The Kremlin Drone Ding and the Wagner Rant
The past week has seen two strange developments related to the Ukraine war that have raised more questions than answers: the drone strike at the Kremlin last Wednesday and a rollercoaster drama involving the head of the Wagner Group.
The drone strike—or rather strikes, since there were two about 15 minutes apart—happened in the early morning hours. Remarkable video footage shows the small drone slamming into the flagpole atop the dome of the Senate Palace building in the Kremlin and bursting into flames.
Whodunit? Russia and Ukraine immediately pointed fingers at each other, with the Kremlin quickly claiming that the strike was an act of “terrorism” intended to kill Putin (while acknowledging that he was nowhere near and that the hits caused only minor damage to the dome) and Ukraine just as quickly claiming that the it was a Russian false flag operation, perhaps intended to make Ukraine look reckless and discourage the West from giving Kyiv long-range missiles that actually could take out the Russian leader. There are, of course, other possibilities as well. It could be a pro-Ukraine Russian guerilla group. It could be (as Eric Edelman pointed out to Bulwark+ subscribers) a rogue Russian war hawk group trying to escalate matters.
Independent Russian and Ukrainian commentators have landed on different sides of this question. On Friday, expatriate Russian journalist Yulia Latynina—who, like nearly all of her fellow expats, is strongly pro-Ukraine—was visibly skeptical when Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, insisted on the false flag theory: Latynina’s view is that the strike is a major humiliation for the Kremlin and would amount, as she put it, to Putin “taking a poo on his own head” (childish euphemism in the original).
Leaving aside third and fourth parties, there are strong arguments for both Kyiv and the Kremlin as the prime suspects—not so much in the technical details of the strike itself as in its motives and aftermath. Russia certainly used the strike to energize a propaganda cycle, with familiar faces such as television host Vladimir Solovyov ranting about the necessity of counterstrikes that would kill Zelensky and wipe out the “Ukro-Reich” altogether. A “terrorist attack” on the Kremlin orchestrated by the Ukrainian government and military—and presumably aided by local accomplices—could justify both an escalation of strikes at the Ukrainians, including the civilian population, and an escalation of repressive measures at home. (On the other hand, since when has the Putin regime needed an excuse for either of those things?)
On Sunday, also on Latynina’s YouTube show, Ukrainian retired fighter pilot Roman Svitan, a colonel in the reserve forces, offered another argument for the false flag theory by pointing to Russia’s pre-dawn air attacks on Kyiv Thursday, about 24 hours after the drone strike on the Kremlin. The attacks apparently included a hypersonic Kinzhal missile intercepted by the U.S.-supplied Patriot air defense system. Svitan claimed that the missile had been aimed at the building of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, with the intent of destroying it and dealing a symbolic, shattering blow to Ukrainian democracy; had this strike been successful, he asserted, it would have been presented as devastating retaliation for the Ukrainian drone attack on the Kremlin. Since a targeted Kinzhal strike takes three or four days to prepare, argued Svitan, this means the “retaliation” was already being prepared when the drone strike happened. However, the targeting of the Rada is unconfirmed, and the Kinzhal missile could have been in a state of launch readiness for other reasons.
Reasons to think that the Kremlin did not have a hand in this strike include the propaganda machine’s hesitant and fairly low-key reaction to the incident, which the Kremlin press service reported with a 12-hour delay (suggesting a frantic scramble to come up with the right spin). While the Kremlin made noises about reserving the right to retaliate in whatever way it deemed appropriate, and “kill them all” types like Solovyov did what they usually do, it is notable that Russian television news programs did not show the actual footage of the drone attack. Generally, Russia has been extremely sensitive about publicizing its vulnerability to Ukrainian strikes. Last month, when a Russian warplane malfunctioned and dropped a munition on the Russian city of Belgorod, injuring several people and damaging several buildings, Russian authorities quickly announced that the bombing was friendly fire, not a Ukrainian strike—apparently preferring embarrassment, and passing up an opportunity to accuse Ukrainians of targeting Russian civilians, rather than create the impression that Ukraine had been able to make such a strike.
Why would Ukraine carry out a drone strike on the Kremlin? The theory that it was an assassination attempt targeting Putin—who wasn’t there and is widely known to spend his nights in out-of-town residences—can be dismissed out of hand. But could the Ukrainians have wanted to troll the Russians and make them extremely nervous by sending a “we can get you” signal on the eve of Victory Day Parade in Moscow? Certainly. The fact that the explosion apparently took out the Russian tricolor flag atop the dome may not have been an accident.
Latynina and other commentators have also speculated that the Ukrainians may want to scare Putin into skipping the May 9 Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square. (Or perhaps—here, the rabbit hole has an extra layer—the Russians may have wanted to give Putin a respectable excuse for skipping that appearance.) Even before this strike, there was plenty of nervousness on the Russian side about Victory Day mischief by Ukrainian drones; after the attack, there were further moves by Russian authorities to limit the celebrations in many regions and cities.
The Institute for the Study of War said earlier this week that Russia may have staged the drone attacks “in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization.” But a strike on a Kremlin flagpole with no real damage done is unlikely to galvanize emotions in support of mobilization, especially given the relatively subdued coverage of the event (except on programs like Solovyov’s, whose core audience is already galvanized). On the other hand, bringing the war home to Russians has been an acknowledged Ukrainian goal since the start of the Russian invasion—and, as long as civilians are not targeted, it’s an absolutely legitimate goal.
The war has already come home to Russians in a variety of ways, including drone strikes—on military airfields and oil storage facilities—as well as fires and freight train derailments believed to be the work of pro-Ukrainian subversives. In the bigger picture, the strikes on the Kremlin may not make that much of a difference.
Shortly after Kremlin drone strike, a video clip that was far more extraordinary in its own way was released by Kremlin-adjacent warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin—ex-con, restaurateur, Vladimir Putin’s buddy, and war criminal—about the Wagner Group at Bakhmut.
Head of #Wagner PMC's #Prigozhin in front of one day casualties addressing message to military leadership of #ruSSia …
<English subtitles>#Ukraine #UkraineRussiaWar #UkraineWar #ruSSia #WagnerGroup pic.twitter.com/qy1Y00sP03
— Kiborgz (@Kiborgzzz) May 4, 2023
Standing in front of a field of corpses—some of which, he stressed, had “still-fresh” blood on them—Prigozhin asserted that Wagner’s massive losses were due to being denied sufficient ammunition. In an obscenity-laden rant, he ripped into defense minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov (“Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where’s the ammunition, you bitches?”), telling them that “someone’s fathers and someone’s sons” were dying in their war while they were chilling in their comfortable offices and their children were enjoying life. Prigozhin also announced that if the Wagner group was not given adequate ammunition and other supplies, it was going to withdraw from Bakhmut—where the private military company had been locked in ferocious, high-attrition battles against the Ukrainian Armed Forces since August—on May 10.
This extraordinary tirade caused frenzied speculation about what Prigozhin was really up to. Was he, as Latynina warned, cannily trying to draw Ukrainian forces into a trap by falsely signaling his men’s departure from the town? Was he trying to cut his losses and (as Ukraine’s Podolyak suggested, among others) whipping up a hysteria about being denied ammunition as an excuse to leave Bakhmut to avoid admitting that the fearsome “Wagnerites” had failed to take the town? Was it all part of a clever plan, perhaps designed with Putin’s knowledge and consent, to take down Shoigu and Gerasimov—or at least take them down a peg?
On Sunday, the next twist came. Prigozhin announced that the Ministry of Defense had promised him ammunition, that Wagner had been given permission to “act in Bakhmut as we see fit,” and that his ally General Sergei Surovikin was being appointed liaison between the Wagner group and the regular military. (That’s a rather extraordinary response to a tirade against the top military brass that clearly qualifies as a criminal offense under Russia’s wartime law against discrediting the armed forces.) Now it looks like Wagner may not be withdrawing from Bakhmut after all, and may still try to complete its capture of the town as a victory to tout in the Victory Day celebrations—except that, with less than two days left, that seems unlikely.
In the end, this particular bit of Wagner theater can only leave observers wondering what it was all about. Real conflict between different “clans” within the Russian war machine? Putin pitting clan against clan? Panicked maneuvers aboard a sinking ship? Whatever the explanation, these are bad optics for Russia as the long-awaited Ukrainian offensive nears.