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 Kremlin’s accusation, 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 inside Ukraine.
The United States had no advance notice if there was a drone attack against the Kremlin by Ukraine, three U.S. officials told NBC News. Two of the officials expressed skepticism that a drone could get that close to the Kremlin given the fact that Russia has so many air defense systems protecting it.
An attack on the heart of Moscow, even if foiled, would represent a dramatic illustration of Russian vulnerability ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive that will seek to push the Kremlin’s forces out of of occupied land.
Russian military and special services had 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 on Ukraine but said that no one was hurt.
“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 May 9 celebration 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 that show an object exploding over the Kremlin on Wednesday, the building’s roof on fire and smoke rising from the area circulated widely on social media.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied his country was behind the attack.
“We are not attacking Putin or Moscow,” he told 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.”
His comments came after one of his advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, suggested that “guerilla 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 state news agency RIA Novosti that Putin was not in the Kremlin at the time of the alleged attack, and was working out of a presidential residence near Moscow. The Kremlin said the president’s schedule was unaffected by the incident.
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 Zelensky and his cabal.”
However, 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,” said Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst, and head of intelligence at Le Beck consultancy, in a tweet.
Russia has frequently accused Ukraine of planning attacks inside the country, often met with official denials.
The two U.S. officials were skeptical that any drone Washington might have provided to Ukraine would have been used in the alleged attack on Wednesday 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.
“I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a world press freedom event Wednesday.
Ukrainian agents have pursued drone attacks inside Russia, contrary to U.S. and Western wishes, according to a batch of leaked U.S. intel documents.
James Nixey, the direction of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House think tank in London, said he was also skeptical of the Kremlin’s account.
“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 added.
The alleged incident comes 14 months into Russia’s 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 around a brutal battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut that 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 it has also increasingly seen the war brought home in a wave of recent incidents inside 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 (HIMARS), howitzers, artillery and mortar rounds. The aid package marks 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 from Moscow in response.
“Maybe it will kick off for real now?” Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russian state broadcaster RT, posted on Telegram.
Simonyan is one of the most vocal pro-war public figures in the country.
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,” in a Telegram post.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, 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 added.