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A mysterious drone attack on the Kremlin.

People gather on the dome of the Kremlin compound in central Moscow on May 3, 2023. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

We need a break from discussing authoritarianism in the United States, a grim and dispiriting subject.

Let’s talk about something cheery instead, like the locus of Russian authoritarianism being bombed.

The Western world awoke on Wednesday to astonishing video of explosions over the Kremlin.

“We consider these actions to be a planned terrorist attack and attempt on the life of the President,” Vladimir Putin’s office said afterward, pointing a finger at Ukraine. “The Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures where and when it sees fit.”

Wasn’t us, the Ukrainians insisted. “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow,” Volodymyr Zelensky said. “We fight on our territory. We’re defending our villages and cities. We don’t have enough weapons for these.” His spokesman went further, hinting that the Russians themselves were responsible for the attack: “What happened in Moscow is clearly an escalation of the situation before May 9 [Victory Day in Russia] and it is an expected method from our enemies.”

Reaction on social media fell broadly along the same lines. Supporters of Ukraine, like our own Jonah Goldberg, smelled a Russian false-flag operation while Orbánists like Rod Dreher saw Zelensky’s hand at work. “America’s Ukraine proxies tried to kill Putin last night. While it’s def ballsy to attack the Kremlin itself, it’s a major escalation,” Dreher warned. “While Bret Stephens is no doubt tumescent over the news, this is opening a dangerous door that can’t be easily closed.”

Even by the usual fog-of-war standards, the mystery of who’s responsible is confounding. To my surprise, despite my strong sympathies for the Ukrainian cause, I lean toward believing that this isn’t a Russian frame-up. Ukraine is more likely than not responsible for the attack.

Let’s consider the arguments on each side.

False flag.

The obvious reason to suspect the Kremlin is behind it is because Zelensky’s spokesman is correct. Bombing its own territory and pinning the blame on an enemy nation to justify aggression is indeed an “expected method” of Russia, since before Vladimir Putin was born.

In 1939 the Soviets allegedly shelled the Russian village of Mainila near the Finnish border to create a pretext for its “Winter War” with Finland. Putin himself is famously suspected of having orchestrated the bombings of several Russian apartment buildings in 1999 to build public support for a second Russian war in Chechnya and for his own ascent to the presidency.

“But why would they need to manufacture a pretext to attack Ukraine?” you might wonder. “They’ve been attacking Ukraine ruthlessly for nearly a decade.”

Right, but there remain a few red lines that Russia has yet to cross. For instance, Putin reportedly told then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last year that he wouldn’t escalate by seeking to assassinate Zelensky. That was a lie, a brazen one even for Putin, but if he’s concluded that crippling the Ukrainian war effort requires eliminating its most compelling champion, a phony “assassination attempt” is a perfect justification. Now Russia can target Zelensky in earnest, tit for tat.

At least one member of the Russian parliament is already calling for an attack on the presidential residence in Kyiv. Killing Zelensky would be a crushing blow to Ukraine as its military counteroffensive begins. And it would boost Russian morale ahead of the Victory Day celebrations on May 9 commemorating the end of World War II.

Logistical questions also support the false-flag theory. Yaroslav Trofimov, the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, thought that the drone seen exploding in the video was a quadcopter, which wouldn’t have the range to make it all the way from Ukraine. Enlarged photos seem to contradict that—it appears to be a fixed-wing drone—but that still doesn’t explain the breach. How on earth could the Ukrainians fly a drone hundreds of miles into Russian territory, straight into Moscow, without it being intercepted by native air defenses? 

There’s another problem. This drone attack plainly had zero chance of killing Putin.

According to analyst Mark Galeotti, it’s common knowledge among Russian observers that the president rarely visits the Kremlin and that his quarters there are “well protected” from airstrikes. Why he’d be staying overnight at the complex in the first place is unclear given that he has another well-fortified official residence west of Moscow. If Galeotti knows that, Ukrainian intelligence surely knows it too. They couldn’t possibly have believed an assassination attempt involving a UAV traversing hundreds of miles on the off chance that Putin might be at work after midnight would succeed.

The fact that the drone detonated in midair instead of striking the Kremlin is also suspicious. It’s hard to tell from the video but it doesn’t appear as though it was brought down by anti-aircraft fire. It just explodes harmlessly, presumably seconds away from destroying its target after a journey of who knows how many miles.

Either that’s very bad luck for the Ukrainians or this was a Russian operation designed to scare the locals without doing any actual damage.

Oh, and there’s also the small matter of two men being clearly visible on a dome of the Kremlin when the drone detonated. The explosion happened in the dead of night, between 2 and 3 a.m. local time. What were they doing there at that hour? Sightseeing?

The false-flag theory is compelling. But there are holes.

Ukraine dunnit.

The biggest problem is that what happened is humiliating for Putin. If he wanted to frighten and infuriate Russians to goose their appetite for war, he had the Chechnya 1999 playbook available. He could have blown up a few apartment buildings near the border, blamed it on Ukrainian infiltrators, and seized that as his casus belli to escalate the war in some insane new way.

Whereas, for the average Russian, I’d imagine the takeaway from a drone exploding over the Kremlin isn’t, “We must have revenge on Ukraine.” It’s, “Putin can’t even protect the seat of government from Ukrainian attack. He’s weaker than we thought.”

Which, of course, is precisely why Ukraine might want to execute such an attack. They weren’t trying to assassinate the czar; they can’t afford to do that, as an escalation that momentous would spook their American patrons and risk ending Western support. But sending a drone to buzz the Kremlin a few days before Victory Day is a pithy way of demonstrating how badly Russia’s winter offensive has failed. Not only aren’t the Ukrainians licked, they’re capable of delivering payloads to the enemy’s capital if they want to.

It’s the Doolittle Raid, in other words, except in this case the good guys can’t take credit since even a symbolic incursion by Ukraine into Russia’s capital might make the White House jittery. Better for Zelensky and his aides to maintain plausible deniability.

As for how a drone might have evaded Russian air defenses over hundreds of miles while inbound from Ukraine, consider the possibility that it didn’t. Maybe Ukrainian agents smuggled it into Russia and launched it from there, bypassing most of those air defenses altogether.

Last week a senior Ukrainian official boasted to journalist Michael Weiss that “there is a competition in our services for waging operations inside Russia.” As it happens, Russian intelligence claimed recently that it dismantled a Ukrainian intelligence network in Crimea that was preparing to assassinate local leaders. Meanwhile, leaked classified U.S. documents alleged that Ukrainian agents have already staged attacks inside Russia and Belarus, the latter operation involving a quadcopter drone.

Getting a fixed-wing drone across the border and into the country would be much more complicated, I imagine, but this moment of the war might have called for something daring. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is coming; Victory Day is almost here; a visual statement illustrating in a spectacular way how vulnerable Russia is would have obvious morale implications for both sides.

And let’s be real. Given the incompetence Russia’s military has displayed since the start of the war, it’s not unthinkable that the Ukrainians might have figured out how to penetrate the country’s airspace without being intercepted. They bombed the Kerch Strait Bridge. They sank the Moskva. Pulling off attacks that are supposed to be beyond their capabilities has become par for the course.

Reports of drones wreaking havoc inside Russia have been swirling for months, in fact. In late February military targets such as barracks and fuel depots were threatened or attacked in numerous Russian regions; one drone made it as far as the Moscow area and reportedly “could have made it to the Kremlin in less than an hour if it had not crashed.” Per the Journal, no fewer than three drones fell recently near the city center in one Moscow district. In March a drone allegedly made it 250 miles into Russia before being shot down.

Last night, while the capital was being buzzed, an oil facility in the Krasnodar region went up in flames. The culprit: A drone.

Ukrainian officials are understandably eager to seed suspicions that these attacks are being staged by Russian saboteurs who are sympathetic to Kyiv and/or hostile to Putin. Not only does that keep Ukraine’s fingerprints off of them, placating the White House, it encourages disunity and paranoia inside Russia about a domestic uprising. “We are watching with interest the growing number of mishaps and incidents that are taking place in different parts of Russia,” a Zelensky aide slyly tweeted today. “The emergence of unidentified unmanned aerial vehicles at energy facilities or on Kremlin’s territory can only indicate the guerrilla activities of local resistance forces.”

If this is all a grand psy op by Ukraine to spook the enemy, there’s reason to believe it’s working.

At least six Russian regions have scrapped 9 May Victory Day parades that mark the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany amid fears over Ukrainian strikes, with a region 400 miles from the border being the latest to cancel.

The governor of Saratov announced the parade there would not go ahead because of “safety concerns”, adding to a string of cancellations that are a glaring admission of the country’s military vulnerability more than 14 months into the war.

“There won’t be a parade in order to not provoke the enemy with large numbers of equipment and service members in central Belgorod,” the regions’ head Vyacheslav Gladkov said last month.

Red Square itself has been closed to the public since April 27 to prepare for Victory Day, an “unprecedented move” according to the Journal. Some suspect ulterior motives for the parade cancellations, such as fear that a proper military procession might display how depleted the ranks are or that the events might inspire mass protests, but if that’s true then it’s proof of just how dire Russia’s dire straits are. Imagine if “we’re afraid Ukraine might bomb us in our own cities” is now the least embarrassing reason to discourage public assemblies.

If the “psy op” explanation leaves you cold, though, note that there might also be strategic logic to Ukraine targeting Moscow ahead of its counteroffensive. As one observer pointed out, an air incursion into the heart of the capital may force Russia to reposition air defenses that are currently protecting more militarily valuable targets. The more assets Putin is forced to use to safeguard Russian cities, the fewer will be available for the theater of battle. And the humiliation to the Kremlin from last night’s fly-by may goad him into lashing out and wasting valuable missiles on a (probably) futile attempt to kill Zelensky. Every spent aerial weapon is one that can’t be used against advancing Ukrainian forces.

But what about the two guys climbing the dome as the drone flew by?

Ah, right. The reporting is still murky as of Wednesday afternoon but it appears that there were two drone incursions at the Kremlin last night, not one. The video suggests that the men were on the dome as the second drone approached at 2:43 a.m. So, Occam’s Razor: They were probably security agents stationed at the complex who were trying to survey whatever damage was done when the first drone arrived at 2:27 a.m. They weren’t part of some false-flag operation.

How would that have worked, anyway? Is the idea that the drones … weren’t real, and that the two men caused the explosion instead?

If the Kremlin were going to manufacture footage of an apparent drone attack, why wouldn’t they have also edited out the two people who staged it? They’re incompetent but they’re not that incompetent.

All in all, I think the balance of the evidence points toward Ukraine—or its sympathizers—having sent the drones. Tell me why I’m wrong.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.