A Ukrainian woman spy assassinated the daughter of a leading Russian nationalist and former Putin ally, Moscow security officials claimed last night.
Kremlin sources published a remarkable dossier of video footage, photographs and an identity card supposedly belonging to the murderer of Darya Dugina.
They named her killer as Natalia Vovk, who apparently sneaked into Russia from Ukraine – bringing her 12-year-old daughter with her – and tracked her victim before activating the deadly device on Saturday night.
The chain of events, as presented by Russia’s security service, read like a Hollywood spy thriller with Miss Vovk, 43, changing her appearance and vehicle number plates to hoodwink guards.
Kremlin sources named the killer of Darya Dugina as Natalia Vovk, 43, who allegedly sneaked into Russia from Ukraine with her 12-year-old dughter
Darya Dugina, 30, died in a car explosion on 20 August on her way back from a festival
Most international observers remain convinced the assassination was actually carried out by Russian agents who wanted to silence the victim’s father, political scientist Alexander Dugin, 60.
Analyst Yekaterina Shulman says the outpouring of anger among pro-Kremlin commentators in response to the car bomb attack appears suspicious: ‘The reaction… was immediate. It looks as if they were waiting for something like this to happen.’
Whoever was responsible, adds Miss Shulman, the killing ‘could possibly be used to ramp up some public outrage in the country to justify even more active repressive actions by the state’.
According to the FSB’s case file, Miss Vovk entered Russia driving a Mini Cooper, accompanied by her daughter. Pictured is from a video published by the FSB, which it said was Vovk driving her Mini Cooper into Russia
Kremlin sources published a remarkable dossier of video footage, photographs and an identity card supposedly belonging to the murderer of Darya Dugina
Mr Dugin has previously been credited with shaping Putin’s vision of a empire encompassing former Soviet-states such as Ukraine, earning him the moniker ‘Putin’s brain’. But he had been more critical of the president in recent speeches.
Mr Dugin, a bearded Rasputin-esque figure, is said to have been the target for the bombing. He had decided to drive home in a different car at the last minute.
According to the FSB’s case file, Miss Vovk entered Russia driving a Mini Cooper, accompanied by her daughter, after apparently convincing officials they were refugees from the Donetsk People’s Republic, an occupied area of eastern Ukraine.
Video footage appeared to show her opening its bonnet under the eye of immigration officials who then waved her through a checkpoint. In these images, supposedly recorded on July 23, Miss Vovk was seen with blonde hair.
Footage gathered after that date showed her with chestnut brown hair – suggesting she used dye or wigs to avoid detection.
Most international observers remain convinced the assassination was actually carried out by Russian agents who wanted to silence the victim’s father, political scientist Alexander Dugin. Mr Dugin was seen at the blast scene, holding his head in his hands
The FSB claimed Miss Vovk rented an apartment in Miss Dugina’s block and secretly followed her around Moscow for several weeks. In a bid to back this up with evidence, Russian officials shared footage supposedly recorded by a security camera inside a plush Moscow residential building showing Miss Vovk. The service also released what it claimed was her Ukrainian military documents, including a passport-style photo of her.
On Saturday Miss Vovk apparently attended the same poetry festival as Miss Dugina and her father. A journalist and vocal supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, Miss Dugina left the event in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The car bomb went off an hour later. According to Russian officials the 800g device had been attached directly beneath the driver’s seat.
Minutes later Mr Dugin was seen at the blast scene, holding his head in his hands. Just hours before the fatal explosion he had published a characteristically vitriolic post on social media justifying the war in Ukraine as a defence of Russia against Nazism.
Kremlin-linked media posted what they said is Natalia Vovk’s ID card
However, he had also suggested recently the success of the campaign was more important than Putin’s political destiny, saying: ‘The mighty forces of history have come into play, let the old regime bury its head, a new Russian time is coming.’
According to the FSB, Miss Vovk drove hundreds of miles from Moscow to the city of Pskov on the Estonian border. Having entered Russia the previous month with Donetsk number plates – and after using Kazakh plates as she followed Miss Dugina around Moscow – she supposedly changed plates again.
This time she was said to have attached Ukrainian identification to her vehicle to enter Estonia, a Nato member state and a key ally of the UK against the occupation of Ukraine.
Last night, Russian officials insisted she should return to face justice saying: ‘Ukrainian citizen Natalia Vovk, who escaped after committing the murder of Darya Dugina, will be put on the wanted list and her extradition demanded.’ The FSB claimed Miss Dugina’s murder had been ‘solved’ and that Miss Volk was acting on the orders of the Ukrainian secret services.
Sources close to President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed this as ‘fiction’. Aide Mykhailo Podolyak rejected the idea of any Ukrainian involvement, and suggested rogue members of the FSB may have been involved.
Yesterday, a Kyiv-based former Russian MP, Ilya Ponomarev, said ‘internal groups’ seeking to destabilise the Kremlin regime were responsible.
Spin, spies and a plot that could backfire on the kremlin
By Prof Mark Galeotti
The fantastical narrative now being promoted by the Kremlin following the death of Darya Dugina, daughter of the controversial Russian nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, is entirely to be predicted.
But the identity of the true perpetrator(s) is likely to stay as shrouded in mystery as the man they intended to kill. And I believe Alexander Dugin was the target of the car bomb, despite Russia’s claims that his daughter had been stalked for weeks by a ‘Ukrainian agent’.
Yes, as a journalist and cheerleader for Russia’s war in Ukraine, Darya was a public figure in her own right. Alexander, however, is renowned in Russia for his brand of pseudo-mythological ultra-nationalism. He would, apparently, have been in the car had it not been for a last-minute change of plans.
A tempting target for Ukraine? Perhaps. But also for other factions.
Dugin had gained a significant following but, in the days since Saturday night’s bombing, many Western commentators have vastly overstated his influence with the Kremlin – and his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
He has been painted as a sort of ideological right-hand man to the president. Some even claim his belief that it is Russia’s historic destiny to rule an empire that stretches from Vladivostok to Dublin inspired Putin to invade Ukraine. Yet, despite his beard and well-curated air of mystery, Dugin is far from being ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ as some have claimed.
He has scarcely had any contact with Putin and Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine is certainly not his brainchild. In truth, Dugin is a self-publicist, part of an eco-system of ideological and political entrepreneurs in Russia who parrot state propaganda and try to tailor their doctrines to Putin’s prevailing mood.
His imperialistic philosophies brought him favour in 2014 when Moscow was looking for an ideological rationale to justify its potential annexation of the Donbas. For a short time, Dugin was a regular on Russian TV. He was offered a plum role at MGU, Russia’s most prestigious university, and his book – Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia – was required reading at the country’s top military college. Yet he was dropped as quickly as he rose to fame, after the Kremlin decided against a full-scale annexation of Donbas.
Within hours of the car bomb attack on Saturday, reports speculated that this was a so-called ‘false flag’ – a political or military action carried out with the intention of blaming an opponent – to justify further aggression against Ukraine and even Estonia.
Such clandestine provocation has certainly been a favoured tactic in the past. In 1999, four apartment blocks in three Russian cities were bombed, killing more than 300 and spreading a wave of fear across the country. These are now widely believed to have been staged by the FSB (a successor to the KGB) to generate public support for the second Chechen war.
Certainly, the official line from Moscow lends support to the false flag claim. It is not beyond the realms of plausibility that, ahead of Ukrainian independence day tomorrow and the six-month anniversary of the war, Putin is preparing the ground for a dramatic escalation in Ukraine.
But I would urge caution. It is difficult to see why Putin would kill Dugin to justify yet more violence and bloodshed than is already being committed on a daily basis.
Darya Dugin’s assassination could well be the result of bitter rivalries within the ultra-nationalist community, or in-fighting amongst Russia’s factionalised and insecure elite.
Many political killings in the past – initially blamed on the Russian government – have turned out to be the result of dodgy business dealings. (Incidentally, car bombs were the hallmark of gangland feuds in Russia in the 1990s.)
Last night an anti-Putin group, the National Republican Army, was claiming that it carried out the attack. The statement was largely ignored by Russian state TV.
What is clear is that blaming Ukraine may yet backfire on Putin rather than bolster support. There is a growing sense that the war in Ukraine is not going to plan. Operations in the Donbas are stuttering, with troops increasingly engaged in a brutal war of attrition with as many as 60,000 Russian casualties so far.
Ukraine has been mounting bold attacks behind the front-lines. The claim that a Ukrainian agent was able to infiltrate the country, carry out an attack on a high-profile nationalist, and then flee to Estonia, a neighbouring Nato state, is an admittance of a shocking level of incompetence.
It will hardly assuage the ‘liberals’ who fear that Putin has gone too far in Ukraine – or nationalists who believe the invasion has been mishandled.
Indeed, it is these nationalist factions within the Russian elite, often former military, intelligence or security forces, that I believe now present the greatest danger to Vladimir Putin. The death of a nationalist cheerleader, whoever the perpetrator, will only fuel that.
Professor Mark Galeotti is honorary professor at the University College London school of Slavonic and East European Studies