Editor's Note: (Peter Rutland is professor of government at Wesleyan University and an expert in politics, contemporary nationalism and the economy in Russia. He is vice president of the Association for Study of Nationalities, which promotes scholarship in ethnicity, ethnic conflict and nationalism in areas that include Russia and Ukraine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.)
(CNN) The shocking assassination of the 29-year-old political commentator Darya Dugina by a car bomb on a highway near Moscow on Aug. 20 has been drawn into the larger narrative of Russia's war with Ukraine, now entering its seventh month.
Russia accuses Ukraine of being behind the attack, raising the specter of retaliatory attacks by Russia. Ukraine denies any involvement.
Dugina was the daughter of Alexander Dugin, an influential nationalist thinker who has many admirers in the global far right. It seems possible that he was the intended target since he reportedly switched cars at the last minute. After the explosion, a friend of Dugina's told the Russian state news agency TASS the following, as reported in a CNN story: "Dasha (Darya) drives another car, but she drove his car today, and Alexander went separately."
Dugina was herself a rising star of the nationalist right, propagating her father's neo-imperialist world view. For example, in September 2021 she published an article citing the work of Nazi jurist Karl Schmitt on the concept of Großraum (Greater realm), defending the idea that a leading power such as Russia should rule over neighboring territories.
Much of the media, including the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, is describing her father as a "Putin ally" -- or even as "Putin's brain," the intellectual architect of Putinism. Others argue that this exaggerates Dugin's influence, pointing out that he has never held an official government position and does not appear to have a direct personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "The two men have never been photographed together," The Guardian reported.
While some nationalists condemn Putin for launching a war against a fellow Slavic people, Dugin is among those nationalists who criticize Putin for not pursuing the war against Ukraine more aggressively. His most recent article -- likely written before the car bombing and published on a nationalist website on Aug. 21, the day after his daughter's death -- calls for regime change in Russia, arguing that the present system cannot survive more than six months.
Dugin complains that ordinary Russians are going about their daily lives "as if nothing was happening," and urged Putin to step up the war in Kyiv against the "Atlanto-Nazi regime," a phrase coined by Dugin to claim Zelensky is a Nazi and a Western puppet. He ridiculed the Kremlin's concerns about managing the Russian presidential election in 2024, suggesting it should be postponed. He concluded ominously: "Let the old regime bury its dead. A new Russian time is coming. Relentlessly."
Dugin has long been a gadfly for Putin. In 2014, Dugin was an enthusiastic supporter of the annexation of Crimea and the pro-Russian uprisings in Ukrainian cities of the Donbas. He advocated the creation of Novorossiia , or New Russia, throughout eastern and southern Ukraine, and said in a video to followers, "I think we should kill, kill, kill [Ukrainians], there can't be any other talk."
Dugin and other Russian nationalists were dismayed when the Kremlin rejected that plan in 2014. Putin refused to openly commit Russian troops to defend the Donbas, and instead pursued a policy of negotiating autonomy for Donbas within a sovereign Ukraine (the Minsk accords). Because of his criticism of Putin, Dugin was fired in July 2014 from his position as a professor at Moscow State University and was largely kept off the main Russian television channels. (Today, he mostly appears only on the Russian Orthodox-nationalist TV channel Tsargrad.)
It was not until Feb. 21, 2022, that Putin changed tack and formally recognized the Donbas "people's republics" as sovereign states independent of Ukraine. Dugin welcomed the invasion of Ukraine, but along with other nationalists he complained that the war was not being pursued aggressively enough.
Hardline nationalists were angry that the Kremlin tried to calm the Russian population, insisting that it was not a "war," just a "special military operation." Putin has not ordered a general mobilization, which would have called up millions of reservists. Instead, the army is relying on contract soldiers, lured by salaries of $4,000 a month. Dugin and his acolytes want total war with Ukraine and with the West.
As the war drags on, with no sign of a clear victory for Russia, Putin must be concerned about preserving political stability in the face of mounting economic problems. Arrests of street protestors and strict media controls have kept public dissent to a minimum. But in social media, such as Telegram, and on some web pages, hardline nationalists are allowed to vent their anger with the Kremlin. Presumably Putin resists shutting down these voices for fear that it might trigger open resistance, or perhaps because they have supporters within the armed forces.
On Monday the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, announced that they had found the culprit who had allegedly planted the bomb: a 43-year-old Ukrainian woman, Natalya Vovk, who after the killing fled to Estonia with her young daughter in a Mini Cooper. This was a suspiciously speedy piece of detective work by the Russian authorities, as previous investigations of assassinations took months, often without resolution. The story of this alleged culprit has been denied by Ukraine.
The possibility that Dugin was targeted by someone within the security agencies, to rid Putin of this troublesome critic, cannot be ruled out. Russia has a long and unsavory history of the assassination of political opponents at home and abroad. Some of these killings were carried out directly by agents of the security services, the FSB and GRU (military intelligence); others were committed by hired assassins.
We may never know who actually killed Ms. Dugina. But in a war which has already cost tens of thousands of lives, this may turn out to be the first time that the war has been brought home to Moscow.