The recent entrance of two drones into the Kremlin has caused much speculation. It is a peculiar attack for which there is no apparent explanation, given the drones’ ability to fly hundreds of kilometers over Russian territory, assuming they were launched from inside Ukraine, and the failure of the Russian security and air defense systems, which are supposed to provide a strict fence of protection on the strategic sites of the Russian state, and there is nothing more important than the Kremlin citadel that houses the Russian president’s office, residence, and key institutions like the Security Council of Russia.
The Pantsir-S1 air cover system, which gained prominence and significance as the most effective Russian product in the field of air defense, has been thoroughly embarrassed after the attack, as it was promoted as a robust anti-aircraft and anti-missile system capable of striking lightly armored ground targets and enemy manpower during the Ukrainian war.
The recent attack had immediate consequences, even before the perpetrators were identified, as it exposed the entire Russian Air Defense Force to great embarrassment after having been promoted at the outset of the Ukrainian war as being a robust anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, capable of striking lightly armored ground targets and enemy manpower, by this, NATO’s capabilities, not Ukraine alone, were intended. The Pantsir system is also the last line of defense for Russian military and civilian installations, as well as Moscow’s most vulnerable geographic areas. For this reason, the Russian military has been using it in Crimea since 2018.
This system is the last line of defense because it is designed to shield Russian long-range air defense systems such as the S-300 and S-400 from being attacked by cutting-edge, high-tech air attack weapons, especially because it has ultraviolet rays that can be used to destroy ammunition against hostile targets approaching from low and very low altitudes. When that advanced Russian system went into service in 2010, it was said to have outstanding capabilities.
But is it practically possible for two drones to penetrate an air defense system operating at this level of effectiveness? That’s why some people have cast doubt on whether or not Ukraine was responsible for the attack. The initial US perspective was that President Putin required such a “symbolic” attack in order to invest it internally in an anticipated escalation. Russia’s firm response to the attack, which was widely seen as an attempt to kill President Putin, and the escalating threat that accompanied it gave rise to the impression that Russia would launch a major retaliation.
As per usual, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Russian Federation’s Security Council, presided over the event. In his opening remarks, he said that as a result of the drone attack, Russia had no choice but to eliminate President Zelensky and his advisors. Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State confirmed his familiarity with the initial details of the attack, but he expressed the desire to proceed with extreme caution given the peculiarity of what had occurred. Russia’s accusation against Washington of being behind the attack became a stable reality starting the day after it occurred, Dmitry Peskov outlining the roles of those involved in the attack, emphasizing that American planning and decision-making were involved, while the Ukrainian role in the operation, which he described as terrorist, was limited to implementation only. Considering the unrestricted intelligence assistance provided by the United States to Kiev, this is a reasonable assumption; however, if we accept it at face value, we are once again confronted with the square of the Russian defense failure and the questions that surround it.
During times of war, similar precise questions remain unanswered, shrouded in ambiguity that is typically not resolved in the short term, and accusations remain pending even if intelligence services discover who the perpetrator is, as they usually become reluctant to disclose this information as long as they do not gain an operational advantage from it. It is, nevertheless, still true that two drone attacks, with a 16-minute gap between them, occurred. A small explosion was caused by the first drone attack, which happened at 2:27 am Moscow time, over the Kremlin Senate palace. With the second assault, the anti-aircraft defenses appeared to have awakened. The drone debris hit the Kremlin grounds at 2:43 am, indicating that it was shot down before it reached its intended destination. The attack and its location were widely broadcast in the media, without the logically anticipated Russian attempt to conceal it, which forms the basis of the skeptic’s perspective. Russia’s response disregarded the logically assumed embarrassment and demonstrated Moscow’s coherence and indifference towards a precise attack that touches the lair of “sovereignty” in wartime, which is really exciting and suspicious, especially since the attack occurred only a few days before 9 May, which marks Victory Day, and a few meters also separate the site of the attack from the location of the most significant national celebration.
Given the symbolism of such an attack and disregarding potential moral losses for the Russian people, is Moscow genuinely attempting to set the scene, bearing in mind that the Ukraine conflict is “existential” to the Russian people? In reality, the majority of the Russian public has been adamantly calling for months to intensify military operations in order to end the conflicts with a decisive field victory that will ensure their safety and psychological satisfaction. However, given numerous indications of armament and ammunition shortages, it appears that Russia was unable to accomplish this. The lack of readiness put the commander of Wagner’s forces, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a very bizarre position, as he claimed that the Ukrainian counterattack had begun on 3 May, which was implausible. Then, does this claim have any relation to the events on Kremlin Square? The temporal synchronicity is intriguing. Furthermore, Prigozhin never stopped upsetting Moscow and humiliating the army generals, so where is the truth, and what are its dimensions?
The Arabic version of this article was originally published in Al-Ahram on 6 May.