The video footage shows a small drone descending towards the Kremlin in the early hours of Wednesday morning (3 May) and then exploding, rather cinematically, next to the Russian flag on the domed roof of the Senate Palace. The sky is dark, the moon almost full. In the foreground you can see the viewing stands set up in Red Square for the Victory Day parade on 9 May – one of the most important dates in Vladimir Putin’s political calendar. Fifteen minutes later a second drone exploded above the Kremlin.
Russian officials immediately blamed Ukraine, claiming that an attack had been thwarted “by the military and special services with the use of radar warfare” systems. “We regard these actions as a planned terrorist act and an attempt on the president’s life,” said a Kremlin statement. “The Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures where and when it sees fit.”
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who was visiting Finland at the time, denied that his forces were behind the attack. “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow,” Zelensky said. “We fight on our territory. We are defending our villages and cities. We don’t have enough weapons for these.” He warned that the incident could have been staged in preparation for a “large-scale terrorist attack” by Russian forces on Ukraine.
While much is still unknown about the incident, and verifiable evidence is scant, one thing is clear: this was not a serious attempt on Putin’s life. The Russian president has an official residence in the Kremlin, but he does not live there. By all accounts, he prefers to conduct most of his official business from the Novo-Ogaryovo estate outside Moscow, often by video link, or from his other luxurious residences across the country. Whoever was behind the attack, it was surely intended to be symbolic, rather than a serious assassination attempt.
If it was Ukraine, or a pro-Ukrainian group, then the message to Putin and the Kremlin elite was presumably intended to be that Moscow is not safe. They should not get too comfortable, even inside the heavily guarded walls of the Kremlin, whose name means “fortress”, because the war is coming home to Russia. Air defence systems have been installed on the roofs of significant buildings in central Moscow, such as the defence ministry, in recent months. An attack on the Kremlin – the symbolic centre of power in Russia – would demonstrate the vulnerability of the capital’s defences.
The timing is significant too. The memory of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in Russia, has been elevated to the status of a national religion since Putin came to power two decades ago, with the annual Victory Day parade on 9 May its central event. Putin has drawn on a selective and heavily distorted version of the history of that conflict to justify his war against Ukraine to domestic audiences.
At least six Russian regions had already cancelled their Victory Day celebrations this year due to “safety concerns”. If Ukraine, or Ukrainian sympathisers, were able to mount an attack on the Kremlin, in the heart of Moscow, then there must be urgent discussions under way about how to secure next week’s parades through multiple cities, including the military procession through the Russian capital.
There has been a series of mysterious attacks inside Russia in recent days, including an apparent drone strike at an oil depot in the Krasnodar region, close to the Kerch bridge that links Russia to Crimea, as well as the derailment of two freight trains near the border with Ukraine and Belarus. Russian officials must be concerned that Ukraine will decide to launch its much-anticipated counter-offensive on 9 May, and against a wider range of targets than had previously been predicted.
Yet there is no clear evidence so far to show that Kyiv was responsible for the Kremlin incident, and it is also possible that it was staged by Russia as a precursor to further atrocities in Ukraine, including a targeted strike against Zelensky’s compound in the capital. While one may wonder why the Kremlin would bother to go to such efforts given the widespread attacks it has already launched – at least 23 civilians were killed in air strikes in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson on Wednesday – the Russian security forces do have form for staging “false flag” attacks. Proof of an attack on Moscow could help Putin to justify a serious escalation or a further wave of mobilisation to his own citizens, and to retain the support of international backers such as China.
Regardless of who ordered the attack, there is a danger that it could backfire. If it was orchestrated by the Kremlin, then it showcases a shocking breach in Russian security, with two drones apparently making it all the way to the centre of Moscow and one of the nation’s most heavily guarded sites. This does not exactly show a president with a firm grip on the nation’s defences and a competent team beneath him.
Equally, if Ukraine was responsible, then rather than shaking the foundations of Putin’s regime, there is a risk that this galvanises his inner circle, and a proportion of the population too. The spectacular footage of the drones exploding over the Kremlin on the eve of Victory Day could help to convince more Russians that Putin’s lies are true – that Russia is genuinely under attack, and that there is no alternative to continuing the war against Ukraine.
[See also: Is Putin dead?]