Russia has accused Ukrainian “special services” of carrying out a car bombing that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of an influential Russian ultra-nationalist who has backed Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Kyiv denied involvement in the attack on Monday, with Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak calling the accusation “propaganda”.
Dugina, a 29-year-old commentator with a nationalist Russian TV channel, died on Saturday when a remotely-controlled explosive device planted in her Toyota Land Cruiser blew up as she was driving on the outskirts of Moscow, authorities said.
Russian media reported her father, Alexander Dugin, who has backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, switched cars with his daughter shortly before the blast.
Dugin — a philosopher, writer and political theorist who some in the West have dubbed “Putin’s brain” — is believed by some to have been the intended target.
In a statement on Monday, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB, said the “crime was prepared and committed by Ukrainian special services”.
The FSB said a Ukrainian citizen, Natalya Vovk, carried out the killing and then fled to Estonia.
The FSB said Vovk and her 12-year-old daughter arrived in Russia in July and spent a month preparing the attack by renting an apartment in the same housing block and researching Dugina’s lifestyle.
The alleged assailant was at an event outside Moscow on Saturday evening that Dugina and her father also attended, before carrying out a “controlled explosion” of Dugina’s car and then crossing into Estonia, the FSB said.
The intelligence agency also released security surveillance video of the alleged killer along with her military ID, claiming she belonged to Ukraine’s Azov regiment.
Podolyak, Ukraine’s presidential adviser, denied any Ukrainian involvement in the bombing. In a tweet, he dismissed the FSB claims as fiction, casting them as part of infighting between Russian security agencies. The Azov battalion meanwhile said the woman had never been a member of the unit and accused Russia of concocting a lie.
Defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Al Jazeera there are more questions than answers surrounding the killing.
“What they [FSB] say is this was a targeted attack against the daughter, not the father. I find it rather strange, all of it. It’s a bizarre thing,” he said.
“For a professional security service to send a mother and daughter hit squad — it’s a novelty like American SEALS or Israeli intelligence operatives. The culprits miraculously got across the border into Estonia out of reach, and that leaves a lot of question marks.”
Estonia’s interior ministry, police and border guard service said in separate statements they could share information on individuals entering and leaving Estonia “only in cases prescribed by law”, adding the FSB allegation did not meet that requirement.
Darya Dugina was a fierce supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and often espoused her father’s views in support of Russian imperialism on nationalist TV channel Tsargrad, but observers have noted she was not a widely-known figure.
In a letter extending condolences to Dugin and his wife, Putin denounced the “cruel and treacherous” killing and added that Dugina “honestly served people and the Fatherland, proving what it means to be a patriot of Russia with her deeds”.
He posthumously awarded Dugina the Order of Courage, one of Russia’s highest medals.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharov said Dugina’s killing reflected Kyiv’s reliance on “terrorism as an instrument of its criminal ideology”.
In a statement, Dugin described his daughter as a “rising star” who was “treacherously killed by enemies of Russia”.
“Our hearts are longing not just for revenge and retaliation. It would be too petty, not in Russia style,” Dugin wrote. “We need only victory.”
Some analysts have called Dugin “Putin’s Rasputin”, referring to Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin, who insinuated himself with the last emperor of Russia, Nicholas II. But others have debated how much influence the media personality had on Putin and his policies.
Alexander Dugin is a vehement supporter of Russia sending troops into Ukraine and is a prominent proponent of the “Russian world” concept — a spiritual and political ideology that emphasises traditional values, restoration of Russia’s power, and the unity of all ethnic Russians throughout the world.
He helped popularise the “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia” concept that Russia used to justify the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. He was sanctioned by the United States in 2015 over the annexation of Crimea.
His daughter was also sanctioned by the US in March for her work as chief editor of United World International, a website that Washington has described as a source of disinformation.
In an appearance on Russian television last week, Dugina called the US “a zombie society” where people oppose Russia but cannot find it on a map.
On Monday, residents of Moscow laid flowers and lit candles at a makeshift memorial.
“She was a unique person, and this loss is absolutely irreplaceable,” said Sergei Sidorov.
Some Russian opposition figures were sceptical about the speed at which the FSB appeared to have solved the case and suggested alternative versions.
Ilya Ponomaryov, a former legislator turned Ukraine-based Kremlin critic, said a previously unknown group of Russian militants called the National Republican Army was responsible.
Ponomaryov was the only member of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to vote against the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and later left Russia.
Ponomaryov, who runs an online TV station designed to challenge the Kremlin’s narrative of the war, read out a manifesto he said the group had sent him. It said the group was committed to overthrowing Putin and building a new Russia. Such statements are illegal inside Russia and those who make them face long jail terms.
Some Russian opposition activists have meanwhile speculated the murder may have been orchestrated by forces inside Russia keen to discourage ultra-nationalists like Dugin from criticising the Kremlin for being, in their eyes, too soft on Ukraine.
US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday that Washington “unequivocally” condemns the targeting of civilians.
“We condemn the targeting of civilians, whether that’s in Kyiv, whether that’s in Bucha, whether that’s in Kharkiv, whether that’s in Kramatorsk, whether that’s in Mariupol, or whether that’s in Moscow. That principle applies around the world,” Price said.