Breaking News

Mystery Drones Buzz the Kremlin – Again

Share this article

by Mike Eckel

In late May, for the second time in a month, unmanned aerial vehicles — drones of the sort utilized by militaries, spy agencies, and similar entities — were spotted flying over the Russian capital.

If the Kremlin has conclusive proof who is behind it, they’re not showing it publicly. But they’re certainly blaming the usual suspect — Ukraine.

With Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine now in its 16th month, the presence of drones lurking in the skies over Ukraine’s capital is a near daily occurrence. Russia has pummeled Kyiv with kamikaze drones, mainly sourced to Iran, along with sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles.

READ MORE about drones over Moscow

But unexplained drones over Moscow are a different thing altogether. The occurrence comes as Ukraine continues what is widely believed to be a shadow war inside Russia’s borders, and as it gears up for a widely anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces inside Ukraine.

Here’s what we know about the drone sightings, the latest of which occurred on May 30.

So What’s Been Happening, Exactly?

On the morning of May 30, several drones were spotted buzzing over parts of Moscow and its western suburbs.

Though Russian media reports spoke of more than 30 drones, the Defense Ministry said there were at least eight in all — a figure corroborated by RFE/RL reporters. Russian officials said all of the drones were intercepted, or shot down, while at least three residential buildings suffered minor damage and two people were slightly injured.

“Three of them were suppressed by electronic warfare, lost control, and deviated from their intended targets. Another five drones were shot down by the Pantsir-S surface-to-air missile system in the Moscow region,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A specialist inspects the damaged facade of an apartment building after a reported drone attack in Moscow on May 30.
A specialist inspects a damaged apartment building after a reported drone attack in Moscow on May 30.

None of the drones appeared to be kamikaze drones– drones designed to slam into their targets — and it’s unclear if any were even carrying explosives. Some of the videos circulating on Telegram and other social media appeared to show a model that is known to have a range of hundreds of kilometers. The damage to buildings and on the ground may have been caused by the drones being brought down.

It’s unclear what the targets for the drones were, if any. One was spotted over the tony Rublyovka district, home to many of Russia’s wealthy elite and President Vladimir Putin’s main residence, Novo-Ogaryovo. Another came down in southwestern Moscow, not far from some Defense Ministry and government buildings. 

It’s significant that this is the second such incident involving unidentified drones over Moscow in a month. In the predawn hours of May 3, at least two drones were spotted over the Kremlin; video cameras from several directions caught a small fire burning on a prominent Kremlin building; another video showed a drone exploding over that same building.

That earlier incident, which came days before Putin hosted the Kremlin’s most prominent annual spectacle, the Red Square military parade commemorating the defeat of Germany in World War II, remains unexplained. The Kremlin called it an assassination attempt on Putin, a claim that was widely dismissed for several reasons, including that he is not known to spend nights in the Kremlin.

Is The Kremlin Freaking Out?

In the wake of the May 30 incident, Putin blamed Ukraine, calling the flights “terrorist activity.” The Kremlin also pointed the finger at Ukraine’s Western supporters, saying that the United States and other European countries should have condemned the strikes.

“The Kyiv regime has chosen…the path of attempting to intimidate Russia, to intimidate Russia’s citizens, and of air strikes against residential buildings,” Putin said, speaking on state TV. “This is obviously a sign of terrorist activity.”

Putin also claimed the Moscow drone flights were a response to a Russian attack on Ukraine’s military intelligence headquarters in Kyiv, though it’s unclear whether any such attack ever occurred.

News of the drones was prominent on the front pages of many of Russia’s leading newspapers, many of whose independence has been noticeably curtailed since the onset of the February 2022 invasion.

Moscow, like many of Russia’s biggest cities, has been largely sheltered from the realities of the Ukraine war, though there are signs of creeping concern as Russian casualties become harder to avoid, and, despite often triumphant rhetoric, the war persists with no end in sight.

READ MORE: In Search Of Soldiers For Its War Against Ukraine, Russia Takes Draft Notices Online 

Tatyana Stanovaya, an expert on Russia’s political system, called the Kremlin’s reaction to the May 30 drone strike “passive” and said it was best explained by three reasons: “Putin’s faith in people’s endurance, the authorities’ fixation on demonstrating their ‘successes,’ and Russia’s objective lack of military preparedness to respond effectively to such attacks,” she wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“In the Russian system, the first person to raise the alarm gets the blame: it’s easier to hush everything up than to admit vulnerability,” she said. “But the problem with this tactic is that it has its limits. People want to see strong leadership, but right now, that leadership is looking increasingly helpless and confused.”

Aha! So It IS the Ukrainians?

That’s not entirely clear.

For months, Ukraine has been conducting a low-level shadow war inside Russia, mainly in the border regions of Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov.

READ MORE: Amid Carnage In Ukraine, A Shadow War On The Russian Side Of The Border

The tempo has verifiably increased in recent months, most notably last week, when a group of armed men who claimed to be Ukrainian-aligned Russian militants staged a bold incursion into Belgorod, one of the largest such incursions to date.

Humvees, Wreckage After 'Cross-Border Raid' Into Russia
Humvees, Wreckage After ‘Cross-Border Raid’ Into Russia

And there have been a steady stream of cross-border shelling incidents, or explosions at fuel depots and other locations in Russia, many of which are being blamed on Ukraine.

As with previous incidents, Ukraine’s military and civilian leadership have denied responsibility for the Moscow drones, while also signaling they welcomed them.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office, said Kyiv was not involved in the attacks, but he said Ukraine enjoyed watching events unfold and predicted an increase in such incidents.

Ukraine is certainly capable of conducting such an attack. Shorter-range drones, of the sort believed to have been used in the Kremlin incident, would have had to have been launched from some location not far from Moscow. That would entail having a Ukrainian unit infiltrating deep into, or operating in, Russian territory.

Some analysts said one of the drones captured on video by bystanders on May 30 resembled a Ukrainian-made UJ-22 attack drone, which has a range of up to 800 kilometers — meaning one could fly from Ukraine to Moscow.

A similar model crashed outside of Moscow in February.

Journalists attend the presentation of a UJ-22 reconnaissance drone in the Kyiv region in August 2022.
Journalists view a UJ-22 reconnaissance drone in the Kyiv region in August 2022.

U.S. officials speaking anonymously told The New York Times that they believed one of Ukraine’s military or intelligence agencies was behind the May 3 attack.

But while Russian air attacks in Ukraine — including kamikaze drones and cruise missiles — have been inflicting real damage on Ukrainian infrastructure, and inflicting substantial casualties, the drone attacks in Moscow have caused little of the sort.

So, unless the goal is simply psychological — to frighten Russians or to taunt their military and political leaders, or both — it’s unclear what benefit Ukraine would derive from them.

A more substantial psychological blow might come from an assassination, not unlike what happened in St. Petersburg in April, when a bomb concealed in a statue detonated in a cafe, killing a widely read pro-war blogger who was giving a presentation. A Russian woman has been arrested, but law enforcement has pointed the finger at Ukrainian agents.

There have also been dramatic attacks on Russian infrastructure that are widely assumed to be Ukrainian, like the October truck bombing of the bridge linking Russia’s mainland to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian intelligence is widely assumed to be responsible.

Subscribe to the Soldier of Fortune Newsletter

Enter your email below to receive exclusive content from Soldier of Fortune right in your inbox.

As for the accusations that Ukraine’s Western backers are indirectly to blame for countenancing such attacks, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saidthat “as a general matter,” the U.S. administration does not support Ukraine using U.S. weaponry on Russian territory.

“We do not support the use of U.S.-made equipment being used for attacks inside of Russia,” she said on May 30. “We’ve been very clear about that, and we’ll continue to do that. And we have been clear not just publicly, but privately clear with the Ukrainians.”

So It’s A False Flag, Then?

Some observers — Ukrainian, Russian, Western — have speculated that Russian intelligence agencies, or some other Russian organization, may be flying the drones themselves over Moscow, in a bid to either scare Russians or generate outrage or even embarrass military commanders.

Russia has some history with staged, self-inflicted attacks — so-called “false flags.” The deadly 1999 apartment-building bombings that spooked Russians and sparked the Second Chechen War have long been the subject of scrutiny. Speculation has long focused on the theory that the Federal Security Service concocted the blasts in part to pave the way for Putin’s rise to the presidency.

There’s never been conclusive proof of that.

A “false flag” conducted by Russian intelligence agencies, with or without Kremlin blessing, could indeed help rally the Russian public, whose support for the war has been solid but lackluster — and increasingly nervous, as casualties mount and Russia’s military underwhelms.

Or a “false flag” could be used by hard-line nationalists, who have been pushing the Kremlin to declare a general mobilization, put the entire country on war footing, and declare total war on Ukraine.

READ MORE: Why Prigozhin Is Picking A Fight Over Burials

Among the most prominent adherents of total war is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked oligarch whose private mercenary company, the Wagner Group, has played an important and highly visible role in the fighting in Ukraine.

Another is Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence agent who was active in the early years of the Russian-fueled war in Ukraine’s Donbas and who was convicted last year by a Dutch court for his role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed all 298 people aboard. Like Prigozhin, Girkin has also been highly critical of Russia’s military commanders.

Both Prigozhin and Girkin are believed to have close ties to one or more intelligence agencies, providing them ample leeway to criticize publicly, and also to conduct other operations.

“The children of the elite shut their traps at best, and some allow themselves to live public, fat, carefree lives,” Prigozhin told a pro-Kremlin interviewer last month before making an unmistakable allusion to Russia’s 1917 revolutions, which overthrew the tsar and later brought the Bolsheviks to power.

He said that Russian society was plagued by internal divisions and if left unresolved “it all could end as it did in 1917, with a revolution — when first the soldiers rise up, and then their loved ones follow.”

Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Follow him on Twitter, @Mike_Eckel

About Soldier of Fortune Magazine

Check Also

John Browning’s M1911 Was Patented on Valentine’s Day

Share this article And look at it now…