Did the car-bomb death of Daria Dugina outside Moscow add a new dimension to the Ukraine-Russia war? The presumed target was her father, Russian philosopher and extreme nationalist Alexander Dugin, whose ideas are said to influence President Vladimir Putin. The Russian domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, quickly blamed a Ukrainian operative who had already left the country. Questions remain about who was responsible for the attack. Beyond who is responsible, the importance of the attempted murder of an individual of Dugin’s stature near Moscow could have implications for how the war is conducted.
So far, the war has been a traditional geopolitical confrontation with Russia claiming Ukraine as part of its territory and Ukraine fighting to maintain its independence. The targeted car bomb was an unprecedented act against a specific individual inside Russian territory. During the six-month war, most of the fighting has taken place on the territory of Ukraine. (There has been some shelling of Russian bases in Russian territory.) The fighting has been between armies to control territory and has not targeted specific individuals. Although 14 Russian generals have been killed, there is no evidence that they were targeted.
Russian state television called the incident a “terrorist attack.” That terminology implies an act in violation of existing rules. A dictionary definition of terrorism is “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
Moscow’s use of “terrorism” to define the car-bomb implies that they respect and have respected international humanitarian law. By calling Dugina’s death a “terrorist act,” Moscow places itself above Ukraine, who they claim organized the attack. But what about Russia’s bombing schools, hospitals and civilian targets? The Bucha massacres? Rape and sexual violence? Russian violations of the laws of war are reported to be in the tens of thousands and continue to be investigated. (Violations by Ukrainian troops are also being investigated.)
As the eminent international law professor and author of War, (Oxford University Press) Andrew Clapham pointed out to me, “Russia’s acts are not terrorism, of course. In fact, there is a good case that the Russian attacks are the war crime of terrorising the civilian population. That is defined even if there is no general treaty crime of terrorism.”
The rule in Additional Protocol 1 Article 51 (2) to the Geneva Conventions, to which both Russia and Ukraine are party, prohibits “acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.” (The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted General Stanislav Galić of terrorism as a war crime and crimes against humanity for the acts of violence the primary purpose of which were to spread terror among the civilian population.)
So why does Moscow invoke terrorism in the Dugina case? Individuals close to Putin have been sanctioned financially, but none has been an assassination target that the public knows of. Does Putin fear that those close to him will no longer support him because they are afraid for their lives and those of their families? Internal Kremlin intrigue? A false flag to increase public mobilization in the face of failing public support for the war? A plot by right-wing fanatics who think Putin isn’t fighting hard enough in Ukraine to force Putin to fight harder? As a Russian expert said: “I think everybody in Russia’s political and ideological elite will be looking around a bit nervously as indeed their immediate families.” Or, as the New York Times suggests: “The rare attack on a member of the pro-Kremlin elite could upend President Putin’s efforts to maintain a sense of normalcy.”
What about from the Ukrainian side? Vigorous denunciations have been put forth. “Ukraine, of course, has nothing to do with yesterday’s explosion,” presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak stated. “We are not a criminal state, unlike Russia, and definitely not a terrorist state.”
What will be the repercussions for the attack? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “no mercy” will be shown to those who organized the attack. “I consider it to have been a barbarous crime for which there can be no excuse,” he added. Ukraine President Zelensky warned that Moscow could do something “especially cruel” to avenge the car-bombing.
The car-bombing itself, within Russia, against a civilian, adds a potentially new dimension to how the war is being conducted. First, Russia invaded Ukraine. An attack or any attack against Russia on Russian soil could be considered an act of self-defense. That would be in military terms a form of preventive defense such as attacking weapon depots or troops within Russia about to enter Ukraine.
Could Ukrainian forces enter Russia to blow up power plants, disrupt public services or target pro-Kremlin leaders? Remember the Chechen suicide bombings in January 2011 at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport that killed 35. Or the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis during which 40 armed Chechens held 850 hostages in the theatre. About 170 people died. Would these types of incidents be possible during the current Ukraine crisis? While Ukraine takes the moral high ground about the Dugina bombing, those loyal to Ukraine within Russia might take such action on their own.
The attack against one civilian raises other issues. There is no question that the Russians would assassinate Zelensky if possible. But Dugin is not directly linked to a chain of command. He is an intellectual. If Russia has targeted civilian opposition leaders for assassination, could Ukrainian sympathizers use similar tactics? If the attack has de-stabilized the pro-Russian elite, then it might have political consequences one step further than the sanctions.
Finally, is the attack justified? Ukrainians have presented themselves as respecting international humanitarian law. They would be globally condemned if the organizer of the Dugin attempt had connections to Kiev. But given the egregious violations by Moscow, this particular incident should be put into perspective. It is not on the scale of Russian violations. A sense of proportionality is needed. If Lavrov considers this a “barbarous crime,” what does he think of the tens of thousands of Russian violations? How can the Russians say they will show “no mercy” in the future if they have shown no mercy in the past?
It is hypocritical for the Russians to cry “terrorist attack” about the car-bomb when they continue to violate the most fundamental rules of humanitarian law. Nonetheless, the very fact that they use that language is a form of recognition that rules of laws of war exist. A threshold of violation was passed in the attack on Dugin. If the Russians are so worried about their humanitarian image, and the Ukrainians continue to deny they were responsible, that particular threshold should be held. Targeted killings of civilians within Russia should be off limits. But then again, the Russians need to be reminded that their attacks across Ukraine are massive violations of the accepted rules they are pretending to criticize Ukraine for. More than chutzpah.