A brazen car bombing in a Moscow suburb that killed the daughter of a Russian ultranationalist who helped lay the ideological foundation for President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has injected new uncertainty into the six-month war and rattled Russia’s elite.
The Russian authorities said on Sunday that they had begun a murder investigation into the killing of Daria Dugina, 29, a hawkish political commentator who was the daughter of the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, long a leading proponent of an imperialist Russia who has been urging the Kremlin to escalate its assault on Ukraine.
Russian state television described the car bombing, which occurred on Saturday evening on a highway and shattered the windows of nearby houses in an affluent Moscow suburb, as a “terrorist act” and said the intended target had been Mr. Dugin. It ended up killing his daughter instead because he had taken a different car at the last minute, according to Russian news reports.
There was no evidence that the attack was connected to the war in Ukraine, but associates of Ms. Dugina quickly claimed that Ukraine was behind it. The Kremlin was silent. An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said his country had played no role in the bombing.
“Ukraine certainly had nothing to do with yesterday’s explosion,” Mykhailo Podolyak, the adviser, said in televised comments on Sunday morning. “We are not a criminal state like the Russian Federation, much less a terrorist one.”
Still, the rare attack on a member of the pro-Kremlin elite — reminiscent of the fiery assassinations of Moscow’s chaotic 1990s — has the potential to further upend Mr. Putin’s efforts to pursue the war in Ukraine while maintaining a sense of normalcy at home.
It comes in the wake of a number of Ukrainian attacks deep behind the front line in the Russian-controlled peninsula of Crimea, and as many of the war’s most ardent cheerleaders have been calling on Mr. Putin to launch a new assault on Ukraine in retaliation.
Ms. Dugina was not well known in Russia beyond ultranationalist and imperialist circles. But the calls for escalation grew louder on Sunday after her death, with some suggesting that the attack showed that the Kremlin might be underestimating the strength of the enemy.
“The enemy is at the gates,” Akim Apachev, a Russian nationalist musician, wrote on social media. “Rest in peace, Daria. You will be avenged!”
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Mr. Apachev posted a photo of himself with Mr. Dugin and Ms. Dugina, who was wearing a military camouflage jacket tied around her waist. They met on Saturday at a nationalist festival outside Moscow before Ms. Dugina drove away alone in a Toyota Land Cruiser and, according to Russian investigators, died at the scene after a bomb planted underneath the driver’s side of the vehicle exploded.
In the absence of hard information about the perpetrators, speculation flourished.
Some Russian critics of the Kremlin posited, without evidence, that the attack could have been carried out by proponents of the war to galvanize support for a redoubled military campaign. Others wondered if it might have been intended to silence those like Mr. Dugin, who want Mr. Putin to escalate. Russia has made only plodding gains on the front line in eastern Ukraine even as Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, showed defiance this weekend by rolling captured and destroyed Russian military equipment onto its central square.
The attack on Ms. Dugina put a spotlight on those ultranationalist Russians, increasingly visible both on social media and on state television, who say that Mr. Putin is still being too soft on Ukraine. While Mr. Putin said last Monday that Russia’s forces were advancing “step by step,” some popular hawkish commentators want him to move faster and more aggressively by striking government buildings in central Kyiv, for instance, or by declaring a broad military draft.
“This happened in the capital of our Motherland,” a pro-Kremlin television host, Tigran Keosayan, wrote on social media about the killing of Ms. Dugina. Referring to the location of the Ukrainian president’s office, he said, “I don’t understand why there are any buildings still standing on Bankova Street in Kyiv.”
The Russian military has threatened to strike “decision-making centers” in Ukraine to retaliate for attacks on what it considers Russian soil, but it has not made good on those threats. The calls for vengeance on Sunday underscored how the most fervent supporters of the invasion of Ukraine could become inconvenient allies for the Kremlin, especially if the Russian leader chooses not to escalate the war.
“For the Kremlin, any ideologized people can be both useful and dangerous,” said Marat Guelman, a Russian political expert who advised the Kremlin in the early years of Mr. Putin’s rule and is now based in Montenegro. “Right now, they are useful. But soon, they will become dangerous.”
Mr. Dugin has often been described as “Putin’s brain,” although the relationship between the two men is opaque and, some analysts say, overstated. But Mr. Dugin has long been one of the most visible proponents of the idea of an imperial Russia at the helm of a “Eurasian” civilization locked in an existential conflict in the West. The ultranationalist fringe he once occupied has in recent years moved closer to Russia’s political mainstream.
Mr. Putin echoed his philosophy when he declared the start of his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Russia, Mr. Putin said then, is fighting an American-led “empire of lies.”
Writing on social media before the attack on Saturday, Mr. Dugin said Russia could not win the war unless it put all of society on a war footing. Russia has “challenged the West as a civilization,” he wrote in the post. “This means that we must also go to the end.”
Ms. Dugina followed in her father’s footsteps. Appearing on television, radio and a raft of websites, she worked as a commentator who combined imperialist views with jargon-laden political philosophy. She also played a role in building ties between Russia and Europe’s far right.
On Thursday, two days before her death, Ms. Dugina argued on a state television talk show that “the Western man lives in a dream — a dream that he got from his global hegemony.”
On Friday, she delivered a lecture on “mental maps and their role in network-centric warfare,” describing atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, as staged.
And on Saturday, in an interview with a Russian broadcaster hours before her death, she cited the theories of Samuel Huntington and other scholars to describe the war in Ukraine as an inevitable clash of civilizations.
“This is liberal totalitarianism, this is liberal fascism, this is Western totalitarianism,” she said, describing what Russia, in her view, was fighting against.
Last month, the British government imposed sanctions on Ms. Dugina, citing her as a “frequent and high-profile contributor of disinformation in relation to Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on various online platforms.” The United States imposed sanctions on her in March, describing her as the chief editor of an English-language disinformation website owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.”
She was an author of a forthcoming book on the war in Ukraine titled “The Z Book,” after one of the identifying markings painted on Russia’s invading tanks. In June, she traveled to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol after Russian forces captured it in a brutal campaign. She told a state-run Russian radio station that the Azovstal steel plant, where the city’s defenders had made their last stand, was filled with “Satanist” “black energy.”
While assassination attempts against Kremlin critics have been common — among them the poisoning of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in 2020 — high-profile supporters of Mr. Putin are rarely targeted. The attack was particularly brazen because the blast occurred close to the glittering suburb of Rublyovka, home to the sprawling villas of Russia’s ruling class.
“Rublyovka is shivering,” a pro-Kremlin political analyst, Sergei Markov, wrote on the Telegram social network. “This act of terror is a message for them: Be afraid, you could be next.”
Reporting was contributed by Austin Ramzy, Jeffrey Gettleman, Alina Lobzina, Ivan Nechepurenko, Milana Mazaeva and Marc Santora.