Kyiv and Moscow angrily blamed each other after two explosions in an apparent drone attack on the heart of Russian power, but whose outrage is real?
The only indisputable facts about Wednesday’s incident at the Kremlin are that there were two explosions around 2:30 a.m. above Russia’s most important political and cultural symbol, and that both Moscow and Ukraine reacted with outrage.
But whose outrage was real and whose was feigned?
In this war, the battle over the narrative is as important as the battle in the field. While the Kremlin frequently lies and uses its powerful government-controlled media to craft alternative realities, Ukraine, too, has proved adept at bending the truth to serve its wartime agenda.
Cutting through the competing narratives to get to the truth can prove to be a tricky thing, and that perhaps is the point. Both sides stand to gain when their intentions and methods remain obscured by fog.
Was the apparent drone attack a bold but largely symbolic action by Ukraine aimed at embarrassing President Vladimir V. Putin as he prepares to preside over the annual Victory Day Parade on Red Square next week? Was it a staged Russian provocation meant to justify still harsher attacks on the Ukrainian population, or perhaps against Ukraine’s leadership?
Or was it executed by neither government, but by local Russian partisans opposed to the war, or rogue Ukrainian saboteurs?
Russia angrily accused Ukraine of trying to assassinate Mr. Putin with a drone attack, and asserted its right to retaliate.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said repeatedly in a conference call with journalists that the United States had ordered the attack, without offering any evidence. “We know well that the decisions about such actions and such terrorist acts are made not in Kyiv, but in Washington,” he said.
U.S. officials vehemently denied any involvement. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” John F. Kirby, communications chief for the White House’s National Security Council, said, “Peskov is just lying there, pure and simple.”
Ukraine also denied trying to strike the Kremlin and accused Moscow of essentially ginning up a provocative incident to rally domestic support and justify escalation.
A Ukrainian strike on the seat of the Russian government would constitute an audacious act. But the Kremlin said nothing about it for 12 hours.
When the press service finally did get around to accusing Ukraine, it did so in an unusually detailed statement, suggesting it was eager for the episode to gain maximum public exposure.
That set off a flurry of public denials in Kyiv, as well as some private head-scratching from Ukrainian officials who are usually quick with a wink and a nod to indicate association with daring and creative covert operations. They noted that the explosions were too small to accomplish much.
“Pretty, but ineffective, unfortunately,” said one senior Ukrainian official when asked about the attack shortly after the Kremlin issued its statement. “At the moment I don’t know who did it. It seems it wasn’t ours.”
Someone knows what really happened, but no one, for now, is talking. More than a day later, no new information has emerged that might clarify who was behind the explosions, but that has not prevented inflammatory statements and wild speculation from flourishing.
On Thursday, Russian officials continued to double down. The foreign ministry released a lengthy statement, saying those guilty of carrying out what it called “terrorist attacks” would face “severe and inevitable punishment.”
In this case, Ukraine and Russia each had the means and the motive to carry out the attack.
In more than 14 months of war Ukraine has become adept at brazen actions heavy with symbolic significance. The strike last spring that sunk Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, did little to slow the relentless Russian attacks on Ukraine, but was a deeply humbling setback for Russia’s military.
The blast last summer on the sole bridge linking Russian territory to the occupied Crimean Peninsula slowed down the transport of military supplies for a short time, but dealt another embarrassing blow to Mr. Putin, whose forces had failed to protect an important strategic asset far from the front lines.
Ukraine has spent the war developing lethal drones that have terrorized troops on the battlefield and struck far behind enemy lines. Last December, Ukraine sent modified explosive drones hundreds of miles into Russian territory for attacks on two military bases that damaged planes and killed several soldiers.
In these cases and others, Ukrainian officials have not taken responsibility publicly, though they often have not denied outright their country’s involvement. Off the record, senior officials will sometimes acknowledge their forces have participated.
Wednesday’s episode was different. Top officials from Mr. Zelensky down issued immediate and unequivocal denials.
“Ukraine certainly has nothing to do with drone attacks on the Kremlin,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president. “It makes absolutely no sense. It provides no military, informational, or tactical effect on the eve of an offensive.”
The swift, firm denials may carry meaning, but what that meaning is remains open to speculation.
Mr. Podolyak suggested that the explosions were in fact a so-called “false flag’’ operation by the Kremlin — intended to make it seem like Ukraine was at fault — to justify a potential large-scale attack aimed at undermining Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive.
He did not explain why Moscow would need such justification. Mr. Putin’s military has been launching massive attacks and killing civilians since the beginning of the war without feeling the need to put forth elaborately crafted excuses.
The United States Embassy in Kyiv issued a warning late Wednesday that there was a heightened risk of Russian missile attacks, and on Thursday the Ukrainian military said it had shot down missiles and drones over Kyiv and Odessa.
Mr. Zelensky contrasted the explosions at the Kremlin, which Mr. Putin’s press service called a terrorist attack, with attacks by the Russian military on Ukrainian cities the same day. While Russian officials said the explosions in Moscow caused no injuries, Mr. Zelensky shared gruesome photos of dead civilians after a Russian attack on the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which killed at least 23 people at a grocery store and a train station, among other civilian targets.
“We will never forgive the culprits,” Mr. Zelensky said in a post on Instagram. “We will defeat the evil state and hold all the perpetrators to account.”
The Kremlin, of course, is adept at deception and has never shown reticence to promote outright lies.
Mr. Putin’s stated justification for his invasion — that Ukraine was ruled by a Nazi junta committed to violence against Russia — was fabricated. Last week, a Russian state television report describing a Ukrainian attack on a Russian-controlled city used footage that was actually from a Russian attack on the Ukrainian city of Uman, which killed more than 20 people.
Russia uses such distortion to promote an alternative reality that justifies its actions in the war, both to its own people and its allies, experts say.
Already, Russian officials have used the Kremlin incident to call for reprisals. Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s bombastic former president and now deputy chairman of the Russian Federation’s security council — who often voices the most extreme versions of potential Russian actions — said the explosions justified “the physical elimination” of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky and “his clique.” He sprinkled in a Hitler reference for good measure.
Explaining the 12-hour time lag between the explosions and the Kremlin’s announcement, Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said there was a need by Russia’s spy services to conduct an investigation first. Mr. Putin was working at the Kremlin on Thursday, Mr. Peskov said, and would make no special statement about the explosions.