What are we to make of last Tuesday’s presumed drone attack on the Kremlin? All the indications are that two small uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) exploded on or above the Kremlin’s Senate building roughly sixteen minutes apart, all caught on numerous video recordings. Damage appears to have been slight. Predictably, the Russians were quick to blame Ukraine, and also that the attacks were sponsored and originated from Washington DC, an allegation that has been strenuously denied by the Americans. To date the USA has been reluctant to overtly encourage attacks on Russian territory.
There’s lots of speculation about who, therefore, might be responsible for the attack but very little hard evidence to back it up. Let’s have a quick look at the possibilities. First up is the theory that it could be a Russia/Putin initiated “false flag” stunt, and attempt to simulate an attack by Russia’s enemies, primarily Ukraine, to rally the Russian population to back the current conflict.
Now, although Russia is not averse to such false flag operations it seems unlikely in this case. Any attack that managed to breach Russian defences and reach the Kremlin, the very heart of the Russian state, would be a complete and utter embarrassment for both Putin and his presidency, and signify a weakness that could lead to his and his government’s demise.
If he can’t keep Moscow safe, they might ask, then how can he possibly keep the rest of us safe? Accordingly, I think this explanation is highly unlikely.
It is possible, of course, that a homegrown terrorist organisation or subversive opposition terrorist group within Russia itself could be responsible, with or without external support. The small and seemingly limited effect of the explosions point to a payload carried by small drones which could possibly have been launched from within the capital itself. How else can we explain the failure of Moscow’s comprehensive air defence systems to intercept them?
So, if it wasn’t the Russians themselves, either false flag or internal dissent, who was it? The obvious suspects are the Ukrainians, but this throws up some interesting questions. They have, of course, demonstrated their capabilities in this sphere with past drone attacks on airbases and fuel and ammunition dumps inside Russia and Russia-occupied Crimea, some with dramatic results.
But Moscow is another thing altogether. Russia’s capital has extensive and multi-layered air defences and it would seem to be impossible for drones launched many hundreds of kilometres away in Ukraine to reach the Kremlin without being intercepted or their guidance jammed or spoofed.
However, what if by some miracle this is what happened? What would the significance be?
Well, given the small explosions that occurred the damage would be much more psychological than physical. It could be considered that the Ukrainian attack, if that’s what it was, was a sort of modern day equivalent of the USA’s Doolittle Raid of April 1942.
Those not familiar with Second World War history may not be aware of this epic event. After the sneak Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Roosevelt and his Chiefs of Staff demanded a speedy response to lift American morale.
It was decided that a retaliatory bombing raid onthe Japanese islands would demonstrate America’s resolve and also show the Japanese population that their country was not invulnerable to attack.
In a daring and risky operation, sixteen American B-25 Marauder bombers were launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo and various other targets on what was essentially a one-way mission.
The plan was that the aircraft would carry on and land in friendly China, where they would refuel and make their way to American bases. In the end, all of the aircraft crashed in China, although most crew survived. The one exception was the B-25 that landed near Vladivostok in the Soviet Union where the aircraft was impounded and the crew interned (although secretly released after a few months).
In terms of military effectiveness the raid was a failure; damage to Japanese installations was minimal. But in terms of psychological damage it was effective, as the Japanese population had up to that point considered themselves to be out of harm’s way. It was a portent of far worse things to come.
Could at be that the drone attack on the Kremlin had the same thought in mind? We still cannot be sure who was responsible for the attack and will probably only find out in the fullness of time, if ever.
However, if it was Ukraine then it is yet another humiliation for Putin. And perhaps the populations of Moscow and greater Russia are now sleeping less soundly in their beds?
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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