Videos and images of drones strikes on the Kremlin seem to be everywhere, and we’re likely to keep seeing them in articles, books and documentaries for decades to come. Just as when James Doolittle raided Tokyo in 1942, Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to hit the enemy at home – even if only on a small scale, for now.
The particular target within the Kremlin compound was the Senate Palace, which houses the presidential offices. However, the very small payload of the drone, and the fact that Putin is rarely at the Kremlin and doesn’t stay overnight, make Russian claims of an attempted assassination laughable. Equally amusing was Zelenskyy’s sweeping denial of involvement in any attacks on Russian soil (Ukraine has been striking Belgorod repeatedly for months) or responsibility for this specific attack (Zelenskyy also denied ordering the Kerch Bridge attack). Neither is there much doubt of Ukrainian capability in this area: Chinese Mugin-5drones have already been used to hit Crimea, and home-made UJ-22 drones (and their later variants) are widely used on the battlefield. Both have a surprisingly long range, although we should be aware (for instance) that the claimed 800km range for the UJ-22 would be limited by any weapons loadout and by the weather. Nevertheless, it seems very likely an attack could have been launched from inside Ukraine (roughly 500km away).
My guess is that the drone was some more recent variant of the UJ-22 (perhaps a development of the UJ-31/32 ‘loitering munition’). That is very much a guess, but in the video footage it looks similar. Photographs published by Russia last week of a UJ-22 that didn’t quite make it to Moscow (one of a series of failed attacks, Moscow claimed) strengthen the notion, but it’s important that this was a Ukrainian-made device – meaning other nations (i.e., China) can’t get the hump. The same kind of thinking may have been at work when Ukraine sank the Moskva in international waters, which it did using Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles.
Having said all this, it’s difficult to rule out Ukrainian ‘freelancers’. They would have required decent funding for all these recent attacks, as well as access to explosives, but it’s not inconceivable. There is currently a $500,000 competition to land a drone in Red Square during the annual May 9th parade (shades of Mathias Rust), and rumour has it that some 1,500 potential participants have declared an interest. However, the attack might also have required inertial or even visual guidance in its latter stages, since it’s known that GPS signals are frequently jammed and spoofed around the Kremlin. In short, freelancers don’t seem very likely candidates.