Details in the drone incident the Kremlin says aimed to assassinate Putin 'don't quite add up.' Experts have 3 theories on what happened.

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  • Russia claimed Wednesday that Ukraine tried to assassinate Putin with a drone attack at the Kremlin.

  • Experts say there are some things that "don't quite add up."

  • They came up with three theories on what might have happened based on what little is known.

Security cameras captured striking footage of two drones, one of which can be seen exploding on video, above the hardened Kremlin citadel this week.

Russian officials claimed the overnight drone incident was an attempt by Kyiv to assassinate its leader, but with little evidence linking it to the drones. Ukraine says it wasn't them. So who was responsible?

In a war rife with propaganda, experts told Insider that they see hallmarks of Ukraine's long-range drone attacks and also of Russia's staged attempts to justify dangerous escalations to try to break the military stalemate. If it was a Ukrainian attack, it would suggest its leaders risked a major escalation with a poorly executed plan, with too few explosives and Putin not there anyway. And then there's the questions about how the drones got so close to the seat of power in one of the world's most defended capitols. There are a number of things in this mystery that still don't make sense or simply don't add up.

Video from the incident shows one of the drones explode and rain down flaming debris over the Kremlin, potentially after being intercepted by Russian defenses. It also shows what appears to be two people on the roof of the building for an unexplained purpose.

Blaming Ukraine, the Kremlin characterized the incident Wednesday as a "planned terrorist act and an attempt on the president's life," though there was no actual threat to Putin, given that he was not there at the time. The Kremlin said Russia "reserves the right to take retaliatory measures," but since Russia is already waging war in Ukraine and striking its population centers with long-range missiles, it is unclear how Moscow might escalate.

Ukraine denied any involvement in the strike, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying: "We don't attack Putin or Moscow."

But experts told Insider that despite bold statements from both countries, much remains uncertain. "There is a lot we still don't know about this strike," said Samuel Bendett, a Center for Naval Analyses expert on Russian defense and drones.

James Patton Rogers, a military historian and adviser to NATO on drones and warfare, said that "there's a few things that don't quite add up in this situation."

Bendett, for instance, noted that "it seems strange" that the unmanned aircraft managed to fly so close to the Kremlin complex, seemingly evading most of Moscow's layered air defenses. These defenses, especially for critical targets like the Kremlin, have been bolstered since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but, that being said, questions have come up about Russian force protection capabilities.

Emphasizing that their thoughts at this stage are highly speculative at best, the experts outlined three possible scenarios that could explain Wednesday's dramatic events in the Russian capital.

A "No Drone Zone" sign sits just off the Kremlin in central Moscow as it prohibits unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) flying over the area, on May 3, 2023.
A "No Drone Zone" sign sits just off the Kremlin in central Moscow as it prohibits unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) flying over the area, on May 3, 2023.NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Scenario 1: Ukraine sends a warning

For starters, there's the possibility Ukraine was behind the attack, as the Russians claim. They certainly have ample motive and assets.

Ukraine has previously denied activities in Russia or on Russian-occupied territory only to later acknowledge involvement, such as when its forces struck Russian military targets in Crimea last summer. And though they didn't claim responsibility, there have also been strikes on military bases deep in Russian territory attributed to Ukraine.

So Ukraine's denial of responsibility is being taken with a grain of salt by some observers.

"One explanation could be that it was launched by Ukraine to demonstrate the increased ability to launch deep precision strikes at one of the world's most secure and reinforced targets," wrote Patton Rogers on Twitter.

The type of drone used is still an open question, but none of potential models experts flagged for Insider rule Ukraine out as a suspect.

Dr. Marina Miron, a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies at King's College London, said, based on observing its flight pattern in the video, that it could be a small Chinese-made quadcopter, a fairly ubiquitous system. Bendett identified other possibilities as the Chinese-made Mugin-5 or the Ukrainian PD-1.

Both Patton Rogers and Bendett told Insider that it is feasible the drone used could be the UJ-22, a fixed-wing drone often used by Ukrainian forces. Bendett said the "UJ-22 has a long range and can potentially reach Moscow."

The UJ-22 is capable of autonomously flying around 500 miles towards a pre-set target. Its ability to fly comparatively low, and slowly, would potentially help it evade some radar, Patton Rogers said.

Social media imagery suggests that the same model was used in an attempted drone strike on a Gazprom site near Moscow in February, as The Guardian reported at the time.

"One hypothesis — and it is a hypothesis because we don't know the details — could be that that strike a couple of months ago has allowed Ukraine to see what the first, or indeed the second layer of air defense for Russia consists of," Patton Rogers told Insider.

But even if Ukraine were behind it, the likelihood of it being a serious attempt on Putin's life seems small, he said.

"If it was truly an assassination attempt as opposed to a show of strength, then the payload seems rather small from the explosions that we've seen," Patton Rogers said, pointing to the relatively small blast seen in the video, suggesting its explosive payload was likely too small to penetrate a reinforced building.

"It would be odd to send in just one or two of these systems and to give away the element of surprise without knowing exactly where Putin was," he added.

Miron agreed that this would likely be more of a signal — to say that "even the Kremlin is vulnerable" after Russia has repeatedly bombarded Ukraine.

"You could interpret it as a sort of warning," she said, noting that "next time it might be more explosive, or a swarm of drones."

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves in a village outside of Pskov, Russia, on September 11, 2021.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Scenario 2: Russia was behind it

The signs are also there: Putin was never at risk. The iconic building suffered minimal damage. And politicians immediately seized on this to argue that Russia itself is under attack.

Patton Rogers told Insider that it's possible the strike and the accompanying rhetoric was orchestrated by Russia to justify a possible assassination attack on Ukraine's Zelenskyy.

Russia has engaged in so-called false flag actions to justify military action, and Russian rhetoric and actions during and just before the start of the Ukraine war repeatedly set off alarm bells abroad.

Casting doubt on Russia's accusations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that Russian allegations often have to be taken with "a very large shaker of salt."

Claiming that Ukraine tried to assassinate Putin would potentially "open up a new norm in the war," Patton Rogers said.

To be sure, Russia has repeatedly tried — and failed — to capture or eliminate Zelenskyy since the war started more than a year ago, though perhaps Russia now plans to pursue a decapitation strategy more aggressively.

Presidential adviser Mikhail Podolyak told local media last year that the Ukrainian leader had survived more than a dozen assassination attempts. Senior US officials, including CIA Director Bill Burns, were also aware of these plots.

That doesn't rule out a false-flag operation, but it may mean a different motive.

US intelligence said last year that a group of Russian operatives were conducting a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine, which would offer Moscow potential justification to mobilize more troops. On Twitter Wednesday, presidential adviser Podolyak said "Russia is clearly preparing a large-scale terrorist attack."

Another potential motivation would be to bolster popular support for the war, Miron said.

"Russia needs some sort of justification for why they are continuing to stay in Ukraine," she said. "And so this has a message for the domestic populace to say, 'Look how dangerous Ukraine is. They're even trying to kill Putin.'"

no drone zone sign near Kremlin in Moscow Russia
A "No Drone Zone" sign in Zaryadye park, a short distance from the Kremlin in central Moscow on March 15, 2023.NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Scenario 3: The work of anti-Putin Russians

"A third option could be that this has nothing to do with the Ukrainian military at all," said Patton Rogers, raising the possibility that dissident groups in Russia were responsible.

Podolyak made pretty much this exact claim in a tweet, saying the attack "can only indicate the guerilla activities of local resistance forces. As you know, drones can be bought at any military store."

There have been multiple reports of attacks on critical infrastructure and assassination attempts throughout Russia's war in Ukraine, some of which have been claimed by various dissident groups. Russia's mobilization of hundreds of thousands of troops last fall catalyzed resistance to Putin's regime, but most of their attacks have come against mobilization centers run by the Russian defense ministry.

Patton Rogers said he hasn't "seen any indication" that such groups have the capacity to use drones in their attacks. "So that would be a leap of imagination based on the empirical data that we have at this moment in time," he said.

Miron also acknowledged this possibility but pointed out that Moscow is highly secure with facial recognition cameras, which would be a strong deterrent for a local trying to launch and control a strike drone, better yet, two of them.

"Such an act would mean that the probability of this person being caught would be very, very high," she said.

"I guess we'll never know the truth," Miron concluded. "Maybe if documents get declassified in a hundred years, then we'll know what exactly happened."

Read the original article on Business Insider