A barrage of attack drones were downed over Moscow on Tuesday, the first time civilian areas of the Russian capital have been touched directly by the Ukrainian conflict and a signal that a distant war may soon begin to feel somewhat less so for ordinary Russians.
The physical damage was minimal, limited to shattered apartment windows and some minor injuries in an upscale neighborhood, but the psychological impact may prove far bigger for a citizenry that to date has been able to go about daily life with little thought for the bloodshed taking place over the border.
“If the goal was to stress the population, then the very fact that drones have appeared in the skies over Moscow has contributed to that,” wrote one pro-war Russian blogger, Mikhail Zvinchuk, who posts under the name Rybar.
The drones, numbering at least eight, came as Russia has been engaged in a particularly sustained aerial assault on Ukraine’s own capital, Kyiv. And while President Vladimir V. Putin blamed Ukraine for what he branded “terrorist activity,” no one was killed in Moscow on Tuesday. The same could not be said for Kyiv, where one person died in the Russian attacks.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine had not been “directly involved” in the attack but was “happy” to watch the events taking place across the border. A spokesman for its air force, which typically maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity over attacks on Russian soil, declined to comment.
Russian officials and Ukrainian allies alike appeared to be choosing their words carefully in responding to the attack.
While the United States has flooded Ukraine with military equipment since the war began in February 2022, American officials have made clear that they do not want it used to hit Russian territory, lest the conflict escalate.
On Tuesday, they appeared to hedge that position a bit.
The State Department and the National Security Council both issued statements saying that the United States does not support strikes inside Russia “as a general matter,” but noting that Tuesday marked the 17th time this month that Russia had struck Kyiv.
Britain, another Ukrainian ally, went further.
Its foreign minister, James Cleverly, said that Ukraine had “the right to project force beyond its borders” to undermine Russian attacks and that military targets beyond a nation’s borders are “internationally recognized as being legitimate as part of a nation’s self-defense.” Mr. Cleverly said that he did not have details about the drone attacks and was speaking more generally.
In Moscow, where the drone incursion raised questions about Russian air defenses, Kremlin officials sought to dismiss the seriousness of the attack, even while suggesting it would lead to changes.
“It’s clear what needs to be done to increase the density of the capital’s air defense systems,” said Mr. Putin. “And we will do just that.”
Still, a ruling party lawmaker, Andrei Gurulev, said people in the city center of Moscow were more likely to be hit by an electric scooter than by a drone. “We didn’t do too badly today,” he told state news media.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that five of the drones had been shot down, and that three had their signals jammed electronically.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, after seizing territory there in 2014, it was expected to win quickly and decisively. Instead, the Ukrainian military made Russia fight for every inch.
Now, more than a year after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a series of embarrassing attacks on Russian soil have shown that even at home the Russians can be vulnerable.
Ukraine has staged a brazen drone assault on military air bases deep inside Russia. A drone also hit an oil facility near an airfield in the Russian province of Kursk. And earlier this month, drones exploded over the Kremlin, an assault that U.S. officials said was most likely carried out by one of Kyiv’s special military or intelligence units.
And just last week, a cross-border assault in southern Russia by anti-Kremlin fighters stretched over the course of two days, potentially opening up a new set of battlefield problems. A similar attack was reported on Tuesday.
Russia is vulnerable to drone attacks in part because of its size — the border with Ukraine is more than 1,400 miles — but also because its air defense radars are designed to detect aircraft and missiles bigger than drones, said Sam Bendett, an adviser on Russian studies at CNA, a nonprofit research organization based in Virginia.
Apart from creating a sense of vulnerability in Russia, he said, Ukrainian drone attacks might serve to test Moscow’s air defense systems and identify potential weaknesses that could be exploited in other attacks.
Part of the challenge for Russia has been adapting the complex air defense system that encircles Moscow to the threats of a new era.
“Previously, air defense systems near cities would tune out anything smaller than a helicopter,” said Ian Williams of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Small drones may have a radar return the size of a goose, so if you tune your radars to look for enemy drones, you’ll also see a lot of birds.”
Still, it is unconfirmed that Ukraine was behind Tuesday’s attack, and big questions remain about Ukraine’s drone capabilities
Last fall, Ukraine’s state-owned weapons maker, Ukroboronprom, said it was close to developing a drone that could carry a 165-pound warhead more than 600 miles, putting Moscow well within range, and that it had completed tests of the weapon. But Ukraine has not announced the use of such a long-range drone in combat.
And on Tuesday, U.S. defense officials said the next round of weapons sent to Ukraine would include missiles for the Patriot air defense system and more rockets for the HIMARS mobile system. The $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 attack highlighted Russia’s technological lag in drone warfare, and renewed his tirade against Russian military officials, whom he has long accused of incompetence.
“What should common people do when explosives-laden drones are crashing into their windows?” he said in an audio message posted on Telegram, adding: “The people have full right to ask them these questions.”
Mr. Prigozhin noted that some of the drones crashed in the neighborhoods of Russian political and military elites. “Let your homes burn,” he said, referring to military and political elites.
Igor Girkin, a former paramilitary leader who had 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 destruction, but in the fact that the nation’s leadership has promised us not a war, but a special military operation.”
“Instead of an honest conversation with a nation, we get blurry consolations about Napoleon’s conquest of Moscow: Don’t worry, everything is going to plan,” he said. “What is the real plan then?”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political scientist based in Paris, said that a lack of wartime leadership under Mr. Putin was becoming glaring.
“Everything is built on his often voiced idea of a ‘patient nation’ that understands everything and will endure anything,” she wrote on Telegram on Tuesday. “Let’s see.”
In Ukraine, where incoming drones and missiles are commonplace, some looked at what was happening in Moscow with grim satisfaction.
“It is great that they can feel what we feel every day here,” said Samir Memedov, 32, an account manager in Kyiv who has had to take shelter in a subway station during Russian attacks this week.
Another Kyiv resident, Yulia Honcharova, said she had mixed feelings.
“I’m not among those who believe that we should bomb their residential quarters at night,” she said, “but I do want them to feel what it is like to live under constant alarms, like people live in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro.”
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