The sensational news from Russia is the assassination on Aug. 20 of Daria Dugina, the 29-year-old daughter of Russia’s imperialist, fascist philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin. Though a rabid Russian nationalist and a proponent of Ukraine’s destruction, Dugina was a TV personality of no great importance on the Russian political scene. Unsurprisingly, her killing has spawned a variety of theories.
Russia’s security services claim that Ukraine is behind the assassination. But that makes absolutely no sense. For one thing, Ukrainian special forces lack the capacity to pull off a complex assassination in Moscow. More important, there is no reason whatsoever for a Ukrainian-inspired assassination. Dugina means nothing to Kyiv. Her father, though Ukraine’s ideological enemy and the spiritual godfather of Vladimir Putin, means little more. Were the Ukrainians to organize a political assassination, they would aim for a top-ranking general or political figure, not the Dugins. They would also concentrate their efforts on potential targets in occupied Ukrainian territories: That would make strategic sense and promote the liberation of these regions. Killing Dugina serves no purpose and would be completely irrational.
An Opposition “Army”
So, who might have pulled off the killing?
Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Russian parliamentarian turned dissident, says it was the work of the National Republican Army, a group supposedly opposed to President Putin. The Army has produced a manifesto in which it declares, “We, Russian activists, military and politicians, now partisans and fighters of the National Republican Army, outlaw the warmongers, robbers and oppressors of the peoples of Russia! We declare President Putin a usurper of power and a war criminal who amended the Constitution, unleashed a fratricidal war between the Slavic peoples, and sent Russian soldiers to certain and senseless death … Putin will be brought down and destroyed by us!”
Those are heady words, but are they, and the Army, for real? On one hand, the fact that Ponomaryov, who is no lightweight, is affiliated with this group argues for its authenticity. The existence of such a group would also help explain the many mysterious fires that have plagued Moscow and distant areas of Russia since the war began. Finally, there is every reason to believe that anti-Putin sentiment has reached a boiling point among certain sectors of the Russian population.
The Work of Russian Security Services
That said, it would make perfect sense to learn that the Russian security service, the FSB, created such a group and used it to carry out the assassination. The FSB’s Soviet predecessors, the NKVD and KGB, created many such entities to combat Russian, Ukrainian, and other non-Russian émigré groupings, armed resistance movements, and dissidents. In this case, killing a visible but not terribly important target such as Dugina could easily serve as a pretext for launching a domestic terror campaign, or a major missile assault on Ukraine.
In sum, the assassination fits perfectly in the FSB’s playbook, and it would serve Putin’s purposes nicely. He could now declare that “terrorist” Ukraine and/or his domestic “terrorist” opposition must be wholly destroyed. This would match how Joseph Stalin exploited the assassination in 1934 of Communist functionary Sergei Kirov, and how Adolf Hitler took advantage of the Reichstag fire in 1933 to launch a crackdown.
At this point in time, we don’t know which explanation is more persuasive. But the next few days or weeks may provide tentative answers. If Putin intensifies his genocide of Ukrainians, we may reliably conclude that the National Republican Army is an FSB creation. If, alternatively, Putin cracks down at home, it’s likely that the Army is for real. Either way, the assassination bespeaks a regime that is in serious trouble. It is either grasping at straws in its desperation not to lose the war, or it is facing genuine opposition at home.
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”