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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Escalation Spark: How The Kremlin Drone Attack Could Reshape The War In Ukraine

Moscow is accusing Kyiv of trying to assassinate Putin in a drone strike on the Kremlin. It will likely be used as a pretext for Putin to escalate attacks.

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 3

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 3

Pierre Haski


PARIS — It is the most mysterious episode since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine 14 months ago. It's also bound to shape the outcome of the war, at what is already a decisive moment.

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Russia has accused Ukraine of attempting to assassinate Vladimir Putin during a drone attack on the Kremlin. The two drones were destroyed over the historic building complex of Red Square in Moscow. The Russian spokesperson declared that there would be retaliation, and that Russia would decide when and how.

Ukraine has categorically denied any responsibility. Indeed, Kyiv would deny it even if it was behind the operation, especially if it failed. Nevertheless, there are several inconsistencies to the Russian version of events.

First, it does not correspond to any Ukrainian modus operandi since the beginning of the war. In recent days, there have been several attacks in Russian territory, but each time on military or strategic targets, such as fuel depots. Never on political or civilian targets.

Secondly, it is a well-known fact that Putin is rarely present at the Kremlin; and, in fact, he was absent when the attack occurred. Exceptional intelligence quality would be necessary to be sure of reaching the Russian President inside the Kremlin.

Pretext for Putin

It is difficult to be categorical in such a case, where information is unverifiable, and the statements are diametrically opposed.

But what is more important now is the aftermath of the attack, given how alarming the Kremlin's threatened retaliation is. The last time Moscow responded with an escalation to an attack was after the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia, had been partly destroyed. Russian missile and kamikaze drone strikes on Ukrainian cities followed.

The drone incident provides an ideal pretext for a new escalation.

We don’t know yet what the reprisals that have been announced could be. But whether they prove to be true or false, the drone incident provides an ideal pretext for a new escalation, even if Putin does not need an excuse to strike. Yet it would nevertheless allow him to justify additional mobilization and new casualties on the front among the Russian public opinion, to which he pays particular attention.

It's also significant that on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the U.S. of being behind the drone attack in Moscow, saying: “We know very well that decisions about such actions are made not in Kyiv but in Washington."

Photo provided by Ukraine's military showing parts of what it says is a downed Russian drone that reads "For the Kremlin."

Ukraine's military has released photos of what it says are downed Russian drones with inscriptions that read "For the Kremlin" (see photo above) or "For Moscow” — in apparent retaliation for the drone attack on the Kremlin. 

Ukraine military/Operational Command South

Ukraine's counteroffensive

Despite the significant weaknesses it's been showing for a year, one would be wrong to underestimate the Russian army. It is now firmly established along the North-South front line. The expected Ukrainian counteroffensive will have a challenging time breaking through the Russian defenses.

This is a decisive moment because this anticipated counteroffensive must allow Ukraine to demonstrate its ability to create a more advantageous power dynamic. The influx of Western weaponry delivered is specifically aimed at this. New equipment deliveries will be announced by France shortly, as Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelensky discussed it last Saturday.

But the presence of these drones above the Kremlin, a few days before Russia’s May 9 commemoration of its victory over Nazism, is adding another layer of complexity to the already intricate strategic question. Their deployment is most likely to trigger new tragedies in this ongoing conflict at the center of Europe.

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