Russia said Wednesday it had shot down two drones aimed at President Vladimir Putin‘s Kremlin residence in what it called a Ukrainian “terrorist” assassination attempt.
Kyiv said it had “nothing to do” with the alleged attack, suggesting it was “staged” by Moscow, while the US said the report should be taken with a “shaker of salt”.
Russia announced the incident after a series of major sabotage attacks in the run-up to celebrations for the nation’s most important holiday on May 9, marking the Soviet victory over the Nazis.
“Today at night, the Kyiv regime attempted to strike the Kremlin residence of the President of the Russian Federation with unmanned aerial vehicles,” the Kremlin said.
“Two unmanned vehicles were aimed at the Kremlin… the devices were put out of action,” a Kremlin statement said.
The operation was described as “a planned terrorist act and an attempt on the life of the President of the Russian Federation”.
Moscow said Putin was not hurt and there were no casualties.
“Russia reserves the right to take retaliatory measures wherever and whenever it deems necessary,” the Kremlin statement continued.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was working at his residence near Moscow on Wednesday and would still take part in a scheduled World War II Victory Day parade on Red Square next week as planned.
Kyiv denied any involvement.
“We didn’t attack Putin…,” said Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky, on a surprise trip to Finland. “We fight on our territory, we are defending our villages and cities.”
Presidential spokesman Mikhaylo Podolyak said: “Such staged reports by Russia should be considered solely as an attempt to prepare an information background for a large-scale terrorist attack on Ukraine.”
– ‘Shaker of salt’ –
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cast doubt on the veracity of the report.
“I’ve seen the reports. I cannot validate them, we simply don’t know,” Blinken said at an event in Washington.
“I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “We’re not going to jump to any conclusions at this particular moment”.
On Moscow’s iconic Red Square, AFP saw some people climbing external stairs onto the domed roof of a building known as the Kremlin Senate, which houses the presidential administration.
The roof appeared to be unscathed despite unverified images circulating on social media apparently showing it being struck by an explosion from a possible drone.
There were people out for a stroll in the area and no strengthened police presence.
Banners and seating have already been set up ahead of the May 9 parade.
Moscow has vowed that the parade — central to Putin’s rule — will go on as normal.
There were calls in Moscow for a tough reaction against Ukraine.
“We will demand the use of weapons capable of stopping and destroying the Kyiv terrorist regime,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian Duma and Putin ally.
– Sabotage attacks –
The alleged thwarted operation comes on the heels of a series of incidents — including sabotage attacks on trains — ahead of the popular WWII victory celebrations.
The last five days have seen two trains derailed by explosions, oil depot fires near and in Crimea, and power lines blown up near Saint Petersburg.
Fighting has also intensified along parts of the front line between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
In the region of Kherson, Ukrainian officials said shelling on Wednesday had killed 16 civilians, including 12 in the regional capital of the same name.
Officials in Russia also said they were dealing with a major fire at a fuel depot close to the bridge to Russian-annexed Crime.
A source in the emergency services was quoted by TASS news agency as saying that the fire had been caused by a drone.
As these apparent attacks behind Russian lines have become more frequent, a range of cities near the Ukraine border, but also some more distant, have cancelled traditional May 9 parades.
Moscow however has vowed that the central Red Square parade will go ahead as normal although extra precautions are being taken, including a ban on all unauthorised drone flights in the city.
– ‘Decisive’ year –
The Kremlin news came as Ukraine prepares for a fresh offensive aimed at repelling Russian forces from the territory they currently hold in the east and south.
In possible signs that preparations are being stepped up, the frontline city of Kherson in southern Ukraine announced a long curfew for residents and sabotage acts behind Russian lines intensified.
Kherson, re-taken by Ukrainian troops in November, will be under curfew from Friday evening until Monday morning.
Regional officials said this was “for law enforcement officers to do their job”, but similar long curfews have also been used in the past to facilitate troop and arms movements.
“During these 58 hours, it is forbidden to move on the streets of the city,” the head of Kherson’s regional military administration, Oleksandr Prokudin, said on Telegram.
He advised residents to stock up on food and medicine and said people could go for short walks near their houses or visit shops as long as they carried identity documents with them at all times.
Kherson was captured by Russian troops last year in the first days of the invasion and remained under Russian occupation until November 2022.
NATO’s newest member Finland welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a surprise visit to take part in a summit with the leaders of the five Nordic nations, which have been key providers of military aid.
“I believe that this year will be decisive for us, for Europe, for Ukraine, decisive for victory,” Zelensky told reporters during a joint press conference with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto.
Zelensky also congratulated Finland on its NATO accession, adding: “Ukraine needs the same security guarantees.
“The most powerful security guarantee for Ukraine is NATO membership,” he said.