On Wednesday, two bright lights were seen moving over the Kremlin. This time, it didn’t seem to be incoming meteors, but a pair of drones. Considering that Moscow is within 500 km of the Ukrainian border, the distance drones would have to travel to reach Red Square is actually less than that covered by some drones that reportedly launched into eastern Ukraine from areas around Odesa. Even so, the idea that two drones could not only cross the border, not only reach the Moscow area, but actually overfly the Kremlin before being engaged by anti-aircraft fire, some of which seemed to come from—and this is real—people climbing on top of the Kremlin dome to shoot at them, seems absolutely extraordinary.
The Kremlin hurried out a butt-covering statement claiming that “two unmanned aerial vehicles” were brought down by “timely actions taken by the military and special services with the use of radar warfare systems,” but to put this in NAFO terms, “What air defense doing?” Apparently, not much. However, some reports claim the drones may not have traveled 500 km at all, and that they were launched from the Moscow suburbs by Russian partisans. It could’ve even been Ukrainian special forces smuggling the drones to those Moscow suburbs.
For Russia, it’s not clear which is worse: Either air defenses are so poor that Ukraine can easily send drones along what should be the most secure air corridor in the nation, or Russia’s internal security is so lax that people are launching attacks from right outside Vladimir Putin’s door.
On Wednesday morning, Red Square was closed to the public. That Kremlin statement indicated that taking out the drones had resulted in a “scattering of fragments on the territory of the Kremlin.” Maybe it was that, or maybe it was a growing sense of paranoia from those behind Kremlin walls.
However, there is a third option for the drones-above-the-Kremlin event. Please note that this is pure speculation at this point, but … it may have been staged. Maybe Red Square is closed so no one sees that the recovered fragments are of Iranian drones stamped “property of Vladimir Putin.”
With the May 9 “Victory Day” parade rolling around for the second time since Putin sent the tanks over the border, there is still no victory to be celebrated. Russia controls thousands of square kilometers less than it did a year earlier. That last parade was already something of a damp squib, coming just a month after Russia had lost the Battle of Kyiv and been forced to withdraw much of its forces from northern Ukraine.
Putin is facing a Victory Day in which celebrations in regional capitals near Ukraine have been canceled out of fear of Ukrainian strikes. In Moscow, it’s already been announced that some traditional elements of the parade will be missing, likely because the necessary troops and tanks are busy elsewhere. Putin will probably still get to stand there and stare at a small group of T-14 Armata tank prototypes because, despite claims, none have so far turned up in Ukraine. Otherwise, this seems like a pretty sad little event.
How would staging a drone fly-by of the Kremlin help Putin’s sorry celebration? Well, there are a couple of possibilities; one of them fairly benign, the other absolutely toxic.
Going back to that morning statement from the Kremlin, there is something in there that hints toward what Moscow might do. “We regard these actions as a planned terrorist act and an attempt on the President,” says the statement, “carried out on the eve of Victory Day, the May 9th Parade, at which the presence of foreign guests is also planned.”
On the one hand, that could be an excuse to simply cancel the parade. Shut it down, shake a finger toward Ukraine for spoiling this great tradition, and avoid showing how much less of a military presence Putin was able to bring to the streets of Moscow. After all, even jaded Muscovites might notice if you’re just cycling the same shoddy platoon around the block repeatedly.
The much darker option is that Putin could use this as an excuse to stage a missile attack directly on the presidential residence, presidential office building, or parliament in Kyiv. In general, political leaders are reticent about the idea of overtly calling for the assassination of other political leaders (though it certainly does happen), especially when they don’t feel all that secure about their own safety. Putin may not actually harm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or his family, but he could certainly send a terrifying signal that Russia’s already unhinged actions were going even lower. Pictures of rescue workers searching through the broken ruins of Ukraine’s government buildings seems like just the sort of thing that Putin would like to brag about as his diminished military wobbled past his podium.
The only issue for Putin might be whether or not he could actually do it. In the most recent round of missile launches, Ukraine shot down all of the missiles that were aimed at Kyiv. For all we know, those missiles were already aimed at Zelenskyy’s bedroom.
For Putin to declare that the gloves were coming off, but not being able to land a punch, would be an appropriate signal of Moscow’s growing impotence. But Moscow openly declaring that assassination was in style, would be bad for a number of reasons.
In the last hour, as this was being written, the Russian government put out a second statement again calling the drone flyover “a planned terrorist attack” and “an attempt on the president.” Which certainly sounds like pre-justification of some type of retaliation. That was followed shortly by a statement from former Russian president and Putin’s right-hand-man Dmitry Medvedev who said, “After today’s terrorist attack, there are no options left except the physical elimination of Zelenskyy and his cabal.”
So Russia is explicitly using this event to justify the attempted assassination of Zelenskyy.
Right now the Russian government is claiming that Ukraine was able to fly a pair of drones right to the heart of its capital city, penetrate what are supposed to be many overlapping rings of air defenses, and come so close to taking out the Kremlin that debris from the shoot down is on the bricks of Red Square. That should make everyone in Russia do a serious re-think about their national security—and maybe take a serious second look at the man who put them into this situation.
But there are very good odds this was all about as real as one of those Trump coins.
Another day, another fuel depot. Or two.
Moscow wasn’t the only place that saw drone action overnight, and it wasn’t the only place where air defenses proved less than stellar. In an area immediately across the Kerch strait, another Russian fuel depot burst into flames last night as local reports indicated it had been struck by a Ukrainian drone.
This is the largest storage field for oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel in the area. It’s also, by far, the one closest to the damaged bridge from Russia into Crimea. While the rail lines across that bridge may currently be either out, or of very limited service, this storage field is connected to the rail leading to the bridge by a spur. This is reportedly the location where Russia both fuels vehicles heading into Crimea, and sources much of the fuel for the region.
Initial videos of the area show only a single storage tank in flames. That tank is one of 27 in just this part of the storage field. Whether this fire has since spread to other tanks, or damaged pipelines needed to move fuel in or out of the tanks, isn’t clear, but it seems as if Russia may have limited the damage here, unlike the massive fire at the field in Sevastopol.
But wait, there’s more. Also on Wednesday, a large explosion was reported in the area of Mospyne, about 10 km southeast of Donetsk. Those in the area reported a roaring noise followed by a large column of rising smoke, “as if a volcano had gone off.” The explosive cloud appears to have been tremendous.
Multiple sources have identified the target as the local airport, but there seem to be two problems with this. One is that it’s hard to image what could be at an airfield that would result in such an explosion. The second is that unless it’s exceptionally well hidden, Mospyne doesn’t have an airport. Other sources have identified this as an ammunition depot, and that seems much more likely considering the results of the strike.
Over the last five days, Ukraine has hit two fuel storage fields in the Crimea area, which might seem to suggest that the Ukrainian military was looking south when it came to potential targets for the counteroffensive. These strikes might be a signal that Ukraine is going to make that punch toward Melitopol and then the Black Sea coast, as many have expected.
But then, Ukraine also hit what seems to be a large ammunition depot near Donetsk. So maybe they’re going for the knockout punch that kos described in April.
Or maybe they’re just doing what they can to weaken Russian forces, degrade Russia’s already sorry logistics, and keep their options open as Ukraine prepares to move.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.