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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


I am a bit slow to write, as usual. Yesterday’s news itself was quite remarkable. The BBC headline online blasted: RUSSIA ACCUSES UKRAINE OF ATTEMPT TO ASSASSINATE PUTIN (or something similar). I read it on my phone, waiting for my train to come into the platform. It was breaking news and there wasn’t much information at that point. I looked at a couple of Russian websites and saw some soundbites from the Kremlin.

An even more remarkable thing was my Twitter feed when I got back home some hours later. A chorus of people saying it wasn’t an assassination attempt and the British media shouldn’t be spreading Kremlin propaganda. I note that everyone seemed to know where Vladimir Putin spends his nights, as if only an imbecile would think Putin might be in that building on Red Square tucked up in bed or working there in the wee hours.

But, of course, they were right: it hardly looked like an assassination attempt. The two drones that penetrated the Kremlin’s airspace looked rather feeble (they looked like something acquired from Argos rather than Lockheed-Martin) and there are many easier and efficacious ways to strike Putin. Agreed: the line about it being an assassination attempt counts as propaganda.

False flag?

There were three versions being argued over on Twitter. The most popular by far seemed to be that it was a false flag operation by the Russian state. As the Institute for the Study of War explained, the purpose was ‘likely … an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for … mobilisation.’

I see the point but I’m unconvinced. Russia may well need to mobilise more and soon – its military has been on an extended recruitment drive over recent months. But if the drone attack was for that end, surely other buildings would be more effective ‘targets’ in such an operation; it seems simply too audacious in its symbolism to actually imply the Kremlin itself is so vulnerable. Other ‘targets’, closer to people’s hearts, might be more effective in getting the populace to rally round the flag or to enlist for the war.

The closeness to Victory Day (9 May) was also mentioned, though that doesn’t help us to get closer to identifying the Russian state itself as the perpetrator because that choice of date would be highly symbolic if it were an attack by Ukrainian actors, too. And wouldn't those responsible, regardless of their identity, wait a little longer before acting?

Let’s bring in Sean Bell on Sky News, earlier today; retired Air Vice-Marshall; avuncular tone. He made two good points. The ‘clear, unified’ official and media response from Russia, he said, suggested everything was preordained. Actually, a lot of people made this point. Two thoughts on this, his first point:

(i) A conspiracy theorist in Russia will probably mirror the claim and say the ‘western’ response was unified and therefore scripted – so stop all saying the same thing about it being a false flag operation! Note how today Russia took the largely predictable step of blaming the Americans.

(ii) I’m amazed at people’s confidence about what the Russian state media is saying. Do all these commentators watch and read the Russian media all day long? (I expect not.)

Bell’s second point was the most convincing detail for me. The fact that the drones got through air defences and over the Kremlin walls but did not do any noticeable damage. That is a bit odd. But maybe the drones weren’t even armed…? Maybe they really were from Argos.

Still, I’m not convinced by this false flag claim. It just looks too humiliating for the Kremlin to stage manage such an attack on its own centre of power.

Or partisans?

A less popular version was that Russian pro-Ukraine partisans had carried out the action, perhaps with some support from Ukraine’s intelligence agency, the SBU. I don’t really grasp why this version isn’t being taken more seriously. It just seems far more plausible. This, or the third version – that Ukraine alone did actually undertake the action, even if it wasn’t an assassination attempt – also better fit with other knowledge we have about drone strikes during the war – against sites in Crimea or on oil depots inside Russia itself.

Moreover, if it is evidence of partisan activity inside Russia, the western media might find reasons to appreciate those Russians dissenting from Putin’s war. Signs of dissent towards the war among Russians have been relatively few since street protests last February and March were stamped out. While there have been other rallies (e.g. after Putin announced partial mobilisation) and punishments given to children for showing anti-war sentiment, the scale of public disapproval is probably not as substantial as onlookers might have expected.

And if it were Ukraine alone? It is not a crazy idea and the symbolism would be high. But for me the most remarkable thing has been that the idea it was pro-Ukraine partisans in Russia has never seemed more than an afterthought in what I’ve seen during these past 24 hours or so. The best I can think is that since Ukrainian officials were quick to describe it as a false flag operation, their supporters went along with that unreflectively. That, or my own Twitter feed is an annoyingly bad echo chamber.

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