April 2, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:  Pro-war Russian military blogger is assassinated

Institute for the Study of War

April 2, 2023

Maksim Fomin was one of the most significant Russian milbloggers with a Telegram platform of 560,000 followers and deep connections with the Wagner Group, the Kremlin, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and the Russian nationalists who have been dominating the Russian information space since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Fomin’s assassination at a Wagner-affiliated bar in St. Petersburg may reveal further fractures within the Kremlin and its inner circle. Fomin was a vocal critic of the Russian military command and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Fomin’s death marks the first high-profile assassination of an ultranationalist milblogger in Russia since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Unknown actors killed Russian milblogger Maksim Fomin in a deliberate and targeted attack during an event in a St. Petersburg bar reportedly belonging to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on April 2. Social media footage showed Fomin receiving a statue as a gift from a female audience member who introduced herself as a sculptor moments before the explosion. Fomin was making a public presentation at the Street Food Bar #1 Café in downtown St. Petersburg. Russian authorities reported that the explosion killed Fomin and wounded 30 audience members who had gathered to listen to Fomin discuss his experience as a frontline correspondent. The event was advertised as open to the public and had approximately 100 attendees. Prigozhin confirmed that he had offered his Street Food Bar #1 Café to the Russian ultranationalist movement “Kiber Front Z,” to hold Fomin’s event and other nationalist gatherings. Witnesses stated that the woman who presented the statue to Fomin identified herself as Nastya and told the audience that the event’s security asked her if there was a bomb inside the statue during a Q&A session.  Witnesses noted that there was no security when entering the event, however, and that the explosion occurred within three to five minutes after the exchange between Fomin and the woman. Russian Interior Ministry sources told Russian state media that the explosive may have remotely detonated and that the woman or other unknown individuals may have been responsible for this attack. Russian state media published unconfirmed information that Russian police detained St. Peterburg resident Daria Trepova, who had previously been arrested for anti-war protests in February 2022. Russian Interior Ministry sources also revealed that Russian special services had known about assassination plans against Fomin for a long time. 

Russian officials and propagandists have accused Ukraine of staging a “terrorist attack” to assassinate Fomin. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Kyiv of Fomin’s assassination and praised Russian milbloggers for their war coverage—seemingly ignoring the fact that Fomin and other milbloggers routinely criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA). Russian propagandist Tina Kandelaki stated that Russia needs to punish terrorists who still have “power, water, working railways, restaurants, and internet”—likely referring to Ukrainians who survived the Russian missile campaigns against the Ukrainian energy infrastructure during the fall of 2022 and the winter of 2023. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan echoed Kandelaki’s calls for retribution against Ukraine for this assassination. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian agents have likely been attending similar milblogger events, blaming the attack on Ukrainian special forces and the failures of Russian security.

Prigozhin oddly stated on April 2 that he would not “blame the Kyiv regime” for the deaths of Fomin and Russian ultranationalist figure Daria Dugina, suggesting that Ukrainian agents were not in fact responsible. Dugina was assassinated on August 20. Prigozhin noted that a group of radicals unaffiliated with the Ukrainian government may be responsible for such attacks. Advisor to Ukrainian Presidential Office Mykhailo Podolyak stated that Fomin’s death was a result of infighting and political competition among Russian actors.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on April 2:

  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made marginal gains northwest of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued to attack Bakhmut and its environs. Russian forces likely seized the AZOM plant in northern Bakhmut as ISW has previously assessed. Ukrainian forces conducted a missile strike on the plant on April 2.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line. Ukrainian Tavriisk Direction Forces Joint Press Center Spokesperson Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi stated that Russian forces retreated from unspecified positions in the Donetsk direction.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a HIMARS strike against a rail depot in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast, the third strike against the city in the past week.
  • The UK Ministry of Defense assessed that a significant minority of Russia’s 200,000 casualties in Ukraine are due to poor discipline and training outside of combat, including due to excessive alcohol consumption and mishandling of small arms.
  • Former Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) official Rodion Miroshnik denied ISW’s April 1 report citing Miroshnik that Russian authorities are deporting Ukrainian children to Russia under rest-and-rehabilitation schemes. Miroshnik claimed that mothers and children from Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast went to Russian sanitoriums for medical treatment. Miroshnik denied being closely affiliated with the current occupation regime, claiming that he has not served as advisor to the Head of the LNR for a year. LNR People’s Militia Press Service called Miroshnik “advisor to the LNR Head” as recently as January 29, 2023, however. Miroshnik claimed on his Telegram channel that he served as LNR Ambassador to Russia as recently as November 13, 2022.
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