On Wednesday, social media footage showed two drones, fifteen minutes apart, detonating near the flagpole of the main Kremlin Senate Palace building at 2.30 am. Such an attack would not only be a remarkable admission of Russian vulnerability but also a mark of Ukrainian audacity in striking back at Russia at the very heart of Russian power. Only that Ukraine has flatly denied any role in it.
Actually, the attack seems to bear the hallmarks of a “false flag” operation. By disguising the source of responsibility, such incidents seek to pin the blame on the other party. Such an attack on the very symbol of Russian power could, for example, be a Russian operation aimed at rallying support for its war on Ukraine.
It could, of course, be a Ukrainian operation, with built-in deniability to drive home the determination of the Ukrainians to fight the Russians. And, of course, it could well be a third-party operation, say of the Americans, with a view of keeping Ukraine-Russia hostility at a fever pitch.
Assassination Drive or False Scare?
As the Russians viewed it, it was a “planned terrorist attack” to assassinate President Putin, even while noting that they had actually foiled the attack and that the Russian leader was not near the Kremlin at the time. Observers are also pointing to the somewhat well-prepared Russian response to the strike.
They actually chose to publicise what was an embarrassing penetration of their air space, even though they claimed that they had neutralised the drones through their electronic warfare system. Even the Ukrainians acknowledge that the Russians are “very, very good” in counter-drone technologies and they have the ability to neutralise most Ukrainian strikes.
For their part, Ukrainian leaders flatly denied that they were behind the attack. President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that Ukraine was not attacking targets in Russia but conducting a war of self-defence in its own villages and towns. Later on Thursday, Russia accused the United States of being behind the attack. The White House was quick to reject the charge.
The Kremlin Senate Palace building targeted houses the President’s office and his official residence. All indications are that it was not damaged and the detonation took place above the dome of the palace.
Putin is one of the most closely guarded leaders of the world and there are claims that Putin uses several body doubles and operates from identical offices at different locations. In such circumstances, it is unlikely that Ukraine would have good enough intelligence to have pinned down Putin’s location with the precision needed for an assassination using a drone.
Can Russia’s Full-Proof Defence System Be Intercepted?
Moscow is ringed by elaborate air defence systems and in recent times, drones have been banned from flying over or near the Kremlin. In any case, it is believed that the Russians maintain an elaborate anti-drone shield to protect Moscow, and particularly, the Kremlin, a system which has been strengthened in recent times.
The incident took place less than a week before Russia’s 9 May Victory Day celebration, marking the defeat of Germany in World War II. This is a major ceremonial occasion featuring a military parade past the Kremlin. Now, there are reports that the event may be curtailed or cancelled.
During the war, the Ukrainians have usually refrained from acknowledging the authorship of any attacks on the Russian territory. Yet, there have been attacks deep in Russia in the past. Last December, Ukraine struck at three Russian airbases hundreds of kilometers from the front. The attack on Ryazan, just 185 km South-east of Moscow, led to the deaths of three Russian airmen. Ukraine did not claim any responsibility for the attacks and the US, too, denied any role in the attacks. Earlier this year, an oil depot went up in flames in Krasnodar in the south. Drones reached Belgorod and Bryansk regions, bordering Ukraine. Reportedly, one drone came less than 100 km from the capital.
The Ukrainians have a variety of drones—small ones to send back intelligence, loitering munitions varying in lethality, sophisticated reconnaissance or electronic warfare drones, and strike drones capable of delivering bombs and missiles over hundreds and even thousands of kilometers.
The United States has been particularly careful in refusing to provide Ukraine with weapons that can be used against Russia. US spokesmen have repeatedly insisted that the US is not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. For example, they have refused to supply ATACMS missile systems, tanks, or fighter jets to Ukraine. Even the Patriot air defence missile was sent after 300 days of the war.
What Course Will Russia-Ukraine Hostility Take?
All this comes in the background of the belief that Ukraine will soon launch its counter-offensive against the Russian forces. In recent days, dozens of explosions have been reported in Ukraine and near Russian-occupied Crimea. On Tuesday, a drone strike hit a fuel depot in the Krasnodar region, and another strike set ablaze a fuel depot at Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet. On Monday, an explosion in Bryansk derailed a freight train.
Much rests on the outcome of the offensive for which the Russians have already prepared elaborate defences. The Ukrainian success would enable it to receive continuing Western support as well as strengthen its hand in any negotiated settlement. But failure could undermine Western support and result in the war sputtering on further.
There are also developments in explaining the other major false flag operation—the blowing up of the Nord 2 Sream pipeline bringing gas from Russia to Europe last year. Various parties have been blamed for it—the US, the Ukrainians, and so on. In a new development, it is said that military ships from Russia were also detected near the pipelines just before the blasts.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)