As Russian leaders move to make ultranationalist Darya Dugina a martyr following her assassination on Monday, there’s speculation the car bomb attack that killed her could be a “false flag” operation. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the U.S. State Department are warning of a possible “nasty” attack ahead of a landmark anniversary.
Why Would Dugin or His Daughter Be Targeted?
Dugina, like her father, Alexander Dugin, was an ultra-right Russian nationalist who supported a so-called “Russian world” political ideology that includes uniting all ethnic Russians. They were both fierce supporters of sending troops to Ukraine. Dugin’s exact role in the Kremlin is unclear, but he is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s brain.”
“Of the ultranationalists he is quite prominent,” former U.S. Ambassador William Courtney, Adjunct Researcher for the non-partisan RAND Corporation, tells Political IQ. “But other ultranationalists have advocated policies that would involve having Russia taking charge of parts of the former Soviet Union.”
Courtney, who was the Clinton White House Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasian Affairs, adds that determining whether Dugin or his daughter was the intended target is “just too difficult to speculate” given Dugina’s status as a prominent Russian TV personality whose views mirrored her father’s.
She appeared on the nationalist TV channel Tsargrad, where her father had served as Chief Editor. And the U.S. had sanctioned Dugina in March for spreading disinformation on the internet.
Russian Intel Points Finger at Woman in Ukrainian “Special Services”
Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB, had wrapped its investigation by Monday, fingering a Ukrainian woman who it said had been in Russia since July, monitoring Dugina. The woman allegedly escaped to Estonia with her young daughter after the bombing.
FSB went on to say the woman was working under a plan devised by Ukrainian “special services.”
While there was no immediate response from Kyiv to the FSB’s accusation, Zelensky’s office had earlier denied having any involvement in the assassination. “Because we’re not a criminal state, like the Russian Federation is, and moreover not a terrorist state,” Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Sunday.
Assassination Not in Ukraine’s Self-interest
“For Ukraine to do this, it would undermine a reputation that it has fought to protect,” Courtney stresses. “Ukraine has made a fair amount of positive political capital out of arguing that Russia is a terrorist state. For Ukraine to carry out a terrorist activity would put at risk what they’ve made a considerable effort to burnish, so take that into consideration.”
Courtney further states that there’s no evidence of outlying Ukrainian factions working against Kyiv’s interests without Zelensky’s knowledge. “Again, it’s too hard to speculate, but thus far we have not seen rogue activities by Ukrainians.”
Russia: No Stranger to “False Flag” Operations
In the early days of the Ukraine war there were reports of Russia staging “false flag” incidents and fabricating rumors online to create pretexts for military action.
“False flag operations are a staple of the Russian security services,” says Courtney, “so one has to keep that in mind.”
Whether the assassination of Dugina is a “false flag” pretext for something more to come, however, Courtney says, “It’s just too hard to know.”
Zelensky: Moscow May Be Planning Something “Nasty”
On Saturday, Zelensky warned that Moscow was likely to attempt an attack in the coming week that was particularly “nasty… disgusting and cruel.”
On Wednesday, Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day from Soviet rule. It also marks six months since Russia invaded Ukraine—and the beginning of a conflict Moscow thought it would win fairly quickly.
The U.S. State Department echoed Zelensky’s warning on Tuesday, urging Americans to leave Ukraine ahead of the next day’s anniversary.
“This [assassination] clearly gives nationalists in Russia, President Putin and others, an excuse to go after targets that have been described as war crimes or humanitarian disasters,” Phil Mudd, Counterterrorism Analyst who worked for both the CIA and the FBI, told CNN Monday.
But Brian Taylor, Political Science Professor at Syracuse University, argued that Russia doesn’t really need a pretext for war crimes. “What does it even mean to talk about escalation in a Ukrainian context,” he posed. “Russia has been bombing the crap out of Ukraine for the last six months and has displaced literally millions of people and killed tens of thousands of people. [It] has hit civilian targets again and again and again, whether it’s hospitals or schools or apartment buildings or malls or whatever.”
Russian Leaders Rallying Behind Dugina’s Death
Putin, Dugin and other nationalists are taking advantage of Dugina’s death as a rallying cry for victory in Ukraine.
“Our hearts yearn for more than just revenge or retribution,” Dugin said in the statement. “We only need our Victory.…So win, please!” While Putin said in a letter of condolence, “She proved what it means to be a patriot of Russia.”
At her funeral Monday, the leader of Russia’s nationalist party told mourners, “One country, one president, one victory,” while the leader of the Just Russia party in Parliament said, “Victory will be the best monument to Dasha.”
An Array of Possible Motives, Suspects in Dugina Assassination
“I think it’s more likely there’s some kind of internal Russian explanation for the murder. But even then, there are a whole range of possible candidates with a whole range of possible motives,” said Syracuse University’s Taylor.
That’s a theory supported by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who said Sunday, “There are so many factions and internecine warfare within Russian society and in the Russian government, anything is possible.”
Courtney points out, the motive might not be political at all. “When it comes to assassinations, there are also personal factors that could play a role, or financial factors. So at this point, without information that’s reliable, every guess is too speculative.”
And it may be a long time before we learn the truth—if ever. “I wouldn’t believe anything the FSB says,” he states. “There could be evidence later that would emerge, but there may not be. There have been killings in Russia that have happened, prominent people who have been killed, but no solution to the crime.”