IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Russia's nonsense about an assassination attempt is a sign of its desperation

Vladimir Putin finds himself needing to invent new arguments to rally the public’s support for the country’s war on Ukraine.

It’s still unclear who flew the two drones that crashed into a Kremlin building on May 3. There’s a range of possibilities: Ukrainians working for the government in Kyiv from inside Russia; pro-Ukrainian, anti-Putin groups, such as the people believed to have killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin; or even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, in a false flag operation.

The drones crashed inside the Kremlin walls when Putin was least likely to be there.

Referring to what he called an "alleged drone attack at the Kremlin," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in a Thursday news conference, "We’re still trying to gather information about what happened, and we just don’t have conclusive evidence one way or the other."

What we do know is this: The Russian government’s reaction to the drones suggests Putin and his propagandists are desperate to mobilize that country’s support for their barbaric, but failing, invasion of Ukraine. That’s the real news here.

NBC News has viewed two videos filmed from the same perspective, which appear to show that two objects flew over the Kremlin approximately 15 minutes apart. The second object seems to strike the building causing a small fire. It was unclear where the objects were launched from and whether they exploded or were shot down.

Immediately after video footage of one of the drone crashes was released, state-controlled media in Russia said it was a Ukrainian drone on a mission to assassinate Putin.

Here’s why we should be skeptical. First, it’s unlikely that the drones, which didn’t even appear to have damaged the flagpole they crashed into, had the capacity to do major damage, let alone kill someone inside the Kremlin. More significantly, Putin does not live in the Kremlin. For decades, he has lived at a compound an hour outside Moscow. Everyone knows this. (While working at the White House and then serving as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, I visited Putin’s residence several times.) In other words, the drones crashed inside the Kremlin walls late at night, precisely when Putin was least likely to be there.

“We are not attacking Putin or Moscow,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland. “We are fighting on our own territory, defending our villages and cities,” he said. “We do not have enough weapons even for this. That is why we do not use them elsewhere."

But it wasn’t enough for Putin’s team to accuse Zelenskyy of trying to kill him. After that initial accusation, they upped the ante and blamed President Joe Biden as well. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary and close personal adviser, outrageously suggested that the Ukrainian government embarked upon what Russia calls an assassination attempt at the behest of the United States.

"I can assure you there was no involvement by the United States. Whatever it was didn’t involve us,” Kirby said in an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” early Thursday. “We had nothing to do with this, so Peskov is just lying there, pure and simple.”

Why is Russia making these kooky claims? Why are they blaming the U.S.? There can really be only one reason: to rally more Russian support for the war. That Putin is OK with such unhinged accusations being made by his team says a lot about how desperate he has become, how much he needs to invent new arguments to rally the public’s support for the country’s war on Ukraine.

Of course, this is not the first time that Putin and propagandists have twisted reality to generate public support for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The biggest myth they’ve pushed is that Russian soldiers are carrying out their “special military operation” (a grotesque euphemism for the horrific Russian acts of war and terrorism) to rid Ukraine of the Nazi regime oppressing the Ukrainian people.

Russian officials have been lying about how their military is faring in Ukraine.

That myth includes the fiction that Russians living in eastern Ukraine needed to be liberated from Kyiv’s repressive fascist dictatorship. President Zelenskyy is Jewish. He’s not a Nazi, and Nazis don’t work for him. He didn’t take power in a coup. In 2017, he won 73% of vote in a free and fair presidential election, and he won by a landslide in the Ukrainian regions that Putin said needed to be liberated from him.

A second notable lie is that the United States and NATO aim to destroy Russia and Russians. That falsehood was recently given voice by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that “everyone understands that Americans declared a crusade against Russia, its culture and traditions.” Yet a third lie is that Russian critics of the war are terrorists and agents of the West. Russian officials have also been lying about how their military is faring in Ukraine. They don’t tell their population the facts about casualties and material losses; they only give them fantastical tales of heroic victories.

After all those lies comes the Kremlin’s new claim of an American-ordered assassination attempt on Putin. If Putin and his propagandists feel the need to make up such preposterous stories to cajole Russian society to rally around their leader, that suggests they feel public support for the war is softer than they’ve publicly claimed. This new crazy conspiracy being pushed by the Kremlin comes soon after a decision to sentence Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years for telling the truth about the war. These are not moves of strength and confidence. These are acts of desperation.

Despite the mystery that continues to surround it, the most important aspect of the story of the drones that crashed into the Kremlin is not who flew them. The most important aspect is how the Kremlin has decided to describe this event. Calling it an assassination attempt from Ukraine and then deciding belatedly to also blame the United States is a sign that, 14 months into a war it thought it would win quickly and easily, Putin is becoming increasingly anxious about keeping the Russian people on his side.