Wars, once they start, have a way of taking on their own momentum. After the abject failure of Vladimir Putin’s initial plan for a Ukrainian blitzkrieg, Russia’s armies have gotten bogged down in the country’s east and south. As the autumn approaches and Ukraine continues pounding their positions with American-provided HIMARS rockets, the Russian military has lost whatever momentum it had managed to gain this summer.
But despite the war’s now truncated aims, Putin now has to contend with the so-called party of war, the hardliners who think that he is being too moderate in his prosecution of the holy war in Ukraine. It’s hard for people in the West to imagine Putin as a moderating force, but he appears nearly docile compared to the hawks that his invasion unleashed. There is a sense among these hardliners that Russia’s war in Ukraine is some kind of handcuffed effort, restrained and polite. There is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, who has long been publicly pleading with the Russian president to let him “finish the job” and whose fighters have appeared in Ukraine sporting “to Kyiv” patches. There are people like RT chief Margarita Simonyan, who bragged at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum earlier this summer that Russia could easily subdue the world through famine (this was before the U.N. helped broker a deal for the safe passage of Ukrainian grain)—or nukes.
And then there were people like Darya Dugina, one of the many talking heads on Russian state television, who stand around in a circle and try to outdo each other with ever more genocidal rhetoric. Darya always came dressed in severe, matronly garb that clashed with her young, fresh face and pug nose. But when she opened her mouth, the words matched the church-lady clothing. She spoke of sobornost’—the spiritual wholeness of a people—and also about how Ukrainian soldiers were subhumans with whom the Russian army needed to be “less forgiving.”
Outside of Russia, few knew about Darya, who went by the pseudonym of Darya Platonova, after Plato, her favorite philosopher. She burst into the national—and international—consciousness last Saturday night when the car she was in exploded just outside of Moscow, killing her instantly. It was her more famous father, Alexander Dugin, who had been the intended target. As the Land Cruiser burned, Dugin stood in the darkness, his face illuminated by the flames, his hands raised to his brow in disbelief and sorrow.
Russia’s Occam’s Razor
Dugin is the bearded imperialist ideologue who created the notion of russkii mir, or “Russian world,” the pan-Slavic universe or nationalist ethnostate that would span Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine (“little Russia”). It is the very vision that Putin began to implement on February 24. The car fire hadn’t been extinguished before the speculation began: who could’ve come for Dugin? The Ukrainians? The F.S.B.? And, more importantly, why?
The Ukrainians denied the involvement immediately and repeatedly, but that didn’t stop the F.S.B. from apparently cracking the case with eyebrow-raising speed. For years, it had failed to find who had ordered the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov or journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but in just two days, it had cracked the case of who killed Dasha Dugina. It was, they said, a Ukrainian woman named Natalia Vovk, who entered Russia from Ukraine with her 12-year-old daughter, a petite dog, and a Mini Cooper, planted the bomb that killed Dugina, and left, crossing into Estonia. (This, of course, prompted hardliners like Simonyan to start threatening Estonia.)
Within another two days, RT ran a highly suspect interview with two people claiming to be Vovk’s parents, who alleged that Vovk has served in the Ukrainian military, including in the Azov battalion, which the Russian media is obsessed with because it seems to be their only thing that could remotely prove that Ukraine is run by Nazis. (My favorite detail about Vovk is that, like so many women in that part of the world, she has lips so full of filler that they look like two mountain bike tires, big enough to register on doorbell footage.)
Adding another wrinkle: Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian MP and scion of a Soviet political dynasty, suddenly popped into the frame. He had fled Moscow seven years ago after taking some votes the Kremlin didn’t like, including against the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He dabbled in playing Silicon Valley investor but ended up in Ukraine, where he is claiming that it was actually his organization, a group of Russian insurgents in Russia called the National Republican Army, that blew up Dugina. The problem is that nobody has ever heard of the, uh, N.R.A. and there wasn’t a trace of them anywhere until he spoke their name into being.
Still another possibility is that this was an inside job done by the F.S.B. I am not normally a false flag kind of girl, but Russia is a false flag kind of place and Putin is a false flag kind of guy. After all, it’s partly how he consolidated power. During one September morning, back 1999, apartment buildings all over Russia began to explode in the early morning hours, killing hundreds of Russians as they slept. Putin, then the prime minister who had just served as the head of the F.S.B., immediately blamed the Chechens in the south and used it justify escalating a war that would introduce him to the Russian people, turning him in their eyes from a gray-faced functionary into a strong and decisive leader, a president.
Soon, curious evidence began to emerge that linked the F.S.B. to the bombings, like F.S.B. agents carrying sacks of sugar into the basement of another residential building—but the sacks turned out to be full of explosives. It has never been proven definitively but it is a theory that has been embraced by serious journalists and scholars of Russia, alike. Because let’s just say that it is not exactly out of character for Putin to sacrifice his own citizens on the altar of his own ambition.
It has not even been a week since Dugina was killed, and it is too early to say which of those theories is the one that corresponds to reality. Occam’s razor melts and warps once it crosses the Russian broder, even in the best of times. It is positively incinerated in times of war and brutal censorship. It will be a long time yet before we know what really happened and who was behind Dugina’s murder.
Avenging Joan of Arc
Unsurprisingly, the answer provided by the F.S.B. was enough for the party of war: The Ukrainians killed Dasha and she must be avenged. In the days since, her father has called her death a sacrifice or offering, while others referred to her as Russia’s Joan of Arc. Her funeral, which was strangely held at the main studios of Russian state TV and was covered by its channels breathlessly, showed her transformation into a strange, fascistic symbol of the sullied virgin, the symbol of the insulted nation, who must be avenged by its male warriors. In his eulogy, Dugin said that his daughter’s first words as a baby were “Russia” and “empire,” and that she had died for the Russian people—the Volk. She had called for total victory over the Ukrainians in her life and so the Russian army must provide it to her in death.
The problem, however, is that, despite all the escalatory rhetoric in Russia in the days after Dugina’s murder, there seems to be little that the Russian army can do to match those words with action on the ground. In other words, as much as Dugina fretted that the Russian army was fighting with one hand tied behind its back, it isn’t. “The Russian military right now has lost momentum and may be nearing a point of relative exhaustion,” said prominent military analyst Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses. “It is still capable of incremental advances in the Donbas and has redeployed forces to defend against a counter-offensive in the south. That said, Russia doesn’t have additional capabilities to throw into the war. It’s very difficult to see what they can do beyond what they’re doing now with what they have available. Whipping up national fervor does the Kremlin no good.”
Moreover, Kofman continued, after the initial plan of taking Ukraine in three days collapsed spectacularly, the Kremlin has been quite focused on keeping the war limited in scope, especially in the minds of its people. It has been important to keep the economy steady and life as normal as possible, which means avoiding a national draft. That means implementing a shadow draft and using tricks like having private mercenary companies, like Wagner Group, to recruit in jails.
There is a psychological factor as well. “The regime has been keen to keep this a ‘special military operation,’ rather than to frame it as a war,” Kofman explained. “It’s clear why. A special operation can be begun and ended, but wars are won or lost. And no matter what you may try to tell your own people, the public has a basic intuition about whether a war is being won or lost.”
Putin, in other words, has been trying to pull off a very delicate balancing act: waging a war of imperialist conquest while trying to control very carefully the extent to which society is actively engaged in the war effort. Dugina’s fiery death certainly complicates that effort.