RIGA, Latvia — Russia on Wednesday accused Ukraine of staging a drone attack intended to kill President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, an incendiary allegation that was forcefully denied by Ukrainian officials, some of whom warned it could be a pretext for Russia to escalate its war.
Among the mysteries surrounding Wednesday’s alleged attack was how two drones could have successfully reached one of the most protected buildings in Moscow’s fortified city center. While some analysts said the incident might have been a false flag attack staged by Russia, others suggested it could be a performative gesture by Ukraine, striking at a preeminent symbol of Russian state power.
The allegation of an assassination attempt — which could not be independently confirmed and was broadly rejected by military experts — was made in a statement shared by the Kremlin press service with Russian state news agencies on Wednesday afternoon.
In the overnight hours early Wednesday, “the Kyiv regime attempted a drone strike on the Kremlin residence of the President of the Russian Federation,” the statement said. “Two drones were aimed at the Kremlin.”
“We regard these actions as a planned terrorist act and an attempt on the life of the president of the Russian Federation, carried out on the eve of Victory Day, the May 9 parade,” the Kremlin said, referring to the annual commemoration of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.
“Russia reserves the right to respond to an attempted strike on the Kremlin where and when it sees fit,” the statement said.
Videos circulating on social media and verified by The Washington Post show two drones streaking toward the Kremlin at about 2:30 a.m. local time. The first drone appears to hit the dome of the Kremlin Senate, a building within the fortress that houses Putin’s office, causing an eruption of flames; the second drone appears to explode over the Senate dome. Two people are visible on the roof during the second explosion.
A drone appears to fly parallel to Red Square from the southeast. One drone appears to have struck the dome of the Kremlin Senate, which houses Vladimir Putin's office, and another exploded above it.
Source: Maxar via Google Earth
One of the drones
appears to fly parallel
to Red Square
from the southeast.
One drone appears to have
struck the dome of the
Kremlin Senate, which houses
Vladimir Putin's office, and
another exploded above it.
Source: Maxar/Google Earth
Ukraine swiftly and categorically denied any involvement in the alleged attack.
“We are not attacking either Putin or Moscow, we are fighting on our own territory, we are defending our villages and cities. We do not have enough weapons even for that,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday at a summit of Northern European countries in Finland.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Washington Post Live event that the United States cannot confirm the reports of an attack, adding that any such accounts from Russia should be taken with “a very large shaker of salt.”
Earlier Wednesday, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, said it had dismantled a Ukrainian military intelligence network that was preparing “assassination attempts on the leaders in Crimea,” the peninsula Russia invaded and illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said Russia’s accusations were “predictable” and probably signaled that Moscow is “preparing a large-scale terrorist attack.”
“That’s why it first detains a large allegedly subversive group in Crimea. And then it demonstrates ‘drones over the Kremlin,’ ” Podolyak tweeted. “. . . What for? This does not solve any military issue. But it gives [Russia] grounds to justify its attacks on civilians.”
He added: “The emergence of unidentified unmanned aerial vehicles at energy facilities or on Kremlin’s territory can only indicate the guerrilla activities of local resistance forces. In a word, something is happening . . . but definitely without Ukraine’s drones over the Kremlin.”
James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, did not rule out Ukrainian involvement but rejected the Kremlin’s most explosive claim: “Let’s be clear on what this is not. It’s not an assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin,” he said. “The two most likely possibilities are a ‘warning shot across the bows’ by Kyiv or a false flag operation by Moscow designed to justify more intense attacks in Ukraine or more conscription.”
Russia has repeatedly accused Ukraine of staging attacks on key sites within Russian territory. Kyiv has often responded with ambiguous public statements — not taking direct responsibility for the strikes but saying that it watches them “with pleasure.”
Privately, officials have acknowledged a Ukrainian role in some of the most dramatic strikes, such as last year’s drone attack on the Engels-2 strategic bomber air base in Saratov, hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border. Ukraine has also publicly said it that it is developing longer-range drones.
“Ukraine has demonstrated time and time again the ability to strike Russian territory, forcing uncomfortable questions about the state of Russian air defenses,” said Samuel Bendett, a military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA.
The drone attacks have been getting steadily closer to the Russian capital. In February, a UAV fell near the town of Kolomna, about 60 miles southeast of the city; in April, one fell a mere 18 miles to the east of Moscow.
In recent months, Pantsir-S1 and S-400 antiaircraft systems have been deployed across the capital, seemingly to bolster Moscow’s already vast defenses. Three newly installed systems in central Moscow — on the roofs of the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and a business center — effectively form a protective dome over the Kremlin.
“Systems like Pantsir are fit to repel drone attacks on paper, but in practice that’s not always the case,” said Russian military analyst Ian Matveev. “Air defense is a very complex thing, and even with a working mechanism, you can miss targets. And the level of professionalism of the Russian military has recently been decreasing rather than increasing.”
A senior NATO official wondered whether the drone strikes were a Ukrainian psychological operation intended to unsettle Putin but cautioned that there was no evidence yet to suggest that was the case. “Very difficult to say if it was Ukraine,” the official told The Post, speaking, like others, on the condition of anonymity to discuss a still-unclear situation. “That is part of the game.”
The light, easily obtainable commercial drones apparently used in the attack typically have limited flight ranges, suggesting that someone in Moscow or close to it had launched the craft, according to another senior European defense official. The explosive charge on the drone appeared to be small, the defense official added, and probably could not have caused much destruction.
Some high-ranking Russian officials have called for a swift and harsh military response. Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, posted a fiery statement on his Telegram channel, saying that “a terrorist act against the President is an attack on Russia.”
“Politicians in Western countries who are pumping weapons to the Zelensky regime must realize that they have become not only sponsors but also direct accomplices of terrorist activities,” he said. “There can be no negotiations with the Zelensky regime.”
In Ukraine on Wednesday, Russia continued its assault on civilian areas. Artillery strikes on a supermarket in the southern city of Kherson killed 21 people and injured 48 more, Zelensky said in a tweet.
Though the Senate Palace is the Russian president’s official state residence, Putin mainly uses it for receptions and public functions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Putin was working from his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, an estate just a few miles west of the capital.
Putin is also known to spend time at his residence on Lake Valdai, a palatial forest hideaway located between Moscow and St. Petersburg to which he reportedly travels using a secret railroad.
Russia has been imposing additional safety measures in preparation for the annual World War II victory commemorations on May 9, when states of the former Soviet Union celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany.
A few minutes before the Kremlin issued a statement about Wednesday’s alleged attack, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the city is banning all drone flights, with the exception of unmanned aerial vehicles used by government services.
Events to mourn fallen soldiers have been canceled in several regions of the country, mostly in western Russia along the Ukrainian border, with officials citing security concerns related to the war.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, which reports shelling, suspicious fires and drone attacks on a near-daily basis, announced in early April that he had decided to cancel the annual victory parade.
“There will be no parade in order not to provoke the enemy with a large accumulation of equipment and military personnel in the center of Belgorod,” Gladkov said during a recent live broadcast on the social network VKontakte.
In Bryansk, another region bordering Ukraine, two freight trains derailed in the span of 48 hours this week after unknown saboteurs planted explosives on the tracks, according to official statements.
On Wednesday, officials in Krasnodar Krai, in western Russia, reported that a fire broke out at an oil depot, with local Telegram channels reporting that a drone had allegedly hit a storage tank.
Siobhán O’Grady and David L. Stern in Kyiv, Imogen Piper in London, and Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.
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