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Explosion over the Kremlin
What does it mean? More of the same from Russia
It seems very dramatic. Two drones and one small explosion were filmed over a tower of one of the Kremlin buildings. Without providing any evidence, or giving any reason why such a thing might be true, Russian authorities blamed Ukraine, claiming that it was an assassination attempt directed against Vladimir Putin.
The Russians have lied about every major event in this war, and have always presented themselves and their president as its victim. So we would be justified in doubting what they say.
Ukrainian authorities deny having anything to do with the drones over the Kremlin. They would have nothing to gain from such an operation, and very much to lose. Their allies already deny them weapons on the grounds that they might use them to attack Moscow. Such a high-profile Ukrainian attack would thus hurt Ukraine by making it less likely that they get the supplies they need to win the war and stop the killing in their own country. The question of Ukrainian motivation tends to lead us back to the Russians.
Even assuming the Ukrainians are lying and have misjudged their own interests: Could they send a drone over the Kremlin? It seems unlikely. Moscow bristles with anti-air defense, and the Kremlin would presumably be the space that is most carefully protected. That would tend to suggest that the people who sent the drones over the Kremlin were the same people who were in charge of the air defenses. So asking about Ukrainian capability also leads us back to the Russians.
Pushing the logic even further: let us assume the Ukrainians are lying, misunderstand their own interests, and do have the capability to carry out operations in Moscow. Even if all of that were true, would such a special Ukrainian team then expend such a capability and reveal its own existence by attacking a symbolically resonant but operationally meaningless target -- a flag tower on top of a building? That doesn't make much sense. If they were to take such a risk, they would do something meaningful.
My own sense is that the most likely scenario is that Russian state staged the incident as fake justification for war crimes in Ukraine. Keep in mind this is just informed speculation. My own perspective is influenced by my work as a historian of these kinds of operations (false-flag, or maskirovka). I know that they happen. But remember that history is also full of uncoordinated actions and improvisations.
The Russia propaganda response is a reason to believe that this was a Russian maskirovka. Over the course of the fourteen months of this war, a number of embarrassing things have happened to Russia. Battles have been lost. Installations have exploded inside Russia. They are exploding right now, in the days before and after the Kremlin incident. In most cases, the Russian response has been to ignore the setbacks. When a response was forthcoming, it was usually late and confused. In the case of the drones over the Kremlin, Moscow produced a crisp press statement. That suggests policy.
Why would Russia stage the Kremlin incident? That is the easy part: to try to rally Russians to support the war, and to claim that Russia is its true victim and is permitted to do whatever it wants. Russian propaganda television used the incident to call for war crimes measures. Russia's former president, Dmitri Medvedev, called for the murder of Ukraine's president. The day after the attacks, Russia's own press spokesman said essentially the same thing, in less wild language: this gives us permission to "retaliate" in Ukraine. In other words, the idea is the reframe the narrative so that Putin and Russia are the victims.
Of course, Russia has already invaded Ukraine, and did so fourteen months ago on the implausible logic that Russians were victims. It is already committing war crimes. Russia has already tried to assassinate Zelens'kyi, sending hit teams at the beginning of the war; and it kills Ukrainian civilians all the time. For more than a year, its soldiers have been executing local leaders, torturing large numbers of people, kidnapping children, and destroying whole cities. For Ukrainians, drones and missiles are a daily and deadly reality. Whatever actually happened over the Kremlin, no one was killed or injured. At the same time, Russia was attacking civilians in Kyiv, Odesa, and Kherson. In the Kherson attacks, twenty-three people were killed.
But lobbing missiles at shopping malls, as Russia just did yesterday in Kherson, is no way to win a war. The war is not going well for Russia. Hundreds of Russian soldiers are dying every day, for no appreciable gain. Mobilization notices are now being delivered electronically, so that men have no time to escape the country. The war is ever less popular among Russians generally. The Russian opposition abroad has issued a clear statement opposing the war. Oil tanks and other installations catch fire and explode in Russia on a regular basis. And a Ukrainian counter-offensive is coming. And so a staged attack on the Kremlin might be an effort to consolidate the nation against an enemy that would supposedly do such things.
There is a final reason why Russia might have staged such an incident at this moment. On May 9, there were to have been the usual parades in Moscow and throughout Russia, celebrating the victory of the Red Army in the Second World War. Traditionally, Russians carry photographs of relatives who fought and died then. Horrifying numbers of young Russian men have died in Ukraine. If Russians marching on 9 May carried photographs of those loved ones, the men killed in this war, things could get out of control. Russians might look at one another and realize the scale of the calamity their leader has brought to them. Russian authorities are hastily cancelling those marches. Staging an attack on the Kremlin gives them an excuse to do so.
I might be wrong about the false-flag. Seasoned observers of Russia think that the images are simply too embarrassing for the Kremlin. Perhaps so. Or perhaps this operation was simply not thought through to the end? Russian operations regarding Ukraine have not generally worked as expected.
If I am wrong, the next most likely scenario would be Russian partisans or an interagency dispute. Unlike Ukrainians, Russian partisans would have every incentive to do something visible and humiliating. In such a case, most of the reasoning above still applies. It would make sense for the Kremlin to blame Ukraine for Russian actions beyond its control. The very last thing it would want Russians to know is that there is coordinated opposition to the war inside Russia.
The Kremlin will keep generating fictions, and real people will be killed. Whether they are Ukrainians or Russians, their deaths will not matter to Putin, who will prefer lies that allow him to claim victimhood. In this sense, the explosions over the Kremlin are nothing new, just an example of a pattern of this war which has been present from the beginning.
TS 3 May 2023
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