May 3, 2023
Russia accused Ukraine of conducting a drone strike against the Kremlin on May 3. Social media footage circulated on May 3 shows a drone detonating near a flagpole on top of the Kremlin Senate Palace building in Moscow as two unidentified people climbed up the dome of the building. The Kremlin accused Ukraine of orchestrating “a planned terrorist attack” with the intent of assassinating Russian President Vladimir Putin and clarified that Putin was not at the Kremlin at the time of the attack and was therefore unharmed. Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, stressed that Ukraine did not conduct the attack.
Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization. Several indicators suggest that the strike was internally conducted and purposefully staged. Russian authorities have recently taken steps to increase Russian domestic air defense capabilities, including within Moscow itself, and it is therefore extremely unlikely that two drones could have penetrated multiple layers of air defense and detonated or been shot down just over the heart of the Kremlin in a way that provided spectacular imagery caught nicely on camera. Geolocated imagery from January 2023 shows that Russian authorities have been placing Pantsir air defense systems near Moscow to create air defense circles around the city. A strike that avoided detection and destruction by such air defense assets and succeeded in hitting as high-profile of a target as the Kremlin Senate Palace would be a significant embarrassment for Russia. The Kremlin’s immediate, coherent, and coordinated response to the incident suggests that the attack was internally prepared in such a way that its intended political effects outweigh its embarrassment. The Kremlin immediately accused Ukraine of conducting a terror attack, and Russian official responses coalesced rapidly around this accusation. If the drone attack had not been internally staged it would have been a surprise event. It is very likely that the official Russian response would initially have been much more disorganized as Russian officials scrambled to generate a coherent narrative and offset the rhetorical implications of a clear informational embarrassment. The Kremlin has notably failed to generate a timely and coherent informational response to other military humiliations not of its own making, including the falls of Balakliya and Kherson City in September and November 2022.
The rapid and coherent presentation of an official Russian narrative around the strike suggests that Russia staged this incident in close proximity to the May 9th Victory Day holiday in order to frame the war as existential to its domestic audience. The Kremlin may use the strike to justify either canceling or further limiting May 9th celebrations, actions that would likely augment the information effort framing the war in Ukraine as directly threatening Russian observance of revered historical events. ISW has previously assessed that Russia is employing an array of measures to frame the war in Ukraine as existential to Russia’s domestic audience and to prepare for wider societal mobilization.
Some Russian nationalist milbloggers seized on the Kremlin drone strike to call for Russian escalation in the war despite the fact that Russia currently lacks the military capability to do so. Many pro-war milbloggers, including ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin, criticized the Kremlin for allowing Ukraine to cross multiple Russian “red lines” with no adequate retaliation and called for Russia to escalate in response, including by targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian decision-makers. This sect of milbloggers emphasized their own embarrassment at the Kremlin strike, comparing it to the humiliation of a single German civilian pilot landing a small aircraft near the Kremlin in 1987. Other Russian milbloggers, including those with close Kremlin affiliations, criticized the high degree of outcry in the Russian information space. These milbloggers largely advocated against retaliatory military escalation on the grounds that this strike does not change the operational or strategic situation in the war, instead calling for a cautious response while acknowledging the sting of embarrassment over the strike. This messaging from pro-Kremlin milbloggers could support the assessment that the purpose of this false-flag attack was to justify increased mobilization measures rather than any sort of escalation.
The Kremlin may be planning to conduct other false flag operations and increase disinformation ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to increase domestic support for the war. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on May 2 that Russian forces in Bryansk and Kursk oblasts received Ukrainian uniforms in order to conduct a false flag operation in border areas. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on May 3 that Russian forces may simulate a hostage taking and noted that “Storm” detachments of the Russian 13th Guards Tank Regiment (4th Guards Tank Division) and 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment (2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division) of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District arrived in Ivanivske in Kursk Oblast and Yamnoye in Bryansk Oblast. The 13th Guards Tank Regiment suffered massive losses early in the war in Chernihiv Oblast and in fall of 2022 during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast. This report that elements of the 13th Guards Tank Regiment are in Bryansk or Kursk Oblast suggests that the regiment is not in Ukraine and is unready to return to battle. Russian milbloggers amplified a claim from state-run media outlet RT that Ukrainian forces are preparing a provocation against Transnistria and will attempt to enter Transnistria between May 9 and 15. The Kremlin has previously attempted to portray Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia’s territorial integrity and to warn of supposed Ukrainian provocations to be conducted in Moldova.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin baselessly claimed on May 3 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has already begun, likely in order to exploit information space anxieties and call for increased Russian military support for Wagner’s Bakhmut offensive. In an audio recording posted on May 3, Prigozhin says that he believes that Ukraine has already begun its counteroffensive and cited an increase in Ukrainian activity “along the perimeter” of the Bakhmut front. Prigozhin also claimed that Wagner’s flanks, currently held by conventional Russian airborne (VDV) troops, are “not in the best way” and stated that he will not speculate on how reliable they are to maintain “politeness.” Prigozhin’s comment on the state of the flanks is likely a thinly-veiled criticism of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and its ability to help Wagner hold Bakhmut and suggests that Prigozhin is blaming the MoD for being unable to hold off Ukrainian localized counterattacks in Bakhmut. Prigozhin concluded that he anticipates a more “active phase” of counteroffensive actions to begin in the next few days. Prigozhin is likely using this claim to benefit from continued concerns in the Russian information space regarding a Ukrainian counteroffensive and to lobby for increased support for Wagner amid continued pleas for the Russian MoD to provide Wagner more ammunition for its offensive on Bakhmut. ISW has observed no additional evidence to support Prigozhin’s claims and does not assess that a Ukrainian counter-offensive has begun around Bakhmut.
Russian forces conducted a Shahed-131/136 drone strike against Ukraine on the night of May 2 to 3. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 3 that Russian forces attacked Ukrainian territory from Bryansk Oblast and the southeast coast of the Sea of Azov with 26 Iranian-made Shahed-131/136 drones and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 21 of the 26 drones. The Kyiv Oblast Military Administration stated that Russian forces attacked Kyiv Oblast for the third time in six consecutive days. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Shahed drones also targeted Kirovohrad and Mykolaiv oblasts.
- Russia accused Ukraine of conducting a drone strike against the Kremlin.
- Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization.
- The rapid and coherent presentation of an official Russian narrative around the strike suggests that Russia staged this attack in close proximity to the May 9th Victory Day holiday in order to frame the war as existential to its domestic audience.
- Some Russian nationalist milbloggers seized on the Kremlin drone strike to call for Russian escalation in the war despite the fact that Russia currently lacks the military capability to do so.
- The Kremlin may be planning to conduct other false flag operations and to increase disinformation ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to increase domestic support for the war.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin baselessly claimed on May 3 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has already begun, likely in order to exploit information space anxieties and call for increased Russian military support for Wagner’s Bakhmut offensive.
- Russian forces conducted a Shahed-131/136 drone strike on the night of May 2 to 3.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued to make gains in and around Bakhmut and continued to conduct ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces conducted heavy air and artillery strikes against west (right) bank Kherson Oblast.
- Russian officials continue to incentivize military service by providing social benefits to families of participants in the war.
- The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it prevented a “terrorist” attack against three Crimean officials.