Videos and images of drones strikes on the Kremlin seem to be everywhere, and we’re likely to keep seeing them in articles, books and documentaries for decades to come. Just as when James Doolittle raided Tokyo in 1942, Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to hit the enemy at home – even if only on a small scale, for now.
The particular target within the Kremlin compound was the Senate Palace, which houses the presidential offices. However, the very small payload of the drone, and the fact that Putin is rarely at the Kremlin and doesn’t stay overnight, make Russian claims of an attempted assassination laughable. Equally amusing was Zelenskyy’s sweeping denial of involvement in any attacks on Russian soil (Ukraine has been striking Belgorod repeatedly for months) or responsibility for this specific attack (Zelenskyy also denied ordering the Kerch Bridge attack). Neither is there much doubt of Ukrainian capability in this area: Chinese Mugin-5drones have already been used to hit Crimea, and home-made UJ-22 drones (and their later variants) are widely used on the battlefield. Both have a surprisingly long range, although we should be aware (for instance) that the claimed 800km range for the UJ-22 would be limited by any weapons loadout and by the weather. Nevertheless, it seems very likely an attack could have been launched from inside Ukraine (roughly 500km away).
My guess is that the drone was some more recent variant of the UJ-22 (perhaps a development of the UJ-31/32 ‘loitering munition’). That is very much a guess, but in the video footage it looks similar. Photographs published by Russia last week of a UJ-22 that didn’t quite make it to Moscow (one of a series of failed attacks, Moscow claimed) strengthen the notion, but it’s important that this was a Ukrainian-made device – meaning other nations (i.e., China) can’t get the hump. The same kind of thinking may have been at work when Ukraine sank the Moskva in international waters, which it did using Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles.
Having said all this, it’s difficult to rule out Ukrainian ‘freelancers’. They would have required decent funding for all these recent attacks, as well as access to explosives, but it’s not inconceivable. There is currently a $500,000 competition to land a drone in Red Square during the annual May 9th parade (shades of Mathias Rust), and rumour has it that some 1,500 potential participants have declared an interest. However, the attack might also have required inertial or even visual guidance in its latter stages, since it’s known that GPS signals are frequently jammed and spoofed around the Kremlin. In short, freelancers don’t seem very likely candidates.
There are other possible candidates, such as elements within Russia and the Russian state apparatus, but claims of an organised anti-regime resistance inside Russia are as yet unsubstantiated, and such an attack would have been a strange and highly risky move for anti-Putin elements within the upper echelons.
The motives for the Government in Kyiv to have conducted this attack aren’t difficult to discern. They might have wanted to cause embarrassment to Putin and to bring the war home to the Russian people, causing disquiet amongst the elites. They might have wanted to cause further embarrassment, by forcing Putin to skip the May 9th parade, or cancel it entirely – just as parades outside Moscow have already been cancelled. They might have simply been practising for an attack on the May 9th parade itself, or they might be intending to carry out a series of such attacks, so as to cause disruption to command centres – perhaps forcing Russia to move air defence assets to Moscow to counter it.
Of course, this article would not be complete without mention of the phrase ‘false flag’. Many have speculated that Russia attacked itself, but are usually short on reasoning. Some have suggested it was a pretext to announce full mobilisation, but it’s hard to see why anyone would be particularly outraged by a small dent in a building, even if it’s the Kremlin. Putin is actually pretty good at false flag attacks, so it would be rather surprising to have chosen a drone with a tiny payload – causing only minimal damage to a largely empty albeit symbolic building – when it would have been much more spectacular to set off a car bomb near a government building, or blow up a busy shopping centre in a terroristic fashion. The fact that this drone attack highlighted the ineffectiveness of Moscow’s air defences would hardly have been a selling point, either.
Fans of the false flag theory have pointed to the fact that one of the videos appears to have been taken not by a fixed CCTV camera, but from a handheld camera pointed directly at the Kremlin, indicating someone was expecting the attack. However, judging from the sound in the video, and its poor quality, it was (like the Kerch Bridge video) probably a second-generation video, i.e., filmed using a smartphone pointed at a CCTV monitor. False flag theorists also point to the two individuals climbing up the dome of the Senate Palace at about 2.30am when the attack happened, which perhaps also indicates foreknowledge. But there’s a simple explanation: they could have known about a drone heading for the Kremlin at a leisurely 150km/h because it was picked up on radar or visually identified, even while they didn’t have any systems capable of taking it down. Heat-seeking missiles don’t work on those things, and the nearest Pantsir that might have been able to destroy it with its 30mm cannons is parked on the roof of the Ministry of Defence building, over 3km away – outside its effective range. Other systems, such as handheld ‘drone guns’, are highly directional and rely partly on interfering with control commands, which wouldn’t work on autonomous drones.
In short, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. This was a targeted Ukrainian attack, and could be the first of many. Perhaps the purely symbolic value of the target puts this more squarely in the realm of information warfare, but the message it sends – that Ukraine can hit any fixed target within 500km of Ukraine, right into the heart of Moscow – is one that will reach every Russian citizen. Perhaps some will ponder whether the tide of war has turned.
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