Russia claimed Wednesday that Ukraine tried to assassinate President Vladimir Putin in an overnight drone attack on the Kremlin, news that drew denials from Kyiv and furious demands for retaliation from nationalists in Moscow.
The accusation, which the Kremlin made without providing evidence, was the latest in a string of reported incidents far from the war’s front lines. Kyiv said it had nothing to do with the alleged incident and suggested it could be used as a pretext for a new Russian attack in Ukraine.
The U.S. had no notice if there was a drone attack against the Kremlin by Ukraine, three U.S. officials said. Two of the officials expressed skepticism that a drone could get that close to the Kremlin given that so many air defense systems protect Russia.
An attack on the heart of Moscow, even if it is foiled, would be a dramatic illustration of Russian vulnerability ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive that will seek to push the Kremlin’s forces out of occupied land.
Russian military and special services disabled two attacking drones, sending debris crashing onto the grounds of the seat of government, the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.
It blamed the alleged attack, in which it said no one was hurt, on Ukraine.
“We view these actions as a planned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt targeting the President, carried out ahead of Victory Day,” the statement said, referring to the celebration next Tuesday of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
“Russia reserves the right to take countermeasures wherever and whenever it deems appropriate,” it added.
Videos circulated widely on social media Wednesday showing an object exploding over the Kremlin, the building’s roof on fire and smoke rising from the area.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied his country was behind the attack.
“We are not attacking Putin or Moscow,” he said at a news conference in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, where he was meeting the prime ministers of four Nordic nations.
“We are fighting on our own territory, defending our villages and cities,” he said. “We do not have enough weapons even for this. That is why we do not use them elsewhere. We have a deficit. We cannot use everything and everywhere.”
One of his advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, suggested earlier that “guerrilla activities of local resistance forces” could be to blame. He added that the news was a sign that Russia is preparing “a large-scale terrorist attack” of its own.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency RIA Novosti that Putin was not in the Kremlin at the time of the alleged attack and that he was working out of a presidential residence near Moscow. The Kremlin said his schedule was unaffected.
Peskov added that plans to hold the Victory Day parade in Red Square remain in place, according to the agency.
Later, Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and one of the most vocal supporters of the war, told RIA Novosti that there were “no options left except for the physical elimination of Zelenskyy and his cabal.”
Some military analysts questioned whether the alleged incident could be seen as an assassination attempt.
“This looks like #Ukraine (assuming it was Ukraine) is trying to bring the war home to #Russia, by hitting symbolic targets,” the head of intelligence at the Le Beck consultancy, Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst, said on Twitter.
Russia has frequently accused Ukraine of planning attacks inside the country, often being met with official denials.
The two U.S. officials were skeptical that any drone Washington might have provided to Ukraine would have been used, because it would have had to fly very far from Ukraine all the way to the Kremlin. Neither official could say whether the report could be a disinformation campaign by Russia or not, adding that they were still trying to figure that out.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a world press freedom event Wednesday, “I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.”
Ukrainian agents have pursued drone attacks inside Russia, contrary to U.S. and Western wishes, according to a batch of leaked U.S. intelligence documents.
James Nixey, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank in London, said he was also skeptical.
“Let’s be clear on what this is not. It’s not an assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin. That’s just what the Kremlin is saying,” he said in an emailed comment.
“The two most likely possibilities are a ‘warning shot across the bows’ by Kyiv or a false flag operation by Moscow designed to justify more intense attacks in Ukraine or more conscription,” he said.
Russia made the allegation 14 months into its invasion of Ukraine and ahead of an expected counteroffensive by Kyiv’s military.
Russian forces have struggled to make substantive progress in their own push over the winter, a campaign focused on a brutal battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut, which seems to have come at a steep cost for both sides.
After domestic blowback to the call-up of hundreds of thousands of military reservists last year, the Kremlin has recently stepped up its efforts to recruit volunteers to fight in Ukraine with slick advertising campaigns and new legislation.
But the war has also increasingly been brought home in a wave of recent incidents in the country as both sides seemingly launch drone attacks ahead of the crucial fighting to come.
A large fire was blazing earlier Wednesday at a fuel depot near a key bridge connecting Russia to occupied Crimea. Authorities blamed the incident on a drone attack, days after another caused a fire at a nearby oil terminal and blasts derailed freight trains in a region bordering Ukraine.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. said it is sending Ukraine $300 million in additional military aid — including ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, howitzers, artillery and mortar rounds. The aid package is the 37th since the war began in February.
Russia’s FSB, meanwhile, arrested seven people it said were connected with Ukrainian intelligence and planning “a series of high-profile sabotage and terrorist acts” in the annexed peninsula.
Russian war hawks also weighed in after the alleged drone attack on the Kremlin, speculating about potential escalation by Moscow in response.
“Maybe it will kick off for real now?” Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russian state broadcaster RT, posted on Telegram. Simonyan is one of the most vocal pro-war public figures in the country.
In a Telegram post, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house, demanded “the use of weapons capable of stopping and destroying the Kyiv terrorist regime.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russia’s Wagner Group, whose mercenary forces have led the assault on Bakhmut, said the Ukrainian counteroffensive had already begun.
“The enemy has also become more active outside the historical borders of Ukraine — the Russian Federation,” Prigozhin said in a statement.
“We see the situation in our various areas: trains, drones, and so on. Therefore, I think that everything has already gone. When will it become active? I think that in the near future, maybe days,” he said.