As the footage of a drone exploding over the Kremlin surfaced on social media, several accusations and conspiracy theories started swirling on the internet.
The United States is behind the Ukrainian attack on the Kremlin residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, spokesman for the head of State Dmitry Peskov, said.
A video that emerged on May 3, 2023, showed a drone purportedly impacting the Senatsky Dvorets dome in the Kremlin in the Russian capital Moscow. Presidential administration officials said Ukraine was behind the night strike and pledged retaliation.
Putin was not present at the Kremlin at the time of the attempt, so he was unharmed. Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, have denied their involvement in the attack saying, “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow.”
Although the attack has triggered mixed responses, with some military experts and Russian watchers commenting that if Ukraine indeed conducted the strike, it would be a purely symbolic one to signal that even Moscow was not safe.
Former US Ambassador to Russia and a professor by profession, Michael McFaul, wrote on Twitter, “There was no assassination attempt on Putin. First, the drone used could not do major damage, let alone kill someone in the building. Second, Putin does not live (or sleep) in the Kremlin. Please stop repeating this Russian propaganda line. Thank you.”
There was no assassination attempt on Putin. First, the drone used had no capacity to do major damage, let alone kill someone in the building. Second, Putin does not live (or sleep) in the Kremlin. Please stop repeating this Russian propaganda line. Thank you.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) May 3, 2023
However, another set of experts and analysts believe the attack was a false alarm for rallying public support behind Russia’s “special military operation” that is allegedly losing steam domestically.
Military watchers also believe that this staged drone attack at the heart of Russia would give the country a free hand to carry out massive strikes against Ukraine.
— EurAsian Times (@THEEURASIATIMES) May 3, 2023
When asked about the accusations against Ukraine, President Zelensky said: “It’s very simple. Russia has no victories. He [Putin] can no longer motivate his society, and he can’t just send his troops to their death anymore… now he needs to motivate his people somehow to go forward.”
US-based Institute for Study of War (ISW) explained this with pointed arguments. “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. Several indicators suggest the strike was internally conducted and purposefully staged,” read the latest report.
However, Indian Air Force veteran and an avid Russia watcher Squadron Leader Vijainder K. Thakur gave counter-arguments to debunk the claims made by ISW and the similar views endorsed by several other military commentators in the West.
Kremlin Drone Attack: Staged Or Not?
The video captures what looks like a drone flying toward the dome before bursting into flames and lighting up the sky. This drone appears to have exploded near the dome rather than hitting it directly, throwing flying debris into the air. It’s believed that two drones struck the dome simultaneously.
The ISW began its argument by saying that Russian authorities have recently increased Russian domestic air defense capabilities, including within Moscow. According to geolocated imagery from January 2023, the Russian government has been installing Pantsir air defense systems close to Moscow to encircle the capital.
It would be a major humiliation for Russia if a strike managed to damage the Kremlin Senate Palace while evading identification and destruction by such air defense capabilities, according to the ISW assessment.
Moreover, the report says, it is doubtful that two drones could have penetrated multiple layers of air defense and detonated in a way that provided spectacular imagery to be captured on camera.
Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience & set conditions for a wider societal mobilization.?1/7
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) May 3, 2023
Countering this argument, Thakur said: “A low-flying drone can easily use waypoint navigation to avoid geolocated AD systems in Moscow. Also, the height at which a UAV is flying can constrain an AD system from engaging it for fear of placing buildings and other structures in harm’s way.”
“There is no perfect defense against UAVs. Not with America, not with Russia.”
In recent times, Russian territories and those it controls, including Crimea, have come under several drone attacks attributed to the Ukrainian military.
Last week, a drone strike caused a fire at a fuel storage facility in the Crimean port of Sevastopol which has been believed to be a trigger for massive Russian missile strikes against Ukraine.
The ISW emphasized that the “Kremlin’s immediate, coherent, and coordinated” response was another factor that signaled that the drone attack was staged. It assessed that the Russian government quickly centered its official replies around the accusation that Ukraine was carrying out a terrorist strike.
The drone strike would have been a surprise when it is not internally staged. It is highly possible that the official Russian reaction would have been much more chaotic as officials frantically develop a compelling story and temper the rhetorical fallout from a glaring informational gaffe, it added.
Mocking the argument, Thakur said, “You now believe Biden’s incoherence is the norm for other world leaders.”
Thakur argues, “There were at least two drones involved in the attack. The first drone likely crashed into the dome, as seen in the released video footage. In the video, two persons can be seen climbing to the top of the dome, which indicates that the first drone struck at least 10 minutes earlier. The Russians were likely tracking both drones for at least half an hour before they arrived at the target.
“At least one of the drones was taken down by radio technical means. The fact that the second drone exploded without a missile strike suggests a Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) could have been used to down the drone. So, why on earth would the Russians be incoherent in telling the world precisely what happened?”
Taking its assertion further, the ISW said Russia may have manufactured this incident near the May 9 Victory Day celebration to portray the war as existential to its home audience by quickly and coherently presenting an official Russian narrative surrounding the strike.
The ISW said, “Some Russian nationalist military bloggers seized on the Kremlin drone strike to call for Russian escalation in the war even though Russia currently lacks the military capability to do so.”
Thakur asked, “How would US military bloggers have reacted to a drone attack on the White House?” Moreover, Thakur said the drone attack on Kremlin may have been a Ukrainian ploy to involve NATO in the conflict.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a presidential adviser for Ukraine, told the BBC that hitting Moscow would be pointless for Ukraine but would give Russia cover to attack civilian targets.
Putin’s staff hinted at a big response in a statement. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev urged using weapons capable of stopping and destroying the Kyiv terrorist regime, while parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called for the physical elimination of Zelensky and his group.
Russia continues to rain missiles on Ukrainian cities while the latter is yet to start a much-awaited massive counter-offensive.
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