Russia accused Ukraine on Wednesday of a failed attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin in a drone attack on the Kremlin citadel in Moscow, and threatened to retaliate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv had nothing to do with the reported overnight incident.
“We don’t attack Putin, or Moscow, we fight on our territory,” Zelenskiy told a press conference during a visit to Finland, of the war against Russian occupiers.
A senior aide to Zelenskiy called the accusation a sign that the Kremlin was planning a major new attack on Ukraine.
Shortly after the Kremlin announcement, Ukraine reported alerts for air strikes over the capital Kyiv and other cities.
Russia said that two unmanned aerial vehicles were aimed at the Kremlin.
“As a result of timely actions taken by the military and special services with the use of radar warfare systems, the devices were put out of action,” a Kremlin statement said.
“We regard these actions as a planned terrorist act and an attempt on the president’s life, carried out on the eve of Victory Day, the May 9 Parade, at which the presence of foreign guests is also planned.”
Fragments of drones were scattered in the Kremlin grounds but there were no injuries or damage, it said.
Putin himself was safe. The RIA news agency said he had not been in the Kremlin at the time, and was working on Wednesday at his Novo Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow.
“The Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures where and when it sees fit,” the Kremlin added.
Russian former president Dmitry Medvedev, a close Putin ally, said in a social media post that the alleged drone attack left Moscow with no options but to “eliminate” Zelenskiy and his “clique” in Kyiv.
Video posted by Baza, a Telegram channel with links to Russia’s law enforcement agencies, showed a flying object approaching the dome of a Kremlin building overlooking Red Square, exploding in a burst of light just before reaching it.
Other video posted on a neighbourhood internet group showed a plume of smoke over the Kremlin’s gold domes. Reuters could not independently verify the videos.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the accusation, along with an announcement that Russia had caught suspected saboteurs in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea region, “clearly indicates the preparation of a large scale terrorist provocation by Russia in the coming days”.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in remarks quoted by the Washington Post, said Washington was unable to validate reports of the drone strike, but that he would regard anything coming from the Kremlin “with a very large shaker of salt”.
Russia says it launched its “special military operation” to counter a threat from Kyiv’s relations with the West. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war of conquest by Moscow, derailed by a failed assault on the capital Kyiv early last year and Ukrainian advances in the second half of 2022.
Over the past five months, Ukrainian ground forces have kept mostly to the defensive, while Russia launched a huge, largely unsuccessful winter assault, capturing little new ground.
In Ukraine’s southern Kherson region on Wednesday, 16 civilians were killed in heavy Russian shelling that hit a hypermarket, a railway station and residential buildings, Ukrainian officials said.
Twelve of those killed were in Kherson city and four in nearby villages, hit by shellings from areas of the province occupied by Russia. They included three engineers trying to repair damage to the power grid in earlier Russian bombardments.
“When the enemy can achieve nothing on the battlefield, it strikes at peaceful cities,” Ukrainian military spokesperson Serhii Cherevatyi said.
Elsewhere, oil depots were ablaze in southern Russia and Ukraine alike as both sides escalated a drone war ahead of Kyiv’s promised spring counteroffensive against Russian forces.
Scores of firefighters battled a huge conflagration that Russian authorities blamed on a Ukrainian drone crashing into an oil terminal on Russia’s side of its bridge to Crimea. A fuel depot in Ukraine was ablaze after a suspected Russian drone strike on the central city of Kropyvnytskyi.
An administrative building in Ukraine’s southern Dnipropetrovsk region was also hit by a drone and set ablaze. Ukraine said it had shot down 21 of 26 Iranian-made drones in an overnight volley, shielding targets in Kyiv where air raid sirens blared for hours through the night.
Ukraine and Russia have both been carrying out long-range strikes since last week in apparent anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, which Zelenskiy said would begin soon.
Moscow says it has struck military targets, though it has produced no evidence to support this. Kyiv, without confirming any role in incidents in Russia or Crimea, says destroying infrastructure is preparation for its planned ground assault.
Zelenskiy visited Finland on Wednesday, his fourth known trip abroad since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Leaders of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden also attended his visit.
Zelenskiy said his goals were to beef up Ukraine’s military and secure an eventual place in the NATO alliance, a goal endorsed by the five Nordic nations in a statement.
In Brussels, European Union countries finalised a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) scheme to jointly buy ammunition and missiles for Ukraine after weeks of wrangling.