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The Ukrainian Fingerprints On A Shadowy Assassination Campaign On Russian Soil

Russian investigators work at the damaged St. Petersburg cafe where Maksim Fomin (aka Vladlen Tatarsky) was killed in a blast in April.
Russian investigators work at the damaged St. Petersburg cafe where Maksim Fomin (aka Vladlen Tatarsky) was killed in a blast in April.

An exploding statue in a St. Petersburg cafe. A remotely detonated land mine destroying a car in a village in the Nizhny Novgorod region. A car bombing in a Moscow suburb. A fatal shooting in a bedroom community outside Moscow.

Since not long after the launch of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine has waged a not-so-secret drone-and-sabotage campaign on Russian soil, targeting everything from border-town pipelines, to military airfields, to the Kremlin itself.

Heavily armed fighters widely believed to be coordinating plans and tactics with Ukrainian intelligence have even staged raids into Russian border regions, holding off Russian forces for days and highlighting porous border defenses.

Even the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea increasingly appears to have been the work of Ukrainian operatives.

And then there's the assassination attempts -- a string of audacious bombings and shootings that have taken place not only in occupied Ukrainian territories but on Russian soil. Among those targeted: a nationalist writer and politician, a military blogger, a far-right political philosopher, and, on December 6, a former Ukrainian lawmaker known for his pro-Russian views.

Ukrainian authorities have alternated between coy denials and unrestrained glee in explaining the attacks, if not taking outright responsibility for them.

If nothing else, they highlight the irregular warfare that Kyiv has embraced as it continues to wage a scrappy, underdog fight on the battlefield against a much larger, much more powerful Russian military.

Here's a look at the assassination attempts that have occurred on Russian soil since February 2022, some of which have clear Ukrainian links, others less so.

'Traitors Of Ukraine And Accomplices Of Putin's Regime'

A native of the eastern city of Poltava, Illya Kyva plunged into Ukraine's bare-knuckle politics in 2013, when he ran unsuccessfully for parliament and then joined up with Dmytro Firtash, founder of the nationalist group Right Sector and onetime presidential candidate.

Kyva joined up with a Ukrainian militia that battled pro-Russian fighters in the eastern Donbas region after 2014, and rose to become a top adviser to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. He frequently voiced nationalist sentiments, calling for Russian speakers to be removed entirely from Ukraine.

Illya Kyva in 2020
Illya Kyva in 2020

Later, Kyva joined parliament as a member of a political party with pro-Russian sentiments. More controversially, he called for Ukraine to surrender after Russia launched its invasion; he was kicked out of parliament shortly afterward, and he fled to Russia, where he began appearing on state TV.

Last month, a Lviv court found him guilty of high treason and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.

On the evening of December 6, Kyva was walking in a park in the village of Suponevo, in the suburb of Odintsovo, southwest of Moscow. News reports said he lived in an expensive apartment at a nearby resort. Russian investigators said a person approached Kyva and shot him several times. He died on the spot.

Who Was Illya Kyva? Ukrainian 'Traitor' Gunned Down Near Moscow
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In Kyiv, Ukrainian officials did not publicly claim responsibility, but also made no effort to conceal their satisfaction with his killing.

"The same fate will befall other traitors of Ukraine and accomplices of Putin's regime," Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine's military intelligence, said in televised remarks on December 6. "Justice takes different forms."

Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, meanwhile posted a cryptic note on his Telegram channel, referring to St. Nicholas Day, which was celebrated in Ukraine and elsewhere on December 6: "Nicholas is powerful today," he wrote.

'Radicalization Of The Conservative Camp'

A former dissident and political activist, Aleksandr Dugin is best-known for a strain of right-wing ideology known as neo-Eurasianism. He's been a stalwart backer of the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that erupted in 2014, and a full-throated supporter of the 2022 invasion. The U.S. Treasury Department hit him with financial sanctions in 2015 for his work in Ukraine, including recruiting people to fight with pro-Russian militias.

His daughter, Darya Dugina, was herself a rising star in Russia's nationalist community. A month after the Russian invasion, she also was hit with financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department, which said she was involved in a disinformation media outlet controlled by the late Wagner mercenary founder, Yevgeny Prighozin.

On the evening of August 20, 2022, Dugina left a festival, also held in the suburb of Odintsovo, driving her father's Toyota Land Cruiser on her way to her home in the city. A bomb ripped through the SUV, killing her instantly. Suspicions were that Dugin was in fact the target, not his daughter.

Aleksandr Dugin speaks during a mourning ceremony for his daughter, Darya Dugina, at the Ostankino Television Technical Center in August 2022.
Aleksandr Dugin speaks during a mourning ceremony for his daughter, Darya Dugina, at the Ostankino Television Technical Center in August 2022.

Russia's main intelligence agency quickly pointed the finger at Kyiv, claiming they had uncovered a plot involving a Ukrainian woman it said had surveilled Dugina, rented an apartment in her housing complex, and planted the car bomb before fleeing to Estonia.

At the time, Ukrainian officials blamed the killing on an internal power struggle in Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies, however, believe parts of the Ukrainian government had signed off on the attack, The New York Times reported.

Tatyana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, predicted that the killing would provoke the "radicalization of the conservative camp."

President Vladimir Putin mourned Dugina's death, calling her murder a "vile, cruel crime."

Beware Of Gift Statues

A native of Ukraine, Maksim Fomin had fought in one of the pro-Russian militias that emerged in Ukraine's Donbas following the 2014 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Later, he took on the pen name Vladlen Tatarsky and built a following of hundreds of thousands on Telegram, promoting the Russian invasion but also criticizing how commanders waged the war. He also criticized Putin as being too soft, calling for more missile strikes to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

Attending a Kremlin ceremony in September 2022, after Putin had declared a partial mobilization, Fomin recorded a selfie video saying: "We'll defeat everyone. We'll kill everyone. We'll rob everyone we need to. Everything will be the way we like it."

Vladlen Tatarsky (undated)
Vladlen Tatarsky (undated)

On April 2, 2023, Fomin attended an event held in his honor at the Street Food Bar No.1 cafe in St. Petersburg. He was presented with a bust of himself during the event; as he was speaking, the bust exploded, killing Fomin and wounding 42 people.

Russian law enforcement later arrested a Russian woman for bringing Fomin the box that contained the bust. In a video released by police, the woman was shown admitting that she brought the item but denying knowing that it was a bomb. She was ordered held, pending trial.

Investigators have named a Kyiv-based Russian journalist and activist for recruiting the woman. Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, have denied any involvement, saying it was likely due to an internal feud among hard-line nationalists.

A shadowy group called the National Republican Army, purportedly made up of Russian partisans, claimed responsibility for the killing. Earlier, Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Russian lawmaker who now lives in Ukraine, claimed the group was also behind the killing of Daria Dugina.

'I Don't Agonize Over Anything'

Yevgeny Prilepin first made his name as a journalist in Nizhny Novgorod in the late 1990s, where he also began publishing novels and other works of fiction, under the pen name Zakhar Prilepin. Years later, his books regularly appeared on Russian bestseller lists.

He also joined up with the part-nationalist, part-punk political organization, the National Bolshevik Party, and became involved in dissident activities. In 2010, he wrote an open letter to Putin, telling him to step down as the country's leader.

Four years later, however, after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, he became an avid supporter of Putin, and he fought in Ukraine's Donbas in a local militia.

He later started a series of political organizations, included a party that merged with a bigger national party called A Just Russia in 2021.

Zakhar Prilepin in 2018
Zakhar Prilepin in 2018

On May 6, 2023, Prilepin was traveling in an Audi Q7 from his home in Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow when a bomb, later revealed to be an anti-tank mine, exploded. His bodyguard was killed; Prilepin was wounded and later recovered.

Russian investigators claimed that a Ukrainian man who held a Russian passport was responsible for planting the mine, and remotely detonating it.

The Security Service of Ukraine told Ukrainian media that it could not confirm or deny involvement in the attack or other incidents inside Russia.

In Ukraine Itself

Within Ukraine itself, intelligence agents have targeted many more individuals; some had collaborated with Russian authorities after Russian forces occupied territory, others were well-known public figures or commanders of separatist militias.

Oleh Popov, who served in a local legislature in a Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine, was killed when a bomb detonated in his car in the city of Luhansk on December 6.

In 2018, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a separatist leader who headed the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, died when a bomb exploded at a cafe he was known to frequent.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko in 2015
Aleksandr Zakharchenko in 2015

Arseny Pavlov, another separatist commander known as Motorola, was killed in a bomb blast in an elevator in his apartment block in Donetsk in October 2016.

Suspicion in those killings fell on Ukrainian intelligence, though some observers pointed to infighting and feuding, as rival political groups in the Donbas vied for control of lucrative trade routes or other disputes.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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