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What we know about the murky drone attack on the Kremlin – and the questions that remain

<i>Ostorozhno Novosti/Reuters</i><br/>The tight ring of security that surrounds the seat of the Russian presidency was punctured by what appeared to be two attempted drone strikes on May 3. A still image taken from video shows a flying object exploding near the dome of the Kremlin.
Ostorozhno Novosti/Reuters
The tight ring of security that surrounds the seat of the Russian presidency was punctured by what appeared to be two attempted drone strikes on May 3. A still image taken from video shows a flying object exploding near the dome of the Kremlin.

By Rob Picheta, Anna Chernova and Allegra Goodwin, CNN

The tight ring of security that surrounds the seat of the Russian presidency was punctured in dramatic fashion by what appeared to be two attempted drone strikes in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

But until the Kremlin chose to publicize the incident around 12 hours later, social media footage of the incident had gained little attention.

Why Russia decided to reveal the security breach is unclear. But in a five-paragraph statement on Wednesday, the Kremlin made the incendiary claim that the incident was an assassination attempt launched by Ukraine on the the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Kyiv forcefully denied the claim.

Kyiv was bombarded with missiles in the hours following Russia’s claims, in keeping with Putin’s historic willingness to strike Ukrainian cities after any alleged act of provocation.

Many details about the incident remain murky. Here’s what we know — and the questions that remain.

What happened?

Moscow said the alleged attack took place in the early hours of Wednesday. Two “unmanned aerial vehicles” were intercepted and destroyed before they caused any damage or injury, the Kremlin said.

The Russian president was not in the building at the time, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Videos then emerged on social media appearing to show the incident. CNN analysis of these videos supports Moscow’s claim that two drones were flown above the Kremlin.

A video that appeared to show smoke rising from the Kremlin surfaced on a Telegram channel at 2:37 a.m. local time Wednesday. The first reports of the incident citing the Kremlin came via Russian state media TASS and RIA around 2:33 p.m. local time — around 12 hours later.

Shortly after the first media reports, another video appearing to show the moment an apparent drone exploded above the Kremlin began circulating widely on social media. In the video, it seems to fly towards the building’s domed roof, followed by what looks like a small explosion.

In this video, two people appear to be climbing on the dome holding flashlights, and can be seen ducking down just before the moment of the explosion. The people climbing the dome are not present in the first of these videos, but appear in the second, suggesting they were responding to the fire caused earlier.

Who’s saying what?

The Kremlin blamed Ukraine, describing the purported drone attack as an “attempt on the President’s life.”

In a statement, the Kremlin said, “We view these actions as a planned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt,” adding that “Russia reserves the right to take countermeasures wherever and whenever it deems appropriate.”

On Thursday, Russia also claimed the US was involved in the attack. “Undoubtedly, Such decisions, the definition of goals, the definition of means — all this is dictated to Kyiv from Washington,” Peksov said.

Both allegations drew sharp denials from Kyiv and Washington.

“We don’t attack Putin or Moscow,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a news conference in Helsinki on Wednesday.

“We fight on our territory, we are defending our villages and cities. We don’t have enough weapon[s] for this. That’s why we don’t use it anywhere [else],” Zelensky said. “We didn’t attack Putin. We leave it to tribunal,” he said.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications, called Russia’s allegation that the US directed Ukraine to carry out such an attack “ridiculous.”

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said it the US did not know who was responsible. “I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt,” he told a Washingon Post event on Wednesday.

Who else could be responsible?

If Ukraine wasn’t the perpetrator, one possibility is that the incident was the work of Russian partisans — as claimed by a former Russian lawmaker linked with militant groups in Russia.

Ilya Ponomarev told CNN’s Matthew Chance that “it’s one of (the) Russian partisan groups,” adding that “I cannot say more, as they have not yet publicly claimed responsibility.” Ponomarev, who lives in exile in Ukraine and Poland, was the only Russian MP to vote against the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and has since been included on a list of terrorist suspects, according to the Russian authorities.

According to Ponomarev, members of partisans group inside Russia are usually “youngsters, students, residents of large cities. I am aware of the partisan activity in approximately 40 cities across Russia,” he told CNN.

Evidence of actual partisan activity inside Russia remains scant. A formation calling itself the Russian Volunteer Corps is fighting on the side of Kyiv in Ukraine and claimed to have carried out a brief armed incursion into Russian territory earlier this year, but the group’s size is unclear. Russia claims Ukraine has carried out drone strikes on military airfields in western and southwestern Russia, but Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied those allegations.

Others speculate that the incident could have been a false flag operation to either rally the public or escalate Russia’s military mobilization. Myhaylo Podolyak, an advisor to the Ukrainian Presidential Office, told CNN that Moscow’s claims about the incident were an attempt at controlling the narrative ahead of a much anticipated Ukrainian counter offensive.

“Russia without a doubt is very afraid of Ukraine starting an offensive on the frontline and is trying to seize the initiative, distract the attention and create distractions of a catastrophic nature,” he said. “So, Russian statements on such staged operations need to be taken as an attempt to create pretext for a large scale terrorist attack in Ukraine.”

The Institute for the Study of War has also assessed that “Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization.”

US officials have also said they were still assessing the incident, and had no information about who might have been responsible. Whatever the truth, any admission of a security breach at the heart of the Kremlin is remarkable.

What happens next?

Moscow already launched a wave of missiles at Kyiv following the incident, a move in line with its playbook after previous flashpoints in the war.

And messages written on Russian drones launched at Odesa overnight read “for Moscow” and “for the Kremlin,” according to the Ukrainian military, an apparent reference to the alleged attack.

US and Ukrainian officials have in the past warned that Russia has planned so-called “false flag” attacks along Russia’s border with Ukraine as a pretext for military escalation, including Russian claims ahead of last year’s full-scale invasion that Ukraine was sending “saboteurs” over the Russian border. Russia has also been embarrassed in recent months by symbolic incidents such as the sinking of the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, under disputed circumstances.

Moscow is also looking to project strength by following through with its planned Victory Day parade. Peskov reiterated that the parade would go ahead as planned.

But while Russia has on occasion used missile bombardments around Ukraine to show its anger following flashpoints in the conflict, the ground fighting in eastern Ukraine has been bogged down in stalemate for months and it appears unlikely that Wednesday’s incident will have a material impact on momentum.

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