(The Hill) – An apparent drone attack on the Kremlin has spurred a global whodunit.
Moscow quickly accused Ukraine of attempting to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin, a claim that was met with skepticism among Western officials and defense experts — and denied by Ukraine.
Unverified videos that circulated online Wednesday purportedly show the aftermath of the attack, which Russia says it thwarted by shooting down the drones.
The attack will likely have a “rally around the flag” effect in Russia, leading some to speculate it may be a “false flag” operation staged by the Kremlin to bolster support ahead of Victory Day on May 9, an annual holiday to celebrate the Soviet defeat of Nazis in WWII.
“It looks to me like Putin and his handlers are constructing a fake provocation with this so-called terrorist attack that Russia can use as an excuse to rain down even more pain and suffering on the Ukrainian people or possibly use to justify an assassination attempt on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Beth Knobel, a former CBS bureau chief in Moscow and now a communications professor at Fordham University.
“Ukraine has nothing to gain by inflaming Russia further with an assassination attempt on President Putin,” she added, noting that the claim of an assassination attempt was far-fetched, given Putin is widely known to reside at a complex outside Moscow.
Analysts have pointed out that there’s no independent verification of the supposed attack. There’s also scrutiny over why Moscow didn’t report the incident until hours later or why the videos of it were not released for some time.
Branislav Slantchev, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, who studies the conduct of war, also said he believes Russians were behind the attack, whether or not it was carried out with Putin’s knowledge. He said it would help the Kremlin’s recruitment drive across the country, while also renewing questions about Western support for the war if Ukraine is suspected of launching escalatory attacks inside Russia.
“The Russians will play up this card immediately,” he said. “I think it’s mostly meant for domestic and international political use rather than anything else.”
Zelensky on Wednesday denied that Ukraine was behind the alleged attack.
“We didn’t attack Putin,” he said at a press conference with Nordic leaders in Helsinki.
His presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, also said the Russian claims would give Moscow a pretext “to justify massive strikes on Ukrainian cities, on the civilian population, on infrastructure facilities” in the next several days.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while speaking at a Washington Post event, said he had seen the reports but could not comment on them “without really knowing what the facts are.”
He warned the public should “take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.”
Some experts were more open to the possibility of a Ukrainian attack.
Mark Galeotti, a political scientist and historian who authored “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine,” said he believed Putin would want to avoid such an embarrassing failure of Russian security.
“Russia would be admitting to a shocking breach of security,” he wrote in The Spectator, positing that Ukraine would have “wanted to show … that Moscow is not safe” ahead of the patriotic Russian holiday.
“Most likely, this is just what it seems: that Kyiv, witnessing the continued attacks on its infrastructure, houses and hospitals, feels it has no reason to pull its punches,” he added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state media on Wednesday that Russia reserved the right to respond to the attack.
Given that Russia regularly bombards Kyiv with missiles — including a barrage over the weekend — it’s unclear what that response would look like.
Slantchev, political science professor, dismissed the argument that Russia would be embarrassed by the attack, saying it would only feed the narrative that it is fighting a war against the more powerful militaries of the U.S. and other NATO powers.
“It is not shameful to be hit by a superior enemy. And in fact, they didn’t achieve anything,” he said. “And so this is not humiliation for Russia in any way that I can see. Which is why I simply do not see an upside for the Ukrainians.”
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, lawmakers were dubious about the Russian reports, but said they were awaiting more information.
“I’m not going to opine on the veracity of it because the Kremlin — I wouldn’t trust half of what they say,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.
“There’s a war going on. There’s been plenty of strikes in Kyiv. In the end, if you invade a country and they fight back.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said many questions remained unanswered.
“I think we have to verify — and through the technology that we have, a sense of what happened? Were drones launched? Did the Russians use anti-aircraft defenses to bring them down? What was the target?” he asked.
“I think within the next 24 hours we’ll get an indication of what they’ve [administration] untangled from the data they looked at.”
A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that defense leaders had seen the press reporting “but have nothing to provide at this time.”
“I think the verdict is still out,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant defense secretary, who is now a national security analyst with ABC.
But he said he was confident that U.S. intelligence agencies would figure it out.
“They can always go back and look at satellite imagery, even signals collection, when it comes to people talking about watching something like this, whether it was a false flag type of thing, or whether it was the actual attack by Ukraine,” he said.
Mulroy noted a couple of initial observations that supported suspicions of Russia’s involvement.
The Turkish drones commonly used by Ukraine can only travel about 150 miles.
“No matter where you’re shooting it from in Ukraine, you would have to go at least 300 miles,” he said, adding that the possibility of a Ukrainian operation inside Russia was unlikely.
And the video of the attack that quickly circulated shows someone wanted the attack to be seen widely.
“Could somebody be up for some reason or another filming the Kremlin at 2 a.m. from their house?” he said. “I guess.”
Al Weaver contributed to this story.