Ukrainians were likely behind Kremlin drone attack, US officials say

US officials said the drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month was likely orchestrated by one of Ukraine’s military or special intelligence units, the latest in a series of covert actions against Russian targets that baffled the Biden administration.

US intelligence agencies do not know which unit carried out the attack and it was unclear whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or his senior officials knew about the operation, although some officials believe Mr Zelensky did not. was not.

The agencies reached their preliminary assessment in part through intercepted communications in which Russian officials blamed Ukraine and other communications in which Ukrainian officials said they believed their country was responsible for the attack, in which two drones were sent on May 3 towards the Kremlin, causing little damage.

US officials say their level of confidence that the Ukrainian government directly authorized the Kremlin drone attack is “low”, but that’s because intelligence agencies do not yet have specific evidence identifying government officials, Ukrainian units or agents involved.

The attack appears to be part of a series of operations that have made officials from the United States – Ukraine’s biggest supplier of military equipment – uneasy. The Biden administration is worried about the risk that Russia will blame US officials and retaliate by expanding the war beyond Ukraine.

American spy agencies see the image emerging of a loose confederation of Ukrainian units capable of carrying out limited operations inside and outside Russia, either using their own personnel or using partners working under their direction. Some of those missions could have been carried out with little or no oversight from Mr. Zelensky, officials said.

In addition to the drone attack, US officials said they believe Ukrainians were responsible for the murder of the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist, the murder of a pro-Russian blogger and a number of attacks in Russian towns near the border with Ukraine, the most recent of which occurred on Monday.

Similarly, US officials view the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines – which transported natural gas from Russia to Europe – as the work of pro-Ukrainian operatives whose ties to the Ukrainian government have not yet been determined.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, described their assessment in general terms but did not share details of the interceptions. Representatives of the White House, Central Intelligence Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

Although the drone attack caused little damage, it undermined the sense of security and invincibility that the Kremlin has sought to portray in Moscow despite the chaos it has created with its war in Ukraine.

The ability of US intelligence agencies to determine responsibility for attacks on Russian targets has been complicated by the way Ukraine has organized its security services, which have covert, overlapping and sometimes competing responsibilities.

For example, the Ukrainian Security Service, the Main Intelligence Directorate and the Ukrainian military each deploy their own special forces units.

These operate with varying levels of professionalism and oversight, and they sometimes compete for resources and attention within the Ukrainian system. U.S. officials are unaware of how much, if at all, these units coordinate their activities with each other, either by design — as part of a compartmentalization system to prevent Russian moles from learning about their operations — either because of mistrust between services, or both.

A screenshot from a video showing a drone explosion near the dome of the Palace of the Senate.Credit…Ostorozhno Novosti, via Reuters

Some US officials initially considered the possibility that the Kremlin drone attack could have been carried out by the Russian government as part of a “false flag” operation intended to provide Moscow with a pretext to escalate the conflict.

But after the attack, the United States intercepted communications in which Russian officials were overheard discussing the incident and the findings of Moscow’s preliminary investigation into what happened. During these internal discussions, Russian officials seemed surprised by the drone’s intrusion and blamed Ukraine. US officials said this intelligence helped convince them that the attack was not carried out by the Russians.

“Looking at how the Kremlin responded suggests to me that it was an annoyance and a surprise to them, not a deliberate false flag,” RAND military analyst Dara Massicot said, referring to the drone attack. “The strikes also undermine perceptions of Moscow’s airspace surveillance capabilities and the security of the Kremlin – these are important perceptions that they would like to maintain.”

The United States also intercepted Ukrainian conversations in which officials said they believed their country was responsible for the attack. But those officials seemed unsure who in the Ukrainian system might have planned or executed it.

US officials say some Ukrainian secret agents work largely independently and without the direct supervision of Mr. Zelensky or his top aides. Officials say they do not believe Mr. Zelensky approves of all covert operations, and the extent to which he is aware of this in advance is unclear.

Instead, US officials said they suspected Mr. Zelensky and his top aides set the broad parameters of the covert campaign, leaving decisions about who and what to target to the security services and their operatives. In doing so, Mr. Zelensky and his top aides can deny knowing them.

US officials have repeatedly warned Ukraine against carrying out high-profile attacks inside Russia, citing the risk of escalation. They also generally disdained the effectiveness of the attacks, which they see as a distraction from the most important fight: the Kiev campaign against Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine.

US officials have also publicly denied enabling or encouraging cross-border attacks and have said they do not support the use of US equipment in such operations. The Biden administration does not want Moscow to think the United States is complicit in the attacks.

Administration fears of Russia using nuclear weapons or spreading the conflict outside Ukraine have subsided, at least for now, and Ukrainians have continued to conduct covert operations on Russian soil despite reservations Americans.

While the covert attacks appear to have had little effect on the course of the conflict in Ukraine so far, they have demonstrated kyiv’s ability to penetrate deep inside Russia. US officials say the purpose of the operations could be to boost Ukrainian morale and pierce the aura of invulnerability that surrounds President Vladimir V. Putin.

Ukrainian military leaders have sometimes been reluctant to share information with the United States about war plans, fearing Russian or other spies might learn of them, making it harder for Ukraine to surprise the enemy. . The Ukrainians have been particularly discreet about their covert operations.

The drone attack on the Kremlin took place in the early morning hours of May 3, several days before Russia celebrated Victory Day, marking Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. world.

The first drone caused a small fire; the second drone exploded as two people examined the roof for damage from the first, but they did not appear injured. Russian officials said the drones were intercepted and destroyed before they could cause any injuries.

A New York Times analysis of video of the attack showed the drones had a wingspan of about eight feet. US officials believe the two drones involved were launched from a short distance, at or near Moscow. The drones, according to senior military officials, carried a limited explosive payload, suggesting the detonations over the Kremlin were more of shock value than a real threat.

Russian officials were quick to publicize the incident and said it was an attempt by Ukraine to assassinate Mr Putin. Russia has promised retaliatory measures and has hit Ukraine with regular missile barrages, although it is unclear whether the escalation came in direct response to the drone attack.

On the day of the drone attack, Mr Zelensky publicly denied responsibility, saying Ukraine is fighting on its own territory and keeping its weapons for Ukraine’s defense rather than attacks on Moscow. “We didn’t attack Putin,” he said.

A shadowy network of Russian partisan groups claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including the one on the Kremlin. But US intelligence agencies have found no evidence that such groups are responsible for the operations, and some US intelligence officials are skeptical that there are any significant anti-Putin resistance forces operating in Russia.

Christian Triebert, Riley Mellen And Michael Schwirtz contributed report.

nytimes Eur

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