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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Russia accuses dissidents and Ukraine of killing pro-war blogger

A memorial for the Russian blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a bomb blast, in St. Petersburg on Monday.

By Anaton Troianovski, Anatoly Kurmanaev and Ivan Nechepurenko

Russian authorities earlier this week detained a suspect in the bombing that killed a popular pro-war blogger in the center of St. Petersburg, and blamed Ukraine and Russian opposition activists for the attack, signaling that the Kremlin could use the explosion to escalate its harsh crackdown against what remains of anti-war activism in Russia.

Police claimed that the suspect, a 26-year-old Russian woman named Daria Trepova, had “opposition views” and had coordinated with Ukraine to deliver explosives hidden in a statuette to the blogger, known as Vladlen Tatarsky, 40, who was speaking at a pro-war gathering at a cafe in Russia’s second-largest city.

Russia’s Antiterrorism Committee also issued a statement claiming, without providing evidence, that the bombing had been planned by Ukrainian intelligence agencies, along with “agents” connected to the movement of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader. Investigators also said that Trepova was a supporter of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

But an exiled leader of Navalny’s movement, Ivan Zhdanov, described the allegations against his group as outrageous — a pretext to extend Navalny’s prison term even further.

“They don’t just need an absolute external enemy in the form of Ukraine,” Zhdanov wrote on social media, “but also an internal enemy in the form of the Navalny team.”

The bomb exploded Sunday while Tatarsky was giving a talk on his trips to the front line in Ukraine at a venue called Street Food Bar #1 Cafe. At least 25 other people were injured, with 19 hospitalized. Videos posted on social media showed Tatarsky receiving a bust in his likeness onstage shortly before the explosion.

“What a beautiful guy, is that me?” Tatarsky asked the audience before the explosion, according to the footage.

After Trepova’s arrest, Russia’s Interior Ministry posted a short video showing a woman telling interrogators that she had given Tatarsky the statue after receiving it from another person she declined to name. A man identified as Trepova’s husband by Russian news outlets said she had been set up.

Peers of the slain blogger immediately called for retribution for the bombing. And Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson President Vladimir Putin, said, “Ukrainian intelligence agencies may have had something to do with the planning of this terrorist attack.”

Russia’s unsubstantiated accusations that an anti-war activist had carried out an assault deep within the country came as Putin struggles to gain ground in Ukraine in a war he casts as an existential battle. Some analysts predicted the Kremlin could capitalize on the bombing to further ostracize domestic opponents of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of Putin himself.

“All participants in anti-war actions will now automatically become potential terrorists in the eyes of not just law enforcement, but also the ‘patriotic’ public,” Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

The explosion was the most brazen attack on a prominent war supporter inside Russia since the car bombing in August that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of an ultranationalist ideologue, Alexander Dugin. American intelligence officials later described it as the work of parts of the Ukrainian government, which denied it. Ukrainian officials have dismissed any suggestion that their government was involved in the new bombing.

The explosion Sunday occurred amid escalating drone assaults on Russian territory, along with shelling and deadly raids on regions bordering Ukraine. The violence has begun to expose residents of major Russian cities to fallout from a war that the Kremlin has sought to portray as a distant “special military operation.”

With Ukraine expected to launch a spring counteroffensive, the bombing added to the rising tension in Russia. A week before, Putin had said he would be able to position nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus by the summer, escalating his threats to use his arsenal.

On Thursday, Russia arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, based on what are widely viewed as bogus espionage accusations, the first time since the Cold War that Moscow has taken such a step. And on Friday, Putin released a new foreign policy doctrine that accused the West of waging “a hybrid war of a new kind” against Russia.

The cafe where the bomb exploded is owned by the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who said in a Telegram post that he had allowed the venue to be used by a nationalist activist group that organized the event.

Prigozhin said, however, that he did not believe the Ukrainian government was behind the attack against Tatarsky, saying, “This is an act of a group of radicals that is unlikely to have connection to the government.”

Prigozhin said in a statement Monday that he would posthumously induct Tatarsky into Wagner and give his family compensation for his death, “if his loved ones agree.”

Putin also issued a decree Monday bestowing a governmental Order of Courage on Tatarsky for what he called “courage and bravery shown in the fulfillment of his professional duty.”

A friend of Trepova’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said that she did not believe that Trepova would knowingly participate in a plot to kill Tatarsky. The young woman did, indeed, support Navalny, the friend said, but added that she would not describe her as a committed activist.

Trepova, a native of St. Petersburg who recently moved to Moscow, had attended Navalny’s rallies, according to her friend, and online records show that she had signed up to receive information about candidates through an electoral initiative run by the opposition leader.

Court records show that a woman with the same name and birthdate received a 10-day jail term last year for participating in a protest on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Russian tabloid, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, reported that Trepova was married to a member of the Russian Libertarian Party, which opposes Putin.

The man identified as her husband, Dmitry Rylov, told a Russian libertarian news outlet that Trepova had not known what was inside the statue. Rylov could not be immediately reached for comment. The Russian news reports could not be independently verified.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, had suggested that the attack was a sign of internal fractures in Russian society. Zelenskyy also said Monday, “It is Russia that should think about” what happened in St. Petersburg.

The Ukrainian leader is expected to travel to Poland on Wednesday for an official state visit, the office of Poland’s president announced on Monday. The trip, Zelenskyy’s third outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion last year, comes as Poland made good on its promise to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine.

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