Fifteen months into a war launched by their government against Ukraine, some Muscovites early morning on Tuesday for the first time woke up to explosions.
“It was like the sound of a short thunder strike,” a man called Andrei, who lives opposite one of the buildings which suffered damage, told the TV-channel Dozhd, an independent station working from exile in the Netherlands.
“For a moment it’s like you’re in a horror film, I ran to my relatives and yelled at them to get away from the window.”
He said the incident had left those living in his area feeling “shocked and confused.”
Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that it had intercepted eight drones in a “terrorist attack” by Ukraine, although Kyiv denied its involvement and Russian-language Telegram channels initially spoke of 25 drones.
Although not entirely unexpected — Russian regions bordering Ukraine such as Belgorod suffer almost daily strikes, and an incident in early May in which two drones flew onto the Kremlin compound set the stage for further incursions — the drone raid marks a landmark moment as the biggest strike against Moscow since the beginning of the war.
Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst, said it heralded the end of a phase of complacency, in which Russians accept the war as something that does not threaten their own lives.
“The war is breaking into people’s minds and forcing itself to be talked about. That’s a bad sign for Putin,” he told Dozhd. “It is not as much a strike on Moscow as a strike on Russians’ minds.”
The Kremlin elite is likely to take particular note: the drones fell close to wealthy areas in western Moscow where they live in lavish homes behind tall fences. Оne drone crashed to the ground within 10 kilometers of Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence.
It has spurred some, like former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov, to conclude the drone wave was in fact an attack on the president, even as Russia’s foreign ministry called it “exclusively aimed at the civilian population with the aim of spreading panic.”
But if a mindshift is taking place among the general population, it was not tangible on Tuesday, a sunny spring day in Moscow.
Other than the residents of the affected buildings, the only group to have been seriously inconvenienced appeared to be those behind the wheel, especially taxi drivers, with some important thoroughfares temporarily shut, а seemingly heavier traffic police presence, and glitchy GPS systems.
As has been the case at other sensitive moments for Russia in the war, the authorities on Tuesday projected an image of routine control and efficiency.
Praising Russia’s air defenses, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists President Vladimir Putin would not be making a special statement and there was no threat to Moscow residents’ safety.
Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said there were no casualties and there was only “minor damage” to two buildings. Residents who had been evacuated this morning were already returning to their homes, he said.
Helping Russian officials contain any concern, let alone panic, is the fact many Russians have stopped following the news altogether or do so only partially, insulating them from events sometimes only several metro stops away.
Some of those who had heard of the attack, meanwhile, said they did not feel additional worry, maintaining a seemingly impenetrable shield of jaded indifference towards the war. “Тhere’s no reason to expect that this will happen on a regular basis,” one male Muscovite in his thirties, who preferred to stay anonymous for safety reasons, told POLITICO. “Once it becomes a daily thing, I’ll probably have more specific feelings about it.”
Another resident of one of the affected neighborhoods had simply slept through the blasts. Another said nothing could upstage the shock of February 24, 2022, the first day of Russia’s invasion.
Rather than a sharp wake-up call, Tuesday’s attack will most likely serve as another drop in the ocean of simmering unease among the general population, and an energy boost to those beating the war drum.
State Duma deputy Maxim Ivanov on Tuesday wrote on Telegram that the drone attacks brought home a “new reality” to Russians, in which those who did not defend Russia as a “united fist” would face a wave of “shame of cowardice, collaboration and betrayal.”
Most tangibly, the drone attack could result in even tighter control over information in Russia.
As scores of photos and videos circulated on social media, Moscow’s Prosecutor General’s Office on Tuesday issued a warning against those who published information departing from the official line, threatening them with prosecution for the spreading “fake news,” a charge which in Russia carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Lawmakers have also called for a ban on the publication of photos and videos that could be used for military purposes, such as geolocating air defense systems.
Anti-war Russians and Ukrainians commenting on Tuesday’s drone attack were quick to point out that while new to Russia’s capital, it paled in comparison to what Kyiv undergoes on a daily basis. According to Kyiv, Russian drone attacks on Ukraine on Tuesday killed four and left 34 wounded.
“Tonight, Muscovites felt a tenth, if not a hundredth, of what Kyiv residents feel EVERY night,” prominent Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Rodnyansky said in an Instagram post, alongside photos of destroyed buildings in Kyiv. “Take a close look at these photos. This is now your reality as well.”