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‘I don’t know how else things can escalate’ Political scientist Kirill Shamiev on the likeliest explanation for the Kremlin drone attack

Source: Meduza
Yury Kochetkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On the night of May 3, two drones attacked Vladimir Putin’s residence at the Kremlin. The Russian president himself wasn’t in the palace at the time, according to his spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Who organized the attack is unclear; the Russian authorities were quick to blame Ukraine, while Kyiv denied its involvement, suggesting the episode could be a false flag operation by Russia itself. Meduza spoke with political scientist Kirill Shamiev, a civil-military relations researcher and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, about who stands to benefit from the attack and what consequences it’s likely to have.

Kirill Shamiev, political scientist

How plausible do you consider the Russian authorities’ claim that Kyiv attacked the Kremlin?

It seems plausible to me for many reasons. Let’s start with the fact that it fits with the logic of the murders of Darya Dugina and Vladlen Tatarsky. These were attacks on very symbolic targets that don’t carry any military or even direct administrative significance. It’s not as if they’re targeting officials from the presidential administration or propagandists from Channel One; these people are important — from an ideological perspective — for the pro-war, “Z” segment of Russian society.

It seems to me that Ukraine’s political leadership is doing its best to destabilize Russia’s domestic political situation. The liberation of Crimea, which Ukraine has publicly declared as a goal, is a big task. Reclaiming these territories by military means would be very, very difficult, if the political power in the Kremlin remains as rigid as it is now.

But who has stayed in Russia [since the start of the full-scale war]? A lot of these people are part of the Z movement and are frustrated [with the authorities], while others are under pressure from the state. These murders and symbolic attacks just add to their frustration. They’re another symbol of the fact that Vladimir Putin is losing. It’s embarrassing — both for the Federal Protective Service, which guards the Kremlin, and for Vladimir Putin.

And then we have the Ukrainian reaction. They never take responsibility directly, but from the official comments and the media, it’s clear that the reaction was coordinated.

In addition, we’ve seen multiple attacks on rail infrastructure [in Russia] in recent days, as well as attempted attacks on electrical infrastructure. There was also a drone attack on an oil depot in Crimea, which supplies fuel for military equipment. In my opinion, the [Ukrainian army’s] counteroffensive has already begun. You might call this the formative phase.

The incident

‘A terrorist attack and an assassination attempt’ Russia says Ukraine tried to kill Putin with Kremlin drone strike

The incident

‘A terrorist attack and an assassination attempt’ Russia says Ukraine tried to kill Putin with Kremlin drone strike

These attacks are being carried out not only against infrastructure that’s important for the front, but also deep inside Russian territory. They force the Kremlin to transfer some of its anti-missile defense forces into the country, which reduces the saturation of these systems on the front. Given the Russian authorities’ paranoia and a symbolic target like the Kremlin, we can expect to see more air defense systems showing up in Moscow. And what does that mean? It means there will be even fewer on the front, which is something Ukraine wants.

The fact that the first videos of smoke over the Kremlin appeared at night but the news of the attack didn’t spread widely until the following afternoon doesn’t make you doubt the Kremlin’s story?

That argument does make me doubt my first hypothesis a bit, but it’s not enough to make me abandon it. I would say that my confidence has fallen from an initial 70 percent to 65 percent. When new information comes out, perhaps I’ll have to reconsider again.

Do you see any benefits for the Kremlin in this situation? Can it use the incident to get Russians to “rally together”? Or maybe to justify future attacks on Ukraine? Or to prepare society for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

I don’t have any concrete data, but it seems to me that this attack on the Kremlin… Especially on the Kremlin Senate, where Vladimir Putin had his February 21 [2022] meeting with the Security Council. This attack, in my view, scares people more: Moscow and the Kremlin aren’t safe, something is still going wrong.

Can it bring people together? I don’t understand the mechanism by which people come together. How much closer together can they get? The state is monitoring everything. Everyone who disagrees is repressed.

But could this be, for example, a clear reminder from the authorities that there’s a war going on against “fascist Ukraine, NATO, and the entire world,” as they put it, and that people need to band together, rather than worrying about electronic military summonses, and to go fight?

Yesterday and today [May 2–3], Russia’s government services website Gosuslugi sent out letters commemorating the fire at the Trade Unions House in Odesa. These kinds of things are intended to unite people on a human level (“an awful crime,” “many died terrible deaths”). This also fuels the rhetoric that the Kremlin uses about Ukraine being a “fascist” country. It increases the level of hatred among a segment of the population.

Whereas this attack on the Kremlin — a piece of infrastructure that’s only important as a symbol of Russia — I’m not sure it’s going to carry the same significance.

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Then let’s add the fact that Russia’s propaganda is currently covering the attack as an “attempt to kill the president.”

Without question, this is important for the patriotic segment of society. Plus, it legitimizes the possible response. Because Russia will have to respond somehow. Most likely with another round of missile strikes on Ukraine’s cities (which are also important from a symbolic perspective).

In addition, this might stand out to international observers — that [this was an attempted attack] on the president himself. That argument won’t work on everybody, but for some people abroad, I think, it might.

Why is it somewhat difficult for me to agree with this version [that the attack was organized by the Kremlin itself for the purpose of uniting Russians]? I would understand it if support for the president were just as high but without so much political persecution going on. But under these repressive conditions, it’s hard for me to say to what degree this support is genuine, as opposed to people thinking, “I don’t want to be punished,” “I don’t want to lose my job,” and “We need to stick with the president because we’re under attack.” That’s a different type of electoral support from true support based on ideology, charisma, and electoral procedures.

How might the West respond to the attack?

The West is very cautious about these kinds of strikes and doesn’t support them. The further away from Russia, the more they dislike attacks on important targets [in Russia], because the theory that if pushed over the edge, Putin will start bombing everybody with nuclear weapons, is still current.

Eastern European countries, like the Baltic states and Poland, don’t totally agree with this. Their position is that Putin is already dangerous, and so there should be more pressure on him. I think they might support the Ukrainian authorities in the idea that any target is legitimate if it’s linked to the war in Ukraine.

The state of the front

With most Russian positions frozen in expectation, only Wagner Group is persistently storming Bakhmut Here’s the state of combat on our updated map

The state of the front

With most Russian positions frozen in expectation, only Wagner Group is persistently storming Bakhmut Here’s the state of combat on our updated map

Should we expect another round of escalation? And what might that look like?

To be honest, I don’t know how else it can escalate. On one hand, Russia has escalated as far as possible. On the other hand, its technical capabilities are now limited. It’s experienced a lot of equipment losses and ammunition shortages. We can see that the intensity and quality of missile strikes has decreased.

Attacks on nuclear infrastructure are an escalation, yes. But that’s a transition to a new stage of the war. I’m of the opinion that if any nuclear weapons are used, the U.S. will retaliate against the Kremlin one way or another for violating the taboo.

It seems like this attack precludes any talk of peace negotiations. Is that the case? If so, could the attack have been carried out by a group of soldiers who don’t want Russia to enter negotiations?

Ukraine has long been saying that it won’t negotiate with Putin. So this attack doesn’t change its position at all.

As for Russia, this war doesn’t have any clearly defined objectives. That’s both a weak and a strong place to be. On one hand, clearly defined goals are hard to achieve, but on the other hand, any relative defeat can be framed as a victory. When your objectives aren’t clear, there’s more space for dialogue.

From my area of expertise in the study of the Russian army, it seems that Russia’s military leadership will be one of the first parties to call for an end to the war. The enormous costs, the huge losses of both equipment and personnel. A lot of problems have come to light. And judging by the data we already have, Russia’s military leadership may not have been very supportive of the decision to launch the so-called “special military operation.”

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