Kremlin Accuses Ukraine of Drone Attack

On May 3 2023, popular posts on Reddit’s r/worldnews and r/ukraine indicated that Russia was accusing Ukraine of attacking the Kremlin in an attempt to assassinate Russian leader Vladimir Putin:

Both posts linked to the same article, published on May 3 2023. After the publication of both Reddit posts, the BBC extensively edited and updated the page and changed the headline — from “Kremlin accuses Ukraine of trying to assassinate Putin” to “Kremlin drone: Zelensky denies Ukraine attacked Putin or Moscow.”

Fact Check

Claim: In May 2 2023, Ukraine was proven to have launched a drone or drones at the Kremlin in an attempt to assassinate Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Description: On May 2, 2023, it was claimed that Ukraine had launched a drone or drones at the Kremlin in an attempt to assassinate Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Rating: Not True

Rating Explanation: Although the Kremlin has accused Ukraine of the claimed drone attack, defense and intelligence experts, along with Ukrainian authorities have vehemently denied these allegations. Former US diplomat, Michael McFaul, labeled this assertion as ‘Russian propaganda’ and elaborated on its improbability.

An archived copy of the first iteration indicated that Ukraine had not addressed Russia’s claim, and it referenced “unverified” video circulating on social media. It reported:

Russia says two drones attacked the Kremlin in Moscow last night [May 2 2023] in what it alleges was a Ukrainian attempt to kill President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin claimed two drones had been used in the alleged attack but they were disabled by Russian defences.

Mr Putin was not in the Kremlin at the time and there was no material damage to buildings, Russian news agencies reported.

At the end of the original article, text read:

This is a breaking news story and more updates will follow.

We were unable to identify any BBC indicators (such as an editor’s note) that the article and headline were both altered on the edited version of the page; the “updates will follow” text was removed. Later on May 3 2023, the article was updated to read in part:

Unverified footage circulating online shows smoke rising over the Kremlin – a large government complex in central Moscow – early on Wednesday. A second video shows a small explosion above the site’s Senate building, while two men appear to clamber up the dome.

The Russian presidency said Ukraine had attempted a strike on Mr Putin’s residence in the Kremlin and described it as “a planned terrorist act and an assassination attempt on the president”.

Officials said two drones targeting the complex had been disabled using electronic radar assets, adding that President Putin had not been in the complex at the time of the alleged attack.

But Ukraine has said the Russian accusations are merely a pretext for massive attacks on its territory and the US says it is treating the Russian claims with a lot of caution.

At the very end of the BBC’s updated version of the article, American defense experts were quoted. Both expressed clear skepticism about Russia’s assertions, and explained why Russia’s claim was implausible:

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he could not validate Russia’s accusation that Ukraine had tried to kill Mr Putin, but said he would take anything the Russian presidency said with a “very large shaker of salt”.

Mick Mulroy, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence and CIA officer, told the BBC that if reports of the incident were accurate, it was “unlikely” to be an assassination attempt as Ukraine tracks President Putin’s movements closely and he was not in Moscow at the time.

On May 3 2023, the New York Times covered the incident in the form of a live blog, “Russia Claims It Foiled a Ukrainian Drone Attack on the Kremlin.” A “pinned” recap of the story appeared at the top, partly reporting:

A strike on the Kremlin would be an audacious attack in the heart of Moscow, but U.S. intelligence agencies were still trying to determine what actually happened, according to two American officials briefed on the situation. Ukraine, which is expected to soon launch a counteroffensive in a bid to retake territory Russia has seized, has largely maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity over whether it has played a role in attacks inside Russia.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said his country was not responsible. “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow,” he told the Nordic broadcaster TV2 during a visit to Finland. “We fight on our territory. We’re defending our villages and cities. We don’t have enough weapons for these.” Dealing with Mr. Putin, he added, would be left to an international tribunal.

A subsequent bulleted list of “latest developments” addressed Russia’s putative motivation for claiming Ukraine attacked the Kremlin:

Besides Mr. Zelensky, other Ukrainian officials categorically denied Russia’s claim. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, suggested in a statement to The New York Times that Russia would use the claim to launch a “large-scale terrorist provocation” against Ukraine in the coming days.

An update added shortly after 2 PM Eastern reported:

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has denied that his country was behind any attack on the Kremlin, appeared at a news conference with Nordic leaders at the presidential palace in Finland on Wednesday [May 3 2023]. Asked why Russia would accuse Ukraine, Zelensky answered through an interpreter that Russia “has no victories to report” and that Putin must find other ways to maintain Russian morale. “Because of that, he has to do some unexpected moves like surprise drone attacks,” Zelensky said.

Broadly, non-Ukrainian news organizations appeared to entertain both countries’ assertions as potentially credible. Local news sources, such as the Kyiv Independent, had a slightly different angle:

Russian state media claimed that “as a result of timely actions taken by the military and special services with the use of radar control systems, the (drones) were disabled.”

Videos are circulating on social media of the alleged attack. The Kyiv Independent could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.

Earlier in the day, Zelensky’s spokesperson Serhii Nykyforov also denied Ukraine’s involvement in a statement to BBC Ukraine.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to the head of the President’s Office, wrote that “Russia is clearly preparing a large-scale terrorist act,” implying that Russia staged the event.

According to Podolyak, “Something is happening in the Russian Federation, but definitely without Ukrainian drones over the Kremlin.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul assessed the claim on Twitter in a more direct fashion. McFaul was confident that there “was no assassination attempt on Putin,” and explained his reasoning:

McFaul identified the claim as a “Russian propaganda line,” noting that Putin “does not live (or sleep) in the Kremlin.” He asked people to stop repeating it, adding:

Obviously, I do not know who conducted this operation. Irrespective of who did it, however, it was not an assassination attempt. That much is clear.

On May 3 2023, outlets like the BBC reported that the Kremlin accused Ukraine of launching a middle-of-the-night drone strike at the Kremlin in an attempt to assassinate Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Defense and intelligence experts openly cast doubt on the claim. Former American diplomat and Russia expert Michael McFaul identified the claim as “Russian propaganda,” and explained why it was inherently implausible.