It’s never a good look when your enemy knocks down your door from hundreds of kilometers away. And yesterday that’s exactly what Ukraine did, at least according to the Russian version of events. Russia accused the Kyiv government of attempting to assassinate Vladimir Putin by launching two drones against the Kremlin, an attack Russia claims it thwarted.
As with all Kremlin’s statements, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Since the attack was first reported, several elements have emerged contradicting the Kremlin’s claim that the attack failed. Videos appear to show that drones did hit a building within the Kremlin in the early hours of May 3 — one shows an aerial vehicle exploding on an elevated flagpole of Senatskiy Dvorets, the Kremlin Senate. Yet the incident went unreported until the next day, apart from a small neighborhood group that posted the first video of the incident. The videos match later pictures showing fire damage on the rooftop of the Senatskiy Dvorets. The building was hit twice, with the first drone hitting the Kremlin at around 2:30 am, and the other around 15 minutes later.
The attack may seem unimpressive when looking at the footage of the drone descending towards the Kremlin rooftop, but this would be deceptive. If they were launched from Ukraine, the drones needed to cross hundreds of kilometers, penetrating Russian airspace, and entering what’s supposed to be one of the most secure areas in the world. If the drones were launched from Russia, then Moscow has an internal security problem of dramatic proportions, as it either has Ukrainian running around, or lets Russian opponents make their own drones and fly them into the Kremlin. It is on the same scale, but with more serious implications, than the landing of a light aircraft in Red Square by the German teenage activist Mathias Rust in 1987
While daring, and seemingly impossible, several incidents have highlighted the threat posed by Ukrainian drones to cities like Moscow. On April 23, a drone apparently carrying 17 kilos (37 lbs) of explosives crashed near Moscow and the airspace above Vnukovo International Airport was briefly closed, Russian outlets reported. This was the latest in a series of more or less successful attempts to reach Moscow and its outskirts and comes amid a series of other suspected drone sightings. Earlier this year, Russian Pantsir air defense systems popped up on the rooftop of several key buildings in Moscow, as well as near Putin’s residences.
But was it an assassination attempt, as Moscow claims? This seems preposterous. Drones such as the ones that hit the Kremlin are generally used to strike immobile targets, but rarely specific parts of a specific building. This is particularly the case when crossing hundreds of kilometers and/or having to fight off any electronic countermeasure that may disrupt any type of end-of-flight guidance.
Putin’s quarters in the Kremlin are well protected, and the small charge the drone may have carried (possibly to be able to clear the distance to Moscow) would likely be insufficient to breach them. And of course, such an assassination attempt would have to be based on solid intelligence of the precise whereabouts at a given moment of one of the world’s more security-conscious leaders. The Kremlin claims President Putin was not in the building at the time of the attack. Indeed it is believed that the Russian President has spent most of his time outside of the Kremlin, something Ukrainians would have known.
It’s more likely that, if this was indeed a Ukrainian attack, Kyiv wanted to send a message to the Russian leadership. War is being brought home, and more specifically to the home of those who started it in the first place, in the heart of Moscow.
As for suggestions Putin and his heavily manned security apparatus organized the attack themselves, it would be a strange way to underline the Kremlin’s assertion that Russia is winning the war. Having a drone strike your office would seem to make the case that your enemies are very much alive and kicking. This may also explain why Russian TV failed to show images of the drone slamming the Kremlin, with reviewing stands for the country’s impending, triumphalist May 9 parade visible below.
Perhaps the case for a false-flag attack is aided by the furious response of Kremlin propagandists? Margarita Simonyan, the infamous head of the Russian propaganda outlet RT, suggested the attack could greenlight a step up in Russian attacks, asking “Maybe now it will start for real?” And indeed, in the hours following there were a series of attacks on Ukrainian cities, though these seemed no worse than normal.
How about using the supposed assassination to justify the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine? The problem is that Russian TV and officials have already deployed the rhetoric to use of weapons of mass destruction; this attack would do little to amplify the case.
Drumming up support for a new mobilization with false-flag attacks is certainly in the Kremlin’s playbook. But they rarely take half-measures and tend to go for mass-casualty events, assessing (likely accurately), that Russian draft dodgers won’t rush back to the conscription office just because a flag post was almost destroyed on the Kremlin.
What remains is the humiliating message those two drones sent against the Kremlin and hit their target. Someone, be it Ukrainians or Russian opponents (in my opinion likely the first despite the denials), has been able to bang on Putin’s door and may be able to do so again. When your whole career is based upon the idea of keeping Russia safe and great, having your symbolic center of power hit is a really bad start to your day, and promises more sleepless nights.
Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical and conflict analyst, as well as the head of the analyst team at Le Beck International. As such he and his team advise multiple companies and NGOs operating in Ukraine following Russia’s invasions. Michael’s commentary and analysis can also be found in multiple international and regional outlets, including major publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, NBC, AP, and elsewhere.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.