Did Ukraine orchestrate the Kremlin drone strike?

If Kyiv isn't behind the humiliating attack, who is?

Russia has accused Ukraine of sending two drones into the heart of Moscow and over the Kremlin walls to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin. Video emerged showing what appears to be a quadcopter drone flying over the dome of the Senate Palace — which also houses the president's office and official residence — and erupting in a ball of fire. One drone exploded at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to The New York Times, which verified the videos. A second drone detonated 15 minutes later.

Kyiv flatly denied any involvement. "We don't attack Putin or Moscow," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on an unannounced visit to Finland. "We fight on our territory. We're defending our villages and cities. We don't have enough weapons for these." 

The Kremlin said nobody was hurt in what it called a thwarted "terrorist attack" by Kyiv, and Putin's spokesman said he was at his heavily fortified compound in the Moscow suburb of Novo-Ogaryovo during the incident. "Russia reserves the right to take retaliatory measures where and when it sees fit," the Kremlin said in an unusual five-paragraph statement. 

Wherever the drones came from and whoever steered them over the heart of Russian power, "it was clear that the Kremlin had made an unusually deliberate choice to publicize the incident," the Times says. One big question is why, especially since "the ability to penetrate central Moscow would represent the latest embarrassing failure by a Russian military that has struggled throughout the 14-month war."

By shining a klieg light on the drone attack, Russian officials mostly highlighted their "lack of air defenses, their vulnerability, weakness, and helplessness," exiled Russian opposition figure Leonid Volkov noted on social media. "That means they found some pluses in this and, evaluating them, decided that the pluses would be able to outweigh the minuses." What happened? Why did Russia choose to draw attention to what otherwise seems a humiliating failure? Here are three theories: 

Ukraine really did attack the Kremlin

Ukraine's government habitually declines to affirm strikes in Russian territory, though it sometimes nods to rocket and drone attacks on military and logistic assets that could hamper Russia's assault. ("Sooner or later the debts will have to be repaid," Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in response to a series of explosions at Russian oil depot, airfields, warehouses, and rail lines over the past week. "Karma is a cruel thing.") And Kyiv is believed to have sent long-distance Soviet-era drones deep into Russian territory to hit airbases

Ukraine would have cause to go after the man who is raining such death and destruction on its country, CNN's Jake Tapper noted — Zelensky slammed Russia on Wednesday for artillery strikes that killed 23 civilians in Kherson — but military analysts were skeptical that Ukraine could fly two drones 300 miles into Russia and into the strongly defended Kremlin without Russia finding and destroying them long beforehand. 

"It is possible that the Ukrainians or some Ukrainian team in Moscow could have used drones," Tom Nichols writes at The Atlantic. "But it is unlikely, because it doesn't make much sense." Ukrainian intelligence is "pretty good at tracking Putin" and "likely knew he wasn't in the building," he adds. "An attack on the Kremlin might be an obvious symbolic move, but a demonstrative strike on an empty building at night would be a waste of already strained Ukrainian intelligence resources."

"It certainly wasn't an attempt to assassinate Putin, because he doesn't sleep in the roof and he probably never sleeps in the Kremlin," Phillips O'Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Associated Press. But Russia might be eager to portray it as such "either to make Ukraine look reckless or to buck up Russian public opinion" before an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive

Russian rebels sent in the drones

The drone attack was by "one of Russian partisan groups," Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker now living in exile, told CNN, adding, "I cannot say more, as they have not yet publicly claimed responsibility." He said he's "aware of the partisan activity in approximately 40 cities across Russia," and drone attacks are a "new line of operation" for the groups, posing a "real threat" to the Kremlin. Podolyak, the Zelensky adviser, also suggested Putin's domestic opponents were behind the drone incursion.

"What Putin is selling to the nation and especially to the elites is the feeling of invulnerability and security," Ponomarev told CNN. "And partisans are ruining both. They are actually saying the war is here and you guys, you personally, are not safe." 

The drones filmed over the Kremlin appear to be low-cost quadcopters that would have to be controlled from nearby, Scott Crino, a drone expert at the U.S. consultancy Red Six Solutions, told The Wall Street Journal. He added that they were likely destroyed by a timed fuse or an explosion triggered by the pilot, not by Russian air defenses. 

It's "unlikely but not impossible" that "the strike on the Kremlin came from Russian dissidents," Nichols writes at The Atlantic, and in that case, "the intelligence services would have every incentive to blame Kyiv, because the only thing worse for them than failing to stop a hit from a Ukrainian commando team would be an assassination attempt by Russians right under their noses." It's also possible "Russian intelligence and military authorities got wind of a plot by some group to strike the Kremlin, and then let it happen as a way to goad Putin into using even more force in Ukraine," he adds. "Russian spooks are not exactly averse to such cold-blooded moves."

"Any way you slice it, whether it was Ukraine or Russian opponents of Putin, the drone attacks on the Kremlin make Putin look extremely bad, and he has few response options that improve his situation," German defense analyst Nico Lange told the Journal.

The Kremlin staged its own false flag attack

The "most disturbing possibility," and the most likely, "is that this is a Russian government put-up job from start to finish," Nichols argues. "Faking a drone attack would fit into the long-standing Russian affinity for 'false flag' operations," which "Moscow has been particularly fond of" since the Soviet era. 

In this case, an attack targeting the Kremlin could allow Putin to rationalize "some kind of dramatic and murderous action that might not make much military sense, but that would destabilize Ukraine and unsettle the world on the eve of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive," Nichols writes. "He might try to drag Belarus into the war, he could make more nuclear threats, or he could even order redoubled efforts to kill Zelensky."

Shortly after the drone explosions over the Kremlin, Russia hit Kyiv and Odesa with a barrage of exploding drones and missiles, including drones with "for Moscow" and "for the Kremlin" written on the wings, CNN reports. "Our city has not experienced such a heavy intensity of attacks since the beginning of this year!" Kyiv's regional military administrator Serhiy Popko wrote on Telegram. He said Ukrainian air defenses shot down all the drones and missiles aimed at Kyiv, while Odesa authorities said 12 of the 15 drones were destroyed. 

"Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization," the Institute for the Study of War think tank assessed. Along with the sheer implausibility Ukraine would get two drones past beefed-up air defense around Moscow "in a way that provided spectacular imagery caught nicely on camera," the Kremlin also responded with an "immediate, coherent, and coordinated response."

"If the drone attack had not been internally staged," it's "very likely that the official Russian response would initially have been much more disorganized as Russian officials scrambled to generate a coherent narrative and offset the rhetorical implications of a clear informational embarrassment," ISW adds. By timing the attack on the heart of Russian power right before the May 9 Victory Day holiday, Moscow can "frame the war as existential to its domestic audience." The Kremlin may also be "planning to conduct other false flag operations and increase disinformation ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to increase domestic support for the war," ISW suggests.

If Kyiv was behind the attack, that's "yet another shocking security lapse by the Russian state," James Nixey at the Chatham House think tank tells AP. But "if it's a false flag operation by Moscow, then it reeks of desperation." 


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