A drone strike on Moscow has once again brought the war in Ukraine much closer to home for Russians, undermining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative that the Kremlin’s military effort has been a success.
And like a border incursion of anti-Putin forces last week, the drone attacks further divided leaders of Putin’s war effort, enraging hard-liners who accused military leaders of failing to protect the homeland.
After several drones struck residential buildings across Moscow on Tuesday, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was “deeply outraged.”
“Why the hell do you let these drones fly to Moscow?” the Russian mercenary leader said in an audio message posted to his Telegram channel. “You were sent to defend this country, you are the Ministry of Defense.”
About eight drones caused damage to residential buildings and slightly injured two Russian civilians. The drones were brought down by Russia’s air defenses.
Russia has accused Ukraine of carrying out the attack, although Kyiv has remained silent on responsibility.
The hit on Russia’s capital, coming just weeks after two drones attempted to strike the Kremlin, was one of the boldest attacks deep inside Russian territory since the war began, provoking a direct response from Putin.
Putin claimed Tuesday’s drone attack was in response to a recent strike on Ukraine’s military intelligence headquarters, accusing Kyiv of “intimidating Russians and striking civilian buildings.”
“This is obviously a clear sign of terrorist activity,” Putin said Tuesday at a public event, responding to a question about the attack.
The Russian leader also argued Moscow’s air defenses “operated satisfyingly and in order,” though he noted there were “areas to improve.”
“But this is not worrying as much as attempts to cause a reaction from Russia,” Putin said, again repeating the false claim that Ukraine started the war.
Putin is preparing for a long war in Ukraine, but attacks within the country risks mounting distress among Russians who have largely supported the war.
Michael Allen, the managing director of defense consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies, said the attack on Moscow’s capital sends a message to the Kremlin that Ukrainians will continue to retaliate for frequent Russian strikes on their cities.
Allen added the attack could also “shatter the myth” that Russian forces are winning the war in Ukraine.
“This arms any person in the country with the knowledge of, ‘What do you mean, wait a minute, they’re hitting our capital,’” Allen said. “That’s just a powerful argument that’s been vested in every average Russian.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a blistering statement after the drone attack promising harsh retribution.
“Such attacks, having no military sense, apparently targeted solely the civilian population in order to sow panic among peaceful residents,” reads a statement carried by Russian state-run news agency TASS.
It’s unclear whether the drones were launched from inside Moscow by those loyal to Kyiv or from forces inside Ukraine. Some sophisticated drones can travel hundreds of miles to reach a target, including Ukraine’s UJ-22 drones.
Blake Resnick, the CEO and founder of BRINC, which has sent drones to Ukraine primarily for emergency rescue operations, said if the drones were launched from within Ukrainian territory, they may have sailed far into Russian territory by spoofing GPS signals or confusing signals with a lot of noise.
“Either Russia has much less sophisticated air defenses and counter-systems than anyone likely would have anticipated,” Resnick said, “or the Ukrainians are operating pretty sophisticated aircraft [and] they’re just deploying them in a really tactically intelligent way.”
Ukrainians have increasingly demonstrated their ability to strike inside Russia with drones, attacking Engels airbase deep in Russian territory in December and an oil tanker in the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula last month.
While the U.S. has refrained from providing more sophisticated combat drones to Ukraine, Kyiv has received more advanced units from other western allies. Ukraine also runs a program through the United24 charity platform to raise funds for the purchase of drones, which has been wildly successful and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2023, Ukraine plans to spend $550 million on drone investments, according to a January Facebook post from Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov.
The drone attacks came just days after the latest violent incursion into regions bordering Ukraine. Armed revolutionary groups marched into the Belgorod region last week, creating a domestic crisis for two days before Russian forces stamped out the threat.
The insurgent groups in the raids have claimed to be Russian citizens fighting for Ukraine and seeking to topple the Kremlin and overthrow a corrupt regime.
Alexander Kots, a popular Russian military blogger, said the war is highly informational and that Ukraine succeeded last week in distracting global attention away from the fall of Bakhmut, which Russia seized earlier this month, and toward the border raids.
Kots said even if Ukraine fails to damage or hinder Russian operations with drone strikes and border assaults, “the scale of the attacks will only increase” in the future.
“This is a reason for those who still had illusions to understand that this is not someone’s distant conflict that will bypass,” Kots wrote on Telegram.
Ukraine, however, risks angering allies by carrying out attacks that target civilian and residential areas in Russian cities, something the U.S. has long warned its ally against.
Allen, from Beacon Global Strategies, said Ukraine may not have attempted to deliberately strike residential buildings in Tuesday’s attack and is unlikely to specifically target Russian citizens in the future.
“I don’t think Ukraine would do that,” he said. “They get under massive pressure from the West [and Kyiv would be] losing the moral high ground.”