understand why there are still buildings on Bankova Street,” he wrote, repeating a frequent gripe by hawkish figures that Russia must scale up its brutal shock tactics.

Russian journalist Alexander Pelevin called for “the complete destruction of the reptile,” referring to Ukraine’s government.

In her Telegram post, Simonyan said she had relied on constant protection since April, when the FSB announced it had foiled a plot against another prominent propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov.

The agency posted video of the arrest of six men, one shown with bound hands who stated they had orders from Ukraine to assassinate Solovyov “as soon as possible.” In the apartment where the FSB said the arrests took place, the video showed a photo of Hitler, neo-Nazi literature, a red T-shirt with a swastika, guns, a blond wig and three Sims DVDs. It caused waves on Russian state-owned television but was mocked by global observers as looking as if the alleged plot had been staged.

Pro-Kremlin war correspondent Semyon Pegov, whose WarGonzo Telegram channel has more than a million followers, warned Sunday that the war would be long because it was changing “the very essence of history.”

“Right now we should all realize with both mind and heart how serious this is for all of us,” he said in a series of posts about Saturday’s killing. The car bombing showed Russia faces “a completely different level of terrorist danger,” he wrote.

Pegov claimed without evidence that Ukrainian “cells” were operating in Moscow, that at least two recent terrorist attacks had been thwarted and that more were likely.

“We have no moral right to tell who exactly they were directed against, but we assure you that the terrorists managed to go far enough,” he posted. One, he claimed, involved smuggled improvised bombs, which he said amounted to proof of traitors within the system.

Amid questions on who orchestrated Dugina’s assassination, the fury of pro-Kremlin figures suggested her death would have far-reaching consequences.

Liberal journalist Yulia Latynina of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper forced to close in March, forecast a wave of arrests and repression akin to the 1930s Soviet crackdown known as the Great Terror.

Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of think tank R. Politik, said the killing could increase pressure on Putin to respond with a tougher approach to the war. The Kremlin would struggle to control increasing confrontation and violence between rival political camps in Russia, Stanovaya predicted in a Telegram post.

“Putin’s future decisions may look weak and less legitimate to a shocked conservative part of the elite and society,” Stanovaya wrote. “Dugina’s assassination creates the conditions where a political demand for a more radicalized political leadership than Putin himself is formed. And the Kremlin will not be able to meet it.”