A daring Ukrainian attack or a Russian false flag? Fiery questions swirl over the Kremlin

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First it was a cloud of smoke, now it’s questions that are hanging over the Kremlin — but how much fire is there to Russia’s dramatic accusations?

Moscow’s claim that the United States orchestrated a Ukrainian attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin in a drone attack, vehemently denied by Kyiv and Washington, has fueled a high-stakes mystery.

NBC News has viewed two videos filmed from the same perspective that appear to show that two objects flew over the Kremlin approximately 15 minutes apart. The second object seems to strike the building causing a small fire. It was unclear where the objects were launched from and whether they exploded or were shot down.

Former intelligence officers, diplomats, military officials and analysts expressed strong skepticism about Russia’s narrative, but said it was too early to draw conclusions about the incident — not least because Russia provided no evidence to support its claims.

The incident has left most observers with three possible scenarios that William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, laid out in an interview: Russia staged the incident to justify further aggression and mobilization against Ukraine, partisans orchestrated the attack from within Moscow, or Ukraine managed to fly a long-range drone into the heart of the enemy capital. 

“This latter scenario seems to be very unlikely,” he told NBC News.

Was it a daring Ukrainian attack or a Russian false flag operation? Which country might have the most to gain? NBC News looks at what happened in Moscow.

A Ukrainian attack?

Though Russia claimed Putin was not in the building at the time of the incident and its air defenses had foiled the attack overnight Wednesday, it suggested a vulnerability at the center of the Russian state. 

If it was a Ukrainian attack, it could be seen as a psychological and deeply embarrassing blow against the Kremlin — if not an especially damaging one in a physical sense.

The homeland may not be as secure as Russian leaders would suggest, especially ahead of a high-profile celebration next week. 

James Nixey, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London based think tank, noted that in 1987 a German teenager managed to penetrate Russian airspace and land a small plane outside the Red Square. Numerous security breaches and attacks since the start of the Ukraine war, and the recent assassinations of high-profile Russian nationalists, also highlighted Russia’s vulnerabilities, he said. 

“It’s not an impregnable fortress in spite of it having isolated itself from the international community,” Nixey added.

And despite pressure from the U.S. for Ukraine to remain defensive, a trove of leaked documents appear to show that there have been multiple incidents of alleged attacks pursued by Ukraine or its agents inside Russia and neighboring Belarus

There have also been a wave of other incidents in Crimea or near Russia’s border with Ukraine for which many believe Kyiv is responsible, though it is unclear whether they were orchestrated by Ukraine’s leadership. 

A Russian false flag operation?

Still, the Kremlin’s most dramatic claims were largely dismissed by analysts, who saw little to support the idea that this was a serious effort to assassinate Russia’s leader in his home.

Ukraine has primarily pursued strategic targets in those incidents, which have led many to cast doubt on the country’s alleged connection with the purported attack on the Kremlin.

“What do you gain by trying to kill Putin?” said retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former commander of U.S. Central Command. “It’s a low probability action and it does not fit the operational calculus they’ve applied to their other strikes.”

Multiple analysts emphasized that Putin is known to rarely spend the night in the Kremlin or in Moscow, preferring a complex he maintains outside the city. Russia even confirmed that Putin was not in the building during the attack. And video of explosions above the Kremlin that caused little visible damage appeared to illustrate how unlikely any intended attack would be to penetrate the building’s walls and reach the Russian leader.

“This is wild and radical and, frankly, just doesn’t fit,” McKenzie added.

Many observers said that it appears Russia may have more to gain from this incident than Ukraine. 

And with the Kremlin’s history of staging incidents or lobbing accusations as a pretext for its own actions, many were skeptical.

The evidence — or the lack of it — only added to that sense.

The Russian announcement came about 12 hours after the alleged incident, with no real reports of explosions or video of the supposed attacks emerging on social media prior to the official narrative being laid out in a statement on the Kremlin’s website. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. had been unable to confirm the validity of the attack, adding that “I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.” 

Several Western analysts said that this could be a way for the Kremlin to spin a pro-Russian narrative domestically in an attempt to convince the populace to join the war effort. It also could provide Moscow’s leadership a powerful excuse to escalate their attacks against Ukraine. 

“It seems pretty obvious to me this could benefit Russia,” McKenzie said. “It gives them outrage, it gives them an opportunity to pull the country together, which it’s not right now with this campaign.”

Another explanation?

There is also the possibility that no government is to blame. Since the start of the war, Russian partisans opposed to Putin’s regime have surfaced in numerous alleged incidents that have undermined the state’s security. 

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak remarked that “drones can be bought at any military store” and said that his country had noted the prevalence of drones appearing near Russian energy facilities or over its territory, which he said appeared to “indicate the guerilla activities of local resistance forces.” 

“The loss of power control over the country by Putin’s clan is obvious,” he said on Twitter. 

A former American intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to talk freely, said that a Ukrainian attempt to kill Putin would be “silly” and that “the Kremlin plays cynical and secret games.” Still, the official admitted, it was “hard to imagine why the Kremlin would do this. There is not really much they can do to escalate or respond unless they think they can kill Zelenskyy.” 

On the other hand, the intelligence official remarked, “the Ukrainians don’t control everyone who wants to kill Russians. Also, there are Russian groups who could pull off something like this. We just need to wait until we get some more information.”

Still, all those interviewed for this article emphasized caution and warned it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. 

It is time to “to take a deep breath” to see what U.S. intelligence agencies conclude about the alleged incident, said Marc Polymeropoulos, who worked at the CIA for 26 years before retiring in 2019.

“The intelligence community is going to be extraordinarily thorough, given the policy implications of who carried out this attack — if it’s even correct,” he said.

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