Kyiv, Ukraine – What happened over the vermilion walls of the Kremlin early on Wednesday could have been a dream come true for many Ukrainians, who have been suffering at the hands of invading Russian troops for more than a year.
What could showcase Ukraine’s resilience better than a drone attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s residence in the medieval fortress-turned government seat of power, a centuries-old symbol of Russia’s imperial power that stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific?
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But analysts told Al Jazeera that the details of the attack, which Russia blamed on Washington and Kyiv without providing any evidence, remain unclear and unverified.
Both the United States and Ukraine have denied those allegations while the European Union warned Moscow against using the apparent assault as reason to further escalate its brutal war.
Around 2:30am on Wednesday [23:30 GMT on Tuesday], a small drone flying from the south crashed into the dome of the Senate Palace, an 18th-century building that serves as Putin’s official workplace.
A video shared on the Telegram messaging app appearing to have captured the incident shows a collision sparked a fire, and a plume of smoke was visible in central Moscow.
About 15 minutes later, another drone flying from the east crashed into the palace’s roof. Two men were seen ascending the ladder leading to the palace.
Russian officials said Putin was not in the building at the time.
There were no casualties, but a roof was slightly damaged.
Raining drones on Russia
In recent months, Ukraine has used drones of all shapes and sizes from modernised Soviet-era planes to tiny civilian drones to strike military supply lines, arms and fuel depots, cargo trains and power stations all over western Russia.
One of the attacks in July targeted an airfield near a Volga River city that lies about 650km (400 miles) east of the Ukrainian border. The base was home to Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers that had launched ballistic missiles on Ukrainian cities.
Several drones have crashed in the Moscow region without causing much damage but sowing panic even among the most patriotic Russians.
Ukraine routinely denies responsibility for the attacks, sometimes mockingly calling them “smoking in the wrong places” or ascribing them to the “landings of UFOs”.
And while Moscow or regional officials announced and denounced each attack almost immediately, it took Russia 12 hours to mention the Kremlin drone attack.
A squall of anger
“The Kremlin sees the Kyiv regime’s attempted strike as a preplanned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt on the Russian president,” it said via the state-run Tass news agency on Wednesday afternoon.
It emphasised the attack’s timing – just days before the May 9 parade on Red Square in front of the Kremlin to celebrate the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Under Putin, the May 9 celebrations have become the largest annual public event, a series of quasi-religious ceremonies between early May and June designed to demonstrate Moscow’s “messianic” role in saving humankind from Nazism.
Critics point to ‘victory-hysteria’
Russian leaders and state-backed media often compare the ongoing war with Ukraine to World War II and call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government a “neo-Nazi junta”.
“Russia reserves the right to respond to the strike on the Kremlin whenever and with whatever necessary,” the Kremlin’s statement said.
A Ukrainian observer said the attack is beneficial for the Kremlin’s efforts to rally war-weary Russians.
“This is a perfect version for the Kremlin because the Kremlin is a symbol, and the whole thing goes in line with the ‘victory-hysteria’,” Igar Tyshkevich, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
The Kremlin will promptly use the media buzz about the attack to justify another wave of mobilisations of Russian men and a tougher crackdown on critics, he said.
“There will be a law enforcement component with searches, arrests, persecution of dissidents,” he said.
An exiled Russian opposition activist agreed.
“An attack on the Kremlin, a sacred place, has to appeal to patriotic feelings, emphasise that the Russian army is ‘defending their nation’s freedom and independence’,” Sergey Bizyukin, a publicist who fled the western city of Ryazan, told Al Jazeera.
“This is yet another justification of mass killings in Ukraine by Russian law enforcement officers and a motivation [urging Russians] to volunteer to the front line and for reservists to silently suffer the accompanying hardships and limitations,” he said.
A Ukrainian observer says the attack could have been organised by the “aggressive” faction in the Kremlin.
“This is an attempt of an aggressive tower of the Kremlin to push Putin towards radicalisation,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
He compared the attack to the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany that was staged by Adolf Hitler’s nascent National Socialist party to justify the persecution of opponents and Jews.
The drone attack “corresponds with the promotion of narratives about ‘political Ukraine’ that, in the opinion of ideologues of the warlike Kremlin tower, needs to be destroyed, like communism and Jewry in Germany”, Kushch said.
Putin is ‘calm’
The attack was the first on the Kremlin since World War II, Russian media reminded their audiences on Wednesday night.
“The attack is obviously demonstrative,” a news anchor said on Kremlin-controlled Channel One. “Kyiv provokes an escalation, but this time, this provocation is on the next level.”
Putin’s press service said Putin kept his cool.
“You know, in such complicated, extreme situations, the president is always calm, collected, precise in his assessments, in the commands he gives,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who accused the White House of ordering the attack.
“Decisions about such actions and terrorist attacks are taken not in Kyiv but in Washington. Attempts to deny them in Kyiv and Washington are absolutely ridiculous,” Peskov said.
Zelenskyy’s spokesman was adamant that the drones were not Ukrainian.
“Ukraine channels all of its resources to liberate its own territories, not to attack others’ [territories],” Serhii Nikiforov said.
He also emphasised that the explosions were perfectly timed to the May 9 celebrations.
“What happened in Moscow is an obvious escalation ahead of May 9,” he said. “An expected trick of our enemy.”