At first glance, it looks like a sci-fi movie. What appear to be two drones, streaking across the night sky in Moscow, head straight for the Kremlin, on target to hit the historic Senate Palace, the official residence of Vladimir Putin.
Suddenly, just as one passes the Russian flag flying atop the building, it explodes, raining fiery shards down on the roof.
The video first appeared in the early hours of Wednesday on Russian social media. The Kremlin was slow to react, eventually releasing a statement calling it a “planned terrorist attack,” a deliberate attempt by Ukraine to assassinate Putin, but presenting no evidence.
The president was not injured, the Kremlin stressed, threatening that “Russia reserves the right to take countermeasures, wherever and whenever it deems appropriate.”
The denial from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was swift: “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow; we fight on our territory.”
A former senior US diplomat called that significant: after several previous mysterious attacks inside Russia, Ukrainian officials have wryly denied knowing anything about it.
“This,” the former diplomat said, “was definitive.”
If the apparent drone attack itself was surreal, questions about how it happened – and what could come next – were even more fantastical.
Months ago, Russian authorities began mounting air-defense installations on Defense Ministry and administrative buildings across Moscow. The Kremlin is one of the most heavily guarded government complexes in the world. Russia’s border with Ukraine is protected as well. If these were drones from Ukraine, how did they evade detection? Did Moscow’s defenses fail? Even more embarrassingly for the Kremlin, how did the drones get so close to the Kremlin?
Russian state media, for the most part, are sticking to the precise wording of the Kremlin statement on the attack, as well as broadcasting daytime pictures of the Kremlin showing things are “back to normal” and that the president is hard at work – all signs Russian propagandists are having difficulty finding the right “message” to explain how their president was almost “assassinated.”
Would Russia carry out the attack itself? In 1999, just months before Putin was elected president for the first time, Russia was hit with a wave of apartment bombings that killed more than 300 people and which then-prime minister Putin cited to justify launching the Second Chechen War.
His tough approach helped him win the presidency, but suspicion still lingers about who really was behind the bombings. With the apparent drone attacks, no one died, and the Kremlin’s vaunted security looked feeble, but it gives the Kremlin an opportunity to rally Russians to support Putin against those who would harm him.
Ukraine officials said the attacks might be exploited by Russia to launch even more vicious attacks on Ukraine, including “terrorist” attacks.
Throughout its history Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has used “false flag” operations, carrying out aggressive actions while blaming its enemies but, for more than a year, the Putin regime has been blaming Ukraine, NATO, and the United States for the war in Ukraine.
Does it really need another excuse to try to kill Zelensky?
That isn’t stopping Russia’s former President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Putin’s Security Council, a frequent and rabid Tweeter, from claiming it is time to “physically eliminate” Zelensky.
“There are no options left other than the physical elimination of Zelensky and his clique,” Medvedev said. “He is not even needed to sign the act of unconditional capitulation. Hitler, as you know, did not sign it either.”
Medvedev neglected to note that Russia tried, and failed, to eliminate the Ukrainian president in the initial stages of the invasion in February 2022.
What about the possibility that Russians opposed to Putin launched a drone attack from within Russia? Striking at the heart of Putin’s Russia, even with drones that apparently were disabled by the Kremlin’s air defense, would be an unparalleled propaganda feat.
Former Russian politician Ilya Ponamarev told CNN’s Matthew Chance that it was, indeed, “one of Russia’s partisan groups,” adding he could not say more since the group had not publicly claimed responsibility.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautions that any claims by Moscow should be taken with a “large shaker of salt.”
With the Kremlin’s stranglehold on domestic media, Russian citizens are, no doubt, trying to make sense of the attacks.
The timing may be one of the only things that makes sense. On May 9, Russia will celebrate “Victory Day,” commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
This year, with drones apparently attacking the Kremlin, it may be harder than usual to feel victorious.