Last weekend, Russians were shocked by a car bomb that instantly killed the daughter of one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, the ultra-nationalist political theorist Aleksandr Dugin. Images showed Daria Dugina’s Toyota Land Cruiser blazing in the dark, as her father — also known as Putin’s brain — stood just feet away in shock, grabbing his head with his hands.
Dugina’s death outside Moscow follows another bizarre event just one week earlier in Washington, DC. A Soviet-born Putin critic living in exile in the United States “jumped” to his death from his high-rise apartment building in an upscale neighborhood of the capital. The jumper was Dan Rapoport, a businessman who had strongly criticized Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Both deaths sound like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. But the world of Russian espionage is even more bizarre than fiction.
While the DC police didn’t deem Rapoport’s death suspicious, it is right out of Putin’s playbook. Russia has been behind scores of targeted assassinations since the Soviet era. Shots in the back of the head, poisonings, forced suicides and other intricate forms of violent death are all part of the doctrine known as “wet affairs” — or the spilling of blood.
It is entirely too early to conclusively say who is responsible for the death of Dugina, a Kremlin propagandist. While the FSB, Russia’s spy agency, blamed Ukraine for the attack, Ukraine said Russia’s anti-war resistance force was responsible. But some think that Putin and his henchmen could have been behind the hit, arguing that martyring the only child of a great ally offers an excellent pretext for escalating even harsher attacks against Ukraine, with the war at a stalemate six months in.
While it’s extremely unlikely that Putin would kill the child of a Mother-Russia nationalist compatriot, striking at the heart of the very ideology that underpins his war on Ukraine, he has used unthinkable tactics on his own people before. Many believe he ordered FSB officials to bomb apartment buildings in Moscow, killing between 200 and 300 residents in 1999, in order to blame Chechen terrorists for the attacks and give Russia a reason to unleash war on Chechnya. Putin’s popularity as prime minister rose as a result, helping him win the Russian presidency in March 2000.
These dirty deeds — or “special tasks” — are carried out by Russian military intelligence operatives and include killings, kidnappings, poisonings, “forced suicides,” and other acts of intimidation and murder. Throwing a victim out of a window or making the victim jump is a very common tactic, along with staging car explosions and other tragic accidents.
The forces behind these “special tasks” are highly trained to leave no trace of foul play. According to a 1993 CIA document, even “in cases where the Soviet hand is obvious, investigation often produces only fragmentary information, due to the KGB ability to camouflage its trail.”
In 2002, Putin, a former KGB operative, started ratcheting up the practice of “wet affairs” and “special tasks” by approving a federal law, “On Countering Extreme Activity.” The law authorizes targeted assassinations for “extremist activity,” which includes “crimes” such as “diminishing national dignity” and “publicly expressing slander or false accusation of persons who hold Russian government positions.”
Many Russian journalists and political opponents have fallen afoul of this law. After journalist Anna Politkovskaya reported on the atrocities committed by her country’s forces during the Second Chechen War (1999–2009), she was shot and killed in her apartment elevator on Putin’s birthday in October 2006. Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and ardent Putin critic, was shot on a bridge near the Kremlin in February 2015.
Then there’s Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB intelligence officer who defected to England and did contract work for British intelligence. In 2006, Litvinenko was murdered by two Russian GRU operatives who met with him in a luxury London hotel and served him a cup of tea laced with the radioactive agent polonium.
A handful of unconfirmed cases have even happened to people on US soil.
In November 2015, Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian media executive and Putin advisor, was found dead in an upscale Washington, DC, hotel. Lesin’s death happened a day before he was due to be interviewed by the Justice Department about the Kremlin-funded media company, RT, which he had founded. In October 2016, his death was deemed “accidental” by the US Attorney’s Office for Washington and the Metropolitan Police Department. But an official at the Chief Medical Examiner’s office revealed that Lesin’s neck bone was fractured in a way that is “commonly associated with hanging or manual strangulation.”
In US intelligence circles, it is believed that Lesin was a victim of a Russian hit job.
In March 2007, another Kremlin critic, former CIA officer Paul Joyal, survived a brutal attack near his home in Maryland. Joyal was shot in the groin four days after he implied during a Dateline NBC broadcast that Putin and the Kremlin were behind the killing of Litvinenko. Although the FBI initially investigated the attack, they dropped the case and the criminals have never been found. Joyal believes he was the victim of another Russian hit job.
It is doubtful that DC law enforcement will devote the necessary time and resources to investigate this month’s “suicide” of Rapoport either. It took British investigators more than 10 years to conclude that Russian intelligence operatives were responsible for the murder of Litvinenko on UK soil.
And it could be true that some of Putin’s critics have intentionally jumped off high rises to their deaths. But usually they have helpers.
Rebekah Koffler is the president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting, a former DIA intelligence officer, and the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.”