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We discuss the main versions of what happened with political scientist Kirill Shamiev
On the night of May 3, two unmanned aerial vehicles attacked Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin residence. The President himself was not there at the time, according to his press secretary Dmitry Peskov. It is unknown who organized the attack. Russian authorities are accusing Ukraine; in Kiev, they state that they are not attacking “either Moscow or Putin” and assume that this could be a provocation by Russia. Meduza spoke with Kirill Shamiev, a political scientist and researcher of civil-military relations, and an invited researcher at the European Council on International Relations, about these versions.
How believable do you find the version of the Russian authorities that the Kremlin attacked Ukraine?
I think this is plausible for many reasons. Let’s start with the fact that it fits into the logic of the murder of Daria Dugina and Vladlen Tatarsky. These are attacks on very symbolic targets that have no military or direct management value. They are not some officials from the president’s administration or propagandists from the First Channel, but rather important people – from an ideological point of view – for the Z-patriotic Russian public.
I think that the political leadership of Ukraine is trying to destabilize the political situation in Russia as much as possible. The current statement about the liberation of Crimea is a big task. It will be very difficult to regain these territories by military means if the political power in the Kremlin remains as hard as it is now.[But] who stayed in Russia [after the war began]? Many are dissatisfied Z-public, while others are under pressure from the state. Whether it’s murders or symbolic attacks, it’s another annoyance for those who support the war. Another symbol that Vladimir Putin is losing. This is a disgrace for both the Federal Protective Service guarding the Kremlin and for Vladimir Putin.
The second aspect is the Ukrainian reaction. They never take direct responsibility, but based on comments [from Ukrainian officials] in the media, it is evident that the reaction is coordinated.
In addition, in recent days we have seen several attacks on railway infrastructure [in Russia], unsuccessful 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 counter-attack [of the Ukrainian army] has already begun. This can be called the forming phase.
These attacks not only target infrastructure important for the front, but also deep inside the Russian rear. They force the Kremlin to redirect some of the air defense resources inside the country, thereby reducing the saturation of these systems at the front. Considering the paranoia of the Russian authorities, one can expect that such a symbolic target as the Kremlin will lead to even more air defense systems in Moscow. And what does that mean? It means that there will be even fewer of these systems on the front, which is what Ukraine wants to achieve.
– Does the fact that the first videos with smoke over the Kremlin appeared in the night, but the information about the attack became widely known only during the day, make you doubt this version?
This argument makes me doubt my initial hypothesis a little, but it is not enough for me to abandon it. I would say that my confidence has dropped from the initial 70% to 65%. When more data appears, it may be necessary to reconsider everything again.
Do you see any benefit for the Kremlin in this situation? Can they use it to “unite” Russians? Or perhaps explain future attacks by Ukraine? Or prepare the information field before a counteroffensive?
I don’t have data, but it seems to me that such an attack on the Kremlin… Specifically on the Senate Palace, where Vladimir Putin had a meeting on February 21  with the Security Council. This attack, in my opinion, will scare people more: Moscow and the Kremlin are not safe, something continues to go wrong.
Can it unite people? The mechanism of unity is not clear to me. Where else can we unite? State resources control everything. Everyone who disagrees is repressed.
But could this be, for example, another reminder from the authorities that they are fighting, as they claim, against the “fascist Ukraine, NATO, and the whole world” – and that we need to unite, not worry about electronic summons and go to war?
Yesterday and today [May 2nd and 3rd], “Gosuslugi” sent out reminders about the fire in the House of Trade Unions in Odessa [in 2014] – such things work towards uniting on a human level (‘a terrible crime’, ‘many died a horrible death’). It also fuels the rhetoric used by the Kremlin about “fascist” Ukraine. The level of hatred among some people is increasing.
And here is an attack on the Kremlin… It is an infrastructure facility that is important only from the point of view of Russian symbols. I am not sure that it will carry such significance.
– I’ll add that now the propaganda is also covering the attack as an “attempt to kill the president.
Undoubtedly, this is important for the patriotic audience. Plus, this is also a legitimization of a possible response. Because there will need to be something to answer. Probably, once again with rocket strikes on cities in Ukraine (also important from a symbolic point of view).
Moreover, this [can also be emphasized] for the international audience – an [attempt was made to attack] the president himself. This may not be an argument for everyone, but for some of the foreign audience, I think it can also work.
Why do I find it partly difficult to agree with this version [that the attack was organized by the Kremlin to unite Russians]? I would understand if the support for the president was equally high, but without repressiveness [in the country]. And now, under the conditions of repression, it is difficult for me to say how superactive this support is, and not from the series: “I don’t want to get hit on the head”, “I don’t want to lose my job” and “They are attacking us, we have to stand by the president.” This is a different type of electoral support than true support based on ideology, charisma, and electoral procedures.
How can the West react to this attack?
The West is very cautious about such strikes and does not support them. The farther away from Russia, the less they like attacks on important objects because the theory is still important there that if they go too far, Putin will start bombing everyone with nuclear weapons.
In Eastern European countries, they do not agree with this at all – for example, in the Baltic states and Poland. Their position is that Putin is already dangerous and therefore he needs to be pressured. I think they can support the Ukrainian authorities in that any goals are legitimate if they are related to the war in Ukraine.
Can we expect another wave of escalation? And what can we expect next?
To be honest, I don’t know where to escalate further. On one hand, Russia has already escalated as much as possible. On the other hand, technical capabilities are now limited. There have been many losses of equipment and a shortage of ammunition. It is evident how the intensity and quality of missile strikes have decreased.
Attacks on nuclear infrastructure are indeed an escalation. But it is a transition to a new stage of war. I believe that if any nuclear weapon is used, the US will somehow retaliate against the Kremlin for violating the taboo.
– It seems that this attack makes any talks impossible. Is that so? Can we assume that it may be a group of military representatives who are against negotiations?
Ukraine has stated that there will be no negotiations with Putin for a long time. Therefore, this attack does not change their position in any way.
As for Russia, this war has no clearly set goals. This is both a weak and strong point. On the one hand, it is difficult to achieve clearly defined goals, on the other hand, any relative defeat can be presented as a victory. When the goals are unclear, there is more room for dialogue.
From my sphere of competence in studying the Russian army, it seems to me that the military leadership will be one of the first to advocate for an end to the war. The enormous costs, huge losses of technology and personnel. Many problems have been identified. And according to the research data that already exists, the Russian military leadership may not have been very supportive of the start of the so-called “special military operation”.