A barrage of drone strikes fell over Moscow on Tuesday, the first time civilian areas in the Russian capital have been directly touched by the Ukraine conflict and the signal that a long-range war is about to begin feels a little less to ordinary Russians.
The physical damage was minimal, limited to smashed apartment windows and a few minor injuries in an upscale neighborhood, but the psychological impact may prove far greater for residents who until recently were able to go about their daily lives with little thought of the bloodshed that ensued. cross the border.
“If the goal is to keep population down, then the fact that drones have appeared in the sky over Moscow has contributed to that,” wrote a pro-war Russian bloggerMikhail Zvinchuk, who posts under the name Rybar.
The drones, at least eight in total, come as Russia has engaged in sustained airstrikes on Ukraine's own capital, Kyiv. And while President Vladimir V. Putin blamed Ukraine for what he called “terrorist activity,” no one was killed in Moscow on Tuesday. The same can't be said for Kyiv, where one person was killed in a Russian attack.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine was not “directly involved” in the attack but was “thrilled” to witness events unfolding across the border. A spokesman for its air force, which usually maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity over attacks on Russian soil, declined to comment.
Russian officials and Ukraine's allies appeared to be choosing their words carefully in response to the attack.
While the United States has flooded Ukraine with military equipment since the war began in February 2022, American officials have made it clear they do not want it to be used to attack Russian territory, lest the conflict escalate.
On Tuesday, they appear to have hedged the position a bit.
The State Department and National Security Council both issued statements saying the United States did not support attacks inside Russia “as a matter of generality”, but noted that Tuesday marked the 17th time this month that Russia attacked Kyiv.
Britain, another ally of Ukraine, went a step further.
Its foreign minister, James Cleverly, said that Ukraine had the “right to project power beyond its borders” to undermine Russian attacks and that military targets outside the country's borders were “recognized internationally as part of the nation's legitimate self-defence.” Mr. Cleverly said he had no details on the drone strike and was speaking more generally.
In Moscow, where the drone strike raised questions about Russia's air defenses, Kremlin officials sought to ignore the seriousness of the strike, though suggested it would lead to change.
“It is clear what needs to be done to increase the density of the capital's air defense systems,” Putin said. “And we will do just that.”
However, a ruling party lawmaker, Andrei Gurulev, said people in downtown Moscow are more likely to be hit by an electric scooter than a drone. “We didn't do too badly today,” he told state news media.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said that five drones had been shot down, and three of them had electronic signal jamming.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, having seized territory there in 2014, it was expected that Russia would win quickly and decisively. Instead, the Ukrainian military has the Russians fighting for every inch.
Now, more than a year after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a series of humiliating attacks on Russian soil have shown that even at home Russia can be vulnerable.
Ukraine has launched a drone strike on a military airbase deep inside Russia. A drone also hit an oil facility near the airfield in Russia's Kursk province. And earlier this month, a drone exploded over the Kremlin, an attack that US officials say was most likely carried out by one of Kyiv's special military or intelligence units.
And just last week, a cross-border offensive in southern Russia by anti-Kremlin fighters lasted two days, potentially opening up a new set of battlefield problems. A similar attack was reported on Tuesday.
Russia is vulnerable to drone attacks partly because of its size—the border with Ukraine is more than 1,400 miles—but also because its air defense radar is designed to detect aircraft and missiles that are larger than drones, said Sam Bendett, advisor for Russia studies at CNA, a nonprofit research organization that based in Virginia.
As well as creating a sense of vulnerability in Russia, he said, the Ukrainian drone strike might serve to test Moscow's air defense systems and identify potential weaknesses that could be exploited in another attack.
Part of the challenge for Russia will be adapting the complex air defense system surrounding Moscow to deal with a new era of threats.
“Before, air defense systems near cities would have ignored anything smaller than helicopters,” said Ian Williams of Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “A small drone might have a radar the size of a goose, so if you set your radar to look for enemy drones, you will see a lot of birds too.”
However, it has not yet been confirmed that Ukraine was behind Tuesday's attack, and major questions remain about Ukraine's drone capabilities
Last fall, Ukraine's state-owned arms maker Ukroboronprom said it was close to developing a drone that could carry a 165-pound warhead more than 600 miles, putting Moscow in good range, and had completed testing of the weapon. But Ukraine has yet to announce the use of the long-range drones in combat.
And on Tuesday, US defense officials said the next round of weapons to be delivered to Ukraine would include missiles for the Patriot air defense system and more rockets for the HIMARS mobile system. A $300 million military aid package could be announced as soon as Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the head of the powerful Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, said the strike highlighted Russia's technological slowness in drone warfare, and renewed his tirade against Russian military officials, whom he has long accused of incompetence.
“What's an ordinary person supposed to do when an explosives-laden drone crashes into their window?” he said in a audio message posted on Telegram, adding: “People have every right to ask them these questions.”
Mr Prigozhin noted that some of the drones fell within Russia's political and military elite. “Let your house burn,” he said, referring to the military and political elite.
Igor Girkin, a former paramilitary leader who has long called for an escalation of the war in Ukraine, said on Telegram, “The strength of the psychological blow caused by the drone attack on Moscow is not in the scale of devastation, but in reality. that the nation's leadership has promised us not war, but special military operations.”
“Instead of a frank conversation with a nation, we get some vague consolation about Napoleon's conquest of Moscow: Don't worry, everything is going according to plan,” he said. “Then what's the real plan?”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a Paris-based Russian political scientist, said the lack of wartime leadership under Putin was all the more glaring.
“Everything is built on the idea that is often voiced about a ‘patient nation' that understands everything and will endure anything,” he wrote on Telegram on Tuesday. “Let's see.”
In Ukraine, where incoming drones and missiles are commonplace, some view what is happening in Moscow with grim satisfaction.
“It's great that they can feel what we feel every day here,” said Samir Memedov, 32, an account manager in Kyiv who had to take shelter in a subway station during this week's Russian attack.
Another Kyiv resident, Yulia Honcharova, said she had mixed feelings.
“I am not one of those who believe that we should bomb their homes at night,” he said, “but I want them to feel what it is like to live under constant alarm, like people who live in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro .”
Reporting contributed by John Ismay, Marc Santora, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Andrew E. Kramer, Eric Schmitt And Anna Lukinova.