Stunt or sinister: The Kremlin drone incident, unpacked

Early in the morning of May 3, local Moscow time, a pair of explosions occurred above the Kremlin. Videos of the incident appeared to show two small drones detonating—ultramodern tech lit up against the venerable citadel. The incident was exclusively the domain of Russian social media for half a day, before Russian President Vladimir Putin declared it a failed assassination attempt.

What actually happened in the night sky above the Russian capital? It is a task being pieced together in public and in secret. Open-source analysts, examining the information available in the public, have constructed a picture of the event and video release, forming a good starting point.

Writing at Radio Liberty, a US-government-funded Russian-language outlet, reporters Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov point out that a video showing smoke above the Kremlin was published around 3:30 am local time on a Moscow Telegram channel. Twelve hours later, Putin released a statement on the attack, and then, write Dobrynin and Krutov, “several other videos of the night attack appeared, according to which Radio Liberty established that two drones actually exploded in the area of ​​​​the dome of the Senate Palace with an interval of about 16 minutes, arriving from opposite directions. The first caused a small fire on the roof of the building, the second exploded in the air.”

That the drones exploded outside a symbolic target, without reaching a practical one, could be by design, or it could owe to the nature of Kremlin air defense, which may have shot the drones down at the last moment before they became more threatening. 

Other investigations into the origin, nature, and means of the drone incident are likely being carried out behind the closed doors and covert channels of intelligence services. Without being privy to those conversations, and aware that information released by governments is only a selective portion of what is collected, it’s possible to instead answer a different set of questions: could drones do this? And why would someone use a drone for an attack like this?

To answer both, it is important to understand gimmick drones.

What’s a gimmick drone?

Drones, especially the models able to carry a small payload and fly long enough to travel a practical distance, can be useful tools for a variety of real functions. Those can include real-estate photography, crop surveying, creating videos, and even carrying small explosives in war. But drones can also carry less-useful payloads, and be used as a way to advertise something other than the drone itself, like coffee delivery, beer vending, or returning shirts from a dry cleaner. For a certain part of the 2010s, attaching a product to a drone video was a good way to get the media to write about it. 

What stands out about gimmick drones is not that they were doing something only a drone could do, but instead that the people behind the stunt were using a drone as a publicity technique for something else. In 2018, a commercial drone was allegedly used in an assassination attempt against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, in which drones flew at Maduro and then exploded in the sky, away from people and without reports of injury. 

As I noted at the time about gimmick drones, “In every case, the drone is the entry point to a sales pitch about something else, a prelude to an ad for sunblock or holiday specials at a casual restaurant. The drone was always part of the theater, a robotic pitchman, an unmanned MC. What mattered was the spectacle, the hook, to get people to listen to whatever was said afterwards.”

Drones are a hard weapon to use for precision assassination. Compared to firearms, poisoning, explosives in cars or buildings, or a host of other attacks, drones represent a clumsy and difficult method. Wind can blow the drones off course, they can be intercepted before they get close, and the flight time of a commercial drone laden with explosives is in minutes, not hours.

What a drone can do, though, is explode in a high-profile manner.

Why fly explosive-laden drones at the  Kremlin?

Without knowing the exact type of drone or the motives of the drone operator (or operators), it is hard to say exactly why one was flown at and blown up above one of Russia’s most iconic edifices of state power. Russia’s government initially blamed Ukraine, before moving on to attribute the attack to the United States. The United States denied involvement in the attack, and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said to take any Russian claims with “a very large shaker of salt.”

Asked about the news, Ukraine’s President Zelensky said the country fights Russia on its own territory, not through direct attacks on Putin or Moscow. The war has seen successful attacks on Putin-aligned figures and war proponents in Russia, as well as the family of Putin allies, though attribution for these attacks remains at least somewhat contested, with the United States attributing at least one of them to Ukrainian efforts.

Some war commentators in the US have floated the possibility that the attack was staged by Russia against Russia, as a way to rally support for the government’s invasion. However, that would demonstrate that Russian air defenses and security services are inept enough to miss two explosive-laden drones flying over the capital and would be an unusual way to argue that the country is powerful and strong. 

Ultimately, the drone attackers may have not conducted this operation to achieve any direct kill or material victory, but as a proof of concept, showing that such attacks are possible. It would also show that claims of inviolability of Russian airspace are, at least for small enough flying machines and covert enough operatives, a myth. 

In that sense, the May 3 drone incident has a lot in common with the May 1987 flight of Mathias Rust, an amateur pilot in Germany who safely flew a private plane into Moscow and landed it in Red Square, right near the Kremlin. Rust’s flight ended without bloodshed or explosions, and took place in a peacetime environment, but it demonstrated the hollowness of the fortress state whose skies he flew through.