On May 3rd, 2023, two consecutive drone strikes targeted the Kremlin, the official residence of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia claimed the attack was an assassination attempt on President Putin by Ukraine. Video footage of the incident appeared to show two drones reaching the top of the Kremlin building and causing small explosions within a span of about 15 minutes of each other. Ukraine denied any involvement, claiming instead that Russia had launched a false flag operation in order to justify a large-scale attack. Whatever the case may be, this incident marked a new chapter in the Russia-Ukraine war, a conflict that shows no signs of ending even after 14 months.
From the Russian perspective, this attack was a Ukrainian assassination attempt on President Putin and a major escalation of the war. This was evident from statements made by the Russian leadership following the incident. Former Russian President and current Deputy Secretary of Putin’s Security Council Dmitri Medvedev stated that, “there are no options left other than the physical elimination of Zelensky and his clique”. Similarly, Speaker of the Russian parliament Vyacheslav Volodin demanded the use of “weapons capable of stopping and destroying the Kyiv terrorist regime”. Clearly, the Russian leadership saw this attack as providing them with enough justification to escalate the war. Russia also accused the US of being behind the attack, stating that “the US was selecting targets and that Ukraine was merely implementing American plans”.
Ukraine denied any involvement in the incident. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that, “we don’t attack Putin, or Moscow, we fight on our territory”. From the Ukrainian perspective, the Kremlin drone attack was false flag operation initiated by Russia itself. Senior Ukrainian presidential official Mykhailo Podolyak stated that Russia was “clearly preparing a large-scale terrorist attack”.
Given the conflicting narratives presented by both states regarding this incident, it is important to analyse the available information and attempt to separate the fact from fiction.
Analysis: Fact vs. Fiction
Firstly, the Russian claims of the drone strikes being an assassination attempt on President Putin are hard to believe. Even if the attack was launched by Ukraine, the drone strikes clearly targeted the roof of the Kremlin and only resulted in small explosions. It was also later confirmed that President Putin was not present in the Kremlin building at the time of the attack. A more likely scenario is that this could have been a message of intent from Ukraine, showing Russia that they were able to target the heart of Moscow without being stopped. The attack came about a week before the May 9th Victory Day parade celebrations across Russia, and caused them to dial down their initial plans.
Russia also claimed to have stopped the drones before they could cause any damage. A presidential press release stated that “timely action by the military and special services involving radar systems enabled them to disable the devices (drones)”. It is difficult to confirm this claim based on the video footage released. The drones appeared to explode just before impact with the Kremlin building, indicating either that the Russians were able to disrupt them, or that this was a controlled explosion that had successfully reached its target.
Secondly, Ukraine’s claim of the attack being a false-flag operation by Russia is certainly possible. Russia has already used this incident to justify a major escalatory response, by regularly launching a barrage of drones and missiles towards Ukrainian cities. Given the statements from the Russian leadership, it can be expected that this trend of drone warfare will only increase in the coming days, and that Russia will use this incident to justify further military actions against Ukraine.
However, the question arises as to why exactly Russia would need to stage a drone strike on the Kremlin to justify an escalation of the war? Within the past few weeks alone, Ukraine had reportedly launched several other drone strikes targeting Russian cities and infrastructure, and even caused a major fire at one of its oil refineries in Crimea. If Russia simply wanted an incident to justify their escalatory response, that could have been enough.
Thirdly, the video footage also raises certain questions. Following the attack, multiple videos were released which covered the attack from various angles. Most of the videos were in good quality, and were able to capture the flight trajectory of the drones, as well as the moment they exploded above the Kremlin. This does lend weight to Ukraine’s claim of Russia staging a false-flag operation. However, it seems rather puzzling as to why Russia would publicise evidence of a Ukrainian strike on the Kremlin. The Kremlin is in the heart of Moscow, and is a building of symbolic and historic significance for Russia. The fact that the drones were able to reach the Kremlin building is worrying, and a rather embarrassing incident for Russia to openly admit to.
Fourthly, even if Ukraine was behind the drone strikes, the possibility of the drones being launched from within Ukraine, bypassing Russia’s extensive air defence systems, and reaching the Kremlin seems unlikely. Moscow is some 450 km from the Ukrainian border, and the Kremlin building is supposedly under heavy guard. A more likely possibility is that Ukrainian operatives within Russia launched the attack. This would explain how the drones were able to reach the Kremlin building without being detected.
If this was a Ukrainian attack, it was certainly a major escalation of the war. Although Ukraine had likely conducted drone strikes within Russia before, none had targeted Moscow. Most of the previous drone strikes had targeted Crimea, or occurred closer to the Russian border. Given the significance of the Kremlin building to Russia, Ukraine has sent quite a strong message of intent, if it indeed was behind the attack.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian narratives surrounding the drone attacks seem possible. Such is the reality of modern times; we are now living in a post-truth world, and it has become extremely difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. The truth of who launched the attack might never be revealed; it also might not matter. Russia has already used the incident to justify a strong response, and Ukraine has launched its counter-offensive. Ultimately, history is written by the victors.
Relevance for South Asia
The Kremlin drone attack also has great relevance for South Asia. Firstly, it points to the increasing trend of drone warfare, which has been displayed in recent years by states such as the US, Israel, Azerbaijan and others. India is also investing heavily in drones and Artificial Intelligence (AI), and has already reportedly deployed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones on its Western border with Pakistan. Pakistan will have to face the threat of drone warfare from India, and should invest in counter-technologies and tactics.
Secondly, the response of both Russia and Ukraine following the Kremlin incident once again proved that geopolitical truth is subjective, as both states were able to mould the attack to suit their own narratives. Likewise, after the 2019 Balakot crisis, both India and Pakistan claimed victory, although several of India’s claims were later debunked. In the midst of a conflict, however, both misinformation and disinformation become common. Pakistan, then, must also prepare itself to deal with Indian and Western propaganda in any potential future crisis with India. Lastly, it is likely that India will be encouraged to embark on such an adventure. The US supported Ukraine’s narrative during the Kremlin incident, and India knows that they would have full American support if they chose to target Pakistan. Given the increasing use of emerging technologies in warfare, blurring lines of the media landscape, and likelihood of Indian military aggression towards Pakistan, Pakistan must be proactive and prepare for the complexity of future warfare.
Shayan Hassan Jamy
Research Officer, SVI