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Who benefits from the murder of Vladlen Tatarsky?

April 6, 2023 at 2:37 pm

A portrait of Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, whose real name is Maxim Fomin, who was killed in the April 2 bomb blast in a cafe, is seen among flowers at a makeshift memorial by the explosion site in Saint Petersburg, Russia on 3 April 2023 [Maksim Konstantinov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

The recent murder of Maxim Fomin, a popular pro-war blogger known as ‘Vladlen Tatarsky’, has once again cast a shadow of uncertainty over Russia’s domestic politics. Fomin’s assassination resembles the attack on Darya Dugina, another influential figure who supported the war in Ukraine and held great sway over the youth in Russia. Both were assassinated: Dugina was killed in Moscow and Fomin in St. Petersburg.

Fomin’s rise to popularity began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In February 2022 his Telegram channel had only around 30,000 followers. Fast forward a year, and his followers swelled to over 560,000 last week. In the early phase of the Ukraine war, Fomin made this disturbing comment: “We will triumph over everyone, kill everyone we want.”

Ultimately, whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword, and Fomin met a gruesome end on Sunday when he received a figurine containing TNT. The latter exploded during his speech in front of the “Cyber Z Front” organisation in a bar in the heart of St. Petersburg. The bomb injured over 30 attendees.

The attack was shrouded in mystery. Initially, it was claimed that a natural gas leak caused the explosion, but it was later revealed that the victim was a well-known blogger. Soon afterwards, rumours circulated that a 40-year-old Ukrainian woman was behind the attack, leading to speculations that the Ukrainian Secret Service orchestrated it.

Russian Police later announced that the perpetrator was a 26-year-old Russian citizen named Darya Trepova. She has been arrested in connection with the attack. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation stated that Trepova was a dissident who worked for the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which supports the opposition’s Alexei Navalny. Trepova was reportedly arrested during an anti-war demonstration last year.

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According to the preliminary investigation, Trepova had been in contact with Ukrainian activists on Telegram. These individuals allegedly offered her a job as an editor in Ukraine but asked her to demonstrate her ability to “fight Russian propaganda” first. Trepova received a statuette from a cab, which she believed contained a bugging device. Later, she went to a cafe where an explosion occurred. The footage traced activities before the explosion, showing Trepova presenting the statuette and sitting near Fomin. In a post-explosion video, Trepova is seen leaving the cafe with the other injured individuals, seemingly unsure of what to do next.

While the Russian Security Units have openly accused the Ukrainian Secret Service of being behind the attack, they have also emphasised that Trepova supports Russian opposition figure Navalny. For some observers, this could be a tactic that boosts Russia’s attempts to legitimise the war in Ukraine while fanning the flames of hostility towards Ukraine and Navalny supporters among the Russian public. Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, described the attack as an act of terrorism rather than murder.

This situation could bring bad news for Navalny. The latter’s upcoming trial on “extremism” charges could result in an increased sentence on terrorism charges. Three days after the incident,  Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, shared a message in which he blamed Navalny, the Anti-Corruption Foundation and other domestic opposition groups, implying that they were responsible for the attack and claiming that opposition members had turned into terrorists and murderers.

Although Russian government officials repeatedly said that the Ukrainian government was behind the attack and the opposition was complicit, Prigozhin, the leader of the private military company Wagner, stated that the Ukrainian government was not behind the attack, pointing the finger to a “radical group”.

It should be noted that Prigozhin’s channel acknowledges Fomin as a Wagner member, claiming he received the same financial benefits as other Wagner fighters. The deceased, who expressed ultra-nationalist views and had been critical of the Russian Ministry of Defence until recently, was a vociferous supporter of Wagner in his personal Telegram group.

Subsequently, Prigozhin made a statement in the cafe where the explosion occurred. He seized the opportunity to politically attack high-ranking state officials, including the governor, who failed to pay their respects at the site of the blast, saying that Fomin was a person who served his nation and helped societal mobilisation in favour of the war in Ukraine.

The attack targeted the ‘Street Food Bar No:1’ in St. Petersburg (also known as the ‘Patriot Bar’), which is owned by Prigozhin, a pro-Putin businessman. Fomin and Prigozhin voiced similar criticism of the Defence Ministry after the failure of the Battle of Kherson in southern Ukraine. Fomin compared the regular military units, which suffered massive losses, and Wagner’s mercenaries, who turned the tide of the battle.

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When Sergey Surovikin was appointed the chief commander of the Russian troops in Ukraine, Prigozhin called him “the ablest commander in the Russian army”. However, this development, which further popularised Wagner’s chief, did not last long. Putin appointed Valery Gerasimov to command Ukraine to prevent the downfall of the Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu/Gerasimov axis. The bombing coincided with Prigozhin’s announcement that Wagner had occupied Bakhmut, the small town that resisted the Russian assault for many months.

The real mastermind behind the attack is still unknown. However, speculations abound as to who benefits from this terrorist attack. Fomin was not someone particularly important for Ukraine. In fact, he was not a key figure for either side. Therefore, maybe his assassination is more of a message. If so, the post-attack political developments should be closely monitored.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.