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Sunday, August 21, 2022

Ukraine Live Updates: Russia Opens Murder Investigation After Blast Kills Daughter of Putin Ally

Ukraine Live Updates: Russia Opens Murder Investigation After Blast Kills Daughter of Putin Ally

“Daria Dugina died after the vehicle she was driving exploded outside Moscow on Saturday. Her father, Aleksandr Dugin, is said to have influenced President Vladimir Putin’s views, including on the war in Ukraine.

An image taken from video released by the Investigative Committee of Russia showed investigators working on Sunday at the site of a car explosion outside Moscow.
Investigative Committee of Russia, via Associated Press

The Russian authorities said on Sunday that a car bomb killed the adult daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist whose writings are believed to have influenced President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The authorities said they had opened a murder investigation into the death of the woman, Daria Dugina, after a Toyota Land Cruiser exploded on a highway 20 miles west of Moscow and burst into flames, scattering pieces across the road. State news media identified her as the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, an outspoken supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine, whose car she was driving.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the incident. Russian news media said that associates of Mr. Dugin believed that he, not his daughter, was the target.

A Ukrainian official disavowed his country’s involvement. But pro-Kremlin commentators and politicians quickly blamed Ukraine and demanded revenge, injecting new uncertainty into a war that has lasted nearly six months. 

Russian investigators said that an explosive device had been planted underneath the car on the driver’s side and that the attack was believed to have been “a premeditated crime.”

Aleksandr Dugin in 2007.
Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

Mr. Dugin is a self-educated political philosopher known for pushing a vision of a more powerful, aggressive Russia. He is frequently described as “Putin’s brain,” although the actual relationship between the two men is opaque.

The United States has imposed sanctions against Mr. Dugin for supporting militants in eastern Ukraine. Ms. Dugina shared her father’s views and promoted them as a radio and TV anchor. In July, the British government imposed sanctions on Ms. Dugina, citing her as a “frequent and high-profile contributor of disinformation in relation to Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on various online platforms.”

Russia’s Investigative Committee — the country’s version of the F.B.I. — said in a statement that Ms. Dugina had died at the scene of the blast in the Odintsovo district, an affluent area of Moscow’s suburbs. “The identity of the deceased has been established: it is the journalist and political scientist Daria Dugina,” the statement said.

Images and videos circulating on Russian social media showed a vehicle engulfed in flames and car parts blasted across the road. A man who appeared to be Mr. Dugin paced back and forth, holding his hands to his head, as fire trucks rushed to put out flames. These images could not be immediately verified.

Zakhar Prilepin, a popular conservative writer, said in a post on his Telegram channel that Mr. Dugin and his daughter were at a nationalist festival on Saturday but left in different cars. The festival, called Traditions, gathered prominent Russian nationalist figures. Mr. Dugin gave a lecture on the “metaphysical dualism of historical thinking,” according to the festival’s website.

Russian state media described the festival as a relatively low-security event. The state-run news agency Tass cited an unnamed law-enforcement source as saying that there were no security checks at the entrance to the parking lot where the car driven by Ms. Dugina had been parked.

The incident came as the Kremlin faces intensifying questions over its war effort in Ukraine and why it is not doing more to prevent attacks deep behind the front lines. Prominent supporters of the war — already angry over recent Ukrainian sabotage attacks in Crimea — quickly took to social media with claims that Ukraine was behind Ms. Dugina’s death.

A senior Ukrainian official denied responsibility for the attack.

“Ukraine certainly had nothing to do with yesterday’s explosion,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said in televised comments on Sunday morning. “We are not a criminal state like the Russian Federation, much less a terrorist one.”

Denis Pushilin, the head of Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, wrote on the Telegram social network that the “terrorists of the Ukrainian regime” were behind the car bombing. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, stopped short of accusing Ukraine. But she wrote on Telegram that if Ukraine was indeed responsible, “then we have to be talking about a policy of state terrorism being realized by the Kyiv regime.”

“We are waiting for the results of the investigation,” she wrote.

Aleksandr Dugin in 2016.
Francesca Ebel/Associate Press

Aleksandr Dugin, 60, is a Russian political thinker sometimes called “Putin’s philosopher” who has been a leading advocate for conquest of Ukraine.

Originally an anti-communist dissident, Mr. Dugin in recent years has focused on influencing the Kremlin and promotes a vision of a resurgent Russia whose main enemy is an “Atlantic” world led by the United States.

His thinking builds on ideas of “Eurasianism,” that Russia is a distinct civilization that should forge a continent-spanning state along the lines of its former empire but without the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union. Jane Burbank, an emeritus history professor at New York University, has written that in Mr. Dugin’s view, after the Soviet Union’s “sellout” to the West in the 1990s, “Russia could revive in the next phase of global combat and become a ‘world empire.’”

Mr. Dugin called the 2013 Ukrainian uprising against the country’s pro-Russian leadership a “coup d’état by the United States” meant to thwart such an expansion. “Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, we can become a credible global player,” he said.

The United States imposed sanctions against Mr. Dugin in 2015 for his role in policies that threatened Ukraine, including helping to recruit fighters for Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. His daughter Daria Dugina, 29, who was killed on Saturday when the car she was driving exploded on a highway outside Moscow, was a journalist who was hit with sanctions this year by both the United States and Britain, accusing her of publishing disinformation on Ukraine.

Writing before the incident on Saturday in his channel on Telegram, a social messaging app, Mr. Dugin said that Russia could not win the war in Ukraine unless it puts the entire society on a war footing. He said that recent attacks inside Crimea and Kyiv’s pledge to launch a counteroffensive demonstrated that Ukraine and its Western allies were not ready to compromise.

“Russia has challenged the western civilization and that means that we would need to go until the end,” Mr. Dugin wrote in the post.

Residents were evacuated from the village of Mayskoye, Crimea, on Tuesday.
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A series of Ukrainian attacks in Crimea has begun to put domestic political pressure on the Kremlin, prompting a wave of criticism and debate about the war on social media as the attacks have demonstrated that even what Moscow considers to be hallowed Russian territory is not safe.

On Saturday, a drone slammed into the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleetin Crimea, sending a plume of smoke over the port city of Sevastopol. Separately, in western Crimea, Russian troops shot antiaircraft fire at unidentified targets, the region’s Russian governor said. Russia took control of Crimea in 2014.

After nightfall, there were reports and videos on social media of antiaircraft fire around Sevastopol, a sign that Russian forces were most likely shooting at incoming drones or aircraft, though it remained unclear if any attacks were successful.

“One can literally feel in the air of Crimea that the occupation there is temporary, and Ukraine is returning,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Saturday in his nightly address.

Local Russian officials blamed Ukraine for Saturday’s drone attack on the Black Sea Fleet and urged residents and beachgoers not to panic. They said that there had been no injuries and that Russian air defenses were functioning properly.

While the incidents do not weaken Russia’s grip on Crimea, according to military analysts, they have undermined the Kremlin’s insistence that the “special military operation” in Ukraine is going according to plan.

The drone attacks came after Ukrainian forces succeeded on Aug. 9 in causing explosions that devastated the Saki air base in Crimea, destroying at least eight Russian warplanes.

Crimea, a sun-splashed resort for Russian elites since the 18th century, has been spared fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. It served as the staging ground for Russia’s invasion and has symbolic resonance for President Vladimir V. Putin, who has called it Russia’s “holy land.”

One of Russia’s best-known state television hosts, Vladimir Solovyov, shared a post on the Telegram messaging app describing the attacks in Crimea as “some kind of surrealism.” Other Russians were stunned. “Are we fighting or what are we doing?” a post by a pro-Kremlin military blogger asked.

The military impact of the attacks, however, may be minimal. It has been nearly six weeks since a major city has changed hands in the war. That is when the eastern city of Lysychansk fell to the Russians, giving Moscow control of the Luhansk Province in the Donbas region.

Since then, however, the fighting on both the eastern and southern fronts has settled into something that looks increasingly like a stalemate, with each side pounding the other with artillery and rockets but making scant progress on the ground, military analysts say.

“The last week has seen only minimal changes in territorial control along the front line,” according to an intelligence briefing by Britain’s Ministry of Defenseon Saturday. The analysis concluded that it was “unlikely that the situation will change in the next week. Russian forces are, for now, probably only prepared to undertake limited local assaults, rarely involving more than a company of troops.”

A long promised Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south to retake the city of Kherson also has not materialized, as Ukrainian troops have taken back some territory around the city, but have not pushed the Russians out.

A Ukrainian serviceman near the front line in the Mykolaiv region this month.
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — A Russia-backed mayor in the occupied southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol was nearly hit by an explosion on Saturday as he walked into the city’s zoo, Russian state TV reported.

The mayor was unharmed, the reports said. The episode came amid claims that Ukraine is increasingly deploying secret agents within Russia-held territory to target officials it sees as traitors.

At the same time, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that Russian troops were attacking all along the front line in eastern Ukraine, where its offensive has been met with increasing resistance. A morning update listed dozens of assaults in the past day, and said that Russian forces were pounding Ukrainian positions and civilian areas with warplanes, artillery guns, mortars and rockets.

Russian ground troops were assaulting Pisky, a village near the main airport in Donetsk Province, and Russian warplanes were striking towns nearby, according to Ukrainian officials. Military analysts say that Moscow still aims to capture all of Donetsk, although it has made little progress since seizing the neighboring province of Luhansk in July. The city of Bakhmut remains in Ukrainian hands but is mostly deserted, much of it in ruins.

“They have focused all their efforts on the Bakhmut direction, but they have not achieved any serious victories or advances on the front for almost two months,” said Serhiy Haidai, a Ukrainian regional official in the east.

In southern Ukraine, Russian forces were trying to advance toward Mykolaiv, a key Ukrainian stronghold. The city’s mayor, Oleksandr Sienkevych, warned residents on Sunday morning to seek shelter as loud explosions were reported in the area. The mayor offered no further details.

A satellite image showing the six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Russian-occupied Ukraine on Friday.
Maxar Technologies

BRUSSELS — With anxiety mounting about the dangers to Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant, which is occupied by the invading Russian Army, there finally seems to be some movement to get international inspectors into the facility to verify its safe operation.

In a conversation late Friday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia told his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, that Russia “had reconsidered” its insistence that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency first travel through Russian territory to reach the Zaporizhzhia plant, according to the French presidency.

The Russian presidency was less explicit, stating that “both leaders noted the importance of sending an I.A.E.A. mission to the power plant as soon as possible” and that Russia had “confirmed its readiness to provide the necessary assistance to the agency’s inspectors.”

The two presidents will speak again about such a mission “in the next few days following discussions between the technical teams and before the deployment of the mission,” the French said.

The I.A.E.A. — the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog and monitoring agency — has met with several obstacles in its discussions with Russia and Ukraine to get into the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest, since at least June.

Ukraine objected to the idea that the inspectors would enter through Russian-occupied territory, an option that would seem to underscore Russian control of the plant, which provides at least a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity. The United Nations had significant security concerns about having inspectors travel through the front lines of this bitter war, with so much shelling.

As Russia and Ukraine blame each other for bringing the possibility of nuclear catastrophe to the plant through the artillery war — part of what a senior Western official on Friday called “the information war” — pressure has grown on Moscow to relent about how the inspectors might arrive.

That pressure has also come from Turkey, which has tried to mediate between Russia and Ukraine on the issue, as it did in the recent deal to free grain shipments from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports amid a Russian blockade, and from the United Nations itself.

When António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, visited Ukraine this past week along with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to discuss grain shipments, the U.N. leader also urged quick movement to try to keep the Zaporizhzhia plant safe.

Mr. Guterres warned Russia not to disconnect the facility from the Ukrainian grid, as Kyiv says Russia intends to do, in order to switch the supply into the Russian grid. Such a move could interrupt the vital cooling of the reactors and cut electricity to millions of Ukrainians.

Western officials consider the main danger of a nuclear accident coming less from a shell hitting one of the containment buildings around the six light-water nuclear reactors, which are constructed to withstand a 9/11-like impact of an airliner, than from an interruption in electricity. Should that happen, and should the plant’s generators fail or be damaged, then a meltdown could occur.

The main concern in that respect, a senior Western official said on Friday, would be if the plant suffered a loss of cooling due to the loss of backup electricity, should Russia take it off the Ukrainian grid and should backup generators fail.

There is also worry that a shell could hit one of the ponds that store spent nuclear fuel, but that would have a more minor and localized effect. 

Russia has rejected the plea of Mr. Guterres to demilitarize the area around the plant.

On Friday, the I.A.E.A.’s director general, Rafael M. Grossi, “welcomed recent statements indicating that both Ukraine and Russia supported the I.A.E.A.’s aim to send a mission” to Zaporizhzhia.

The Russian ambassador to the agency has suggested that such a mission could take place in early September. But even if inspectors can verify the safety of the plant at the time, the dangers will inevitably persist as the artillery war continues.

Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, in June. He said that the three people detained were suspected of espionage.
Yves Herman/Reuters

The authorities in Albania arrested two Russian men and a Ukrainian woman suspected of espionage on Saturday after one of the men was found inside a weapons factory, Albania’s Defense Ministry said.

A 24-year-old Russian man sprayed two security officers with a chemical after he was found trying to take photos inside the factory in the city of Gramsh. He was arrested, and the authorities detained another Russian man, 33, and a Ukrainian woman, 25, who were outside the factory in a vehicle. Both are believed to be accompanying the 24-year-old man found in the factory.

Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, wrote on Twitter that the three were suspected of espionage.

Ora News, an Albanian broadcaster, reported that the three had told the police that they were bloggers who liked to document old military bases in former communist countries.

The two guards were sent to a hospital in Tirana, the capital, for specialized treatment and were expected to survive, the ministry said.

The factory in Gramsh has long been used to manufacture assault rifles including the AK-47. It was not immediately clear what equipment the plant, founded 60 years ago, now produces, but the Albanian Defense Ministry said on its website that it provided manufacturing services for the defense industry.“

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