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Russia says Ukraine sent drones to kill Putin; Kyiv denies it. What we know.

A “No Drone Zone” sign just off the Kremlin in central Moscow on Wednesday. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

The Kremlin accused Ukraine of trying to assassinate President Vladimir Putin in a drone attack in Moscow — an electrifying claim, quickly denied by Kyiv, that sparked concern and skepticism around the world. Russian officials insist they have the right to retaliate, stoking fears in Ukraine that Russia could use the situation as a pretext for escalating its war.

Here’s what we know so far about Russia’s claim.

What does the Kremlin say happened?

Officials said Wednesday that Russian forces had thwarted an attack by Ukrainian forces on Putin’s residence in the Kremlin, adding that the president was not in the building at the time that two drones supposedly targeted it.

Russia labeled the alleged incident a “terrorist act” and said it had intercepted both drones. Its account could not be independently verified.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov went further, accusing the United States of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt. “We know very well that decisions about such actions, about such terrorist attacks are made not in Kyiv, but in Washington,” Peskov said. “And Kyiv does what it is told.”

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White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby denied the allegations in a television interview Thursday, saying the United States does not encourage Ukraine to attack outside its borders.

“We do not encourage, nor do we enable, them to strike outside Ukraine,” Kirby said of Ukrainian forces Thursday. “There was no involvement by the United States. Whatever this was, it didn’t involve us.”

What has Ukraine said in turn?

President Volodymyr Zelensky vehemently denied responsibility for any attack on Putin or Moscow. “We didn’t attack Putin. We leave it to the tribunal,” Zelensky said Thursday, referring to war crimes charges brought by the International Criminal Court against Putin.

Speaking while on a surprise visit to Finland, Zelensky maintained that his country fights “on our territory” and does “not have enough weapons” to launch attacks on Putin in Moscow.

Other Ukrainian officials warned that Russia’s allegations could be a pretext for its leaders to escalate the war. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said that the Kremlin’s accusations were “predictable” and probably signaled that Russia is preparing a “large-scale” attack.

In the past, Ukraine’s forces have used drones to target areas far from the front lines of war — including in Crimea, which the Kremlin illegally annexed in 2014, and in Russia’s Belgorod border region, according to multiple Ukrainian officials speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters but declining to discuss the type of drones used.

What do social media videos show?

A drone exploded above the Kremlin on May 3. Russia accused Ukraine of attempting to kill President Vladimir Putin, but it could not be independently verified. (Video: Ostorozhno Novosti)

Multiple videos purporting to show the alleged attack spread widely on social media Wednesday.

The Washington Post verified that some of those videos revealed two drones heading for the Kremlin about 2:30 a.m. local time.

The first drone appeared to hit the dome of the Senate, a building within the fortress that houses Putin’s office, causing an eruption of flames. The second drone appeared to explode over the Senate dome. Two people are visible on the roof during the second explosion.

Peskov said Thursday that two metal sheets covering the dome of the Senate fell in the alleged attack. “They will be replaced or have already been replaced,” he said.

What do military experts say about the alleged attack?

There is a strong possibility that officials in Moscow staged the attack with an eye on the likely Russian reaction, an analysis by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggested Wednesday. The chance of two drones avoiding detection and reaching the Kremlin was “extremely unlikely,” it noted.

When asked how drones could bypass Moscow’s advanced air defense systems, Peskov told reporters Thursday that experts were investigating. “This is a subject for in-depth analysis by our specialists,” he said. “They will do their job.”

How has Russia responded so far?

As Moscow’s mayor banned unauthorized drone flights over the city on Wednesday, the Kremlin said Russia “has a right to respond” to the alleged attack.

“Russia reserves the right to respond to an attempted strike on the Kremlin where and when it sees fit,” officials said in a statement. On Thursday, Peskov said Russia was considering a “variety” of measures but did not specify which.

Putin’s demeanor had not changed since the alleged attempt on his life, Peskov said. “He always remains calm and clear in the assessments and commands he gives. Nothing new has happened in this regard,” he said. No changes have been made to Putin’s work schedule, but security is being increased, according to Peskov.

How are drones being used in the war?

Different types of drones have been used by Russia and Ukraine since Putin ordered the invasion in February 2022.

The unmanned aircraft, which can be deadly, give both sides the ability to see and attack each other without getting close.

Hundreds of drones fly over Ukraine each day, among them reconnaissance drones used as surveillance tools and attack drones deployed to strike targets.

Russia has used Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, small devices that are able to elude many air defense systems. The kamikaze drones are designed to strike specific targets with explosives from distances of up to 1,500 miles.

Iran has denied giving Russia drones for the war.

The United States pledged to send Ukraine more than 700 of its own kamikaze drones, called Switchblades, and trained some Ukrainian soldiers on using them.

Natalia Abbakumova, Sammy Westfall, Kostiantyn Khudov, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Miriam Berger and Niha Masih contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.