Tuesday’s drone strike targeting Moscow exposed flagrant cracks in their air defenses and highlighted the vulnerability of the capital as more Russian soil comes under fire amid expectations of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The attack, which caused slight damage to three apartment buildings, angered Russian hawks, who sharply criticized President Vladimir Putin and the military leadership for failing to protect the Kremlin’s heart of power more than 500 kilometers from the front line.
Five of the eight drones that took part in the raid were shot down, according to the Defense Ministry, while three others were intercepted and forced to divert from their course. Some Russian media outlets and bloggers said that a larger number of drones were involved, but those claims could not be verified.
The attack came after a drone hit the Kremlin on May 3, slightly damaging the roof of the palace, which includes one of Putin’s official residences. Other drones have crashed near Moscow in what Russian authorities described as failed Ukrainian attempts to attack the city and infrastructure facilities in the suburbs.
Last week, the Russian border region of Belgorod was the object of one of the most serious cross-border raids since the war began, for which two far-right pro-Ukrainian paramilitary groups claimed responsibility.
Authorities in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, near annexed Crimea, said two drones attacked the city on Friday, damaging residential buildings. The attacks also prompted calls to reinforce Russia’s borders.
Ukrainian authorities welcomed Tuesday’s drone attack but, as usual, avoided claiming responsibility, a response similar to the one they gave after previous attacks on Russian soil.
In a sarcastic tweet, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that “even artificial intelligence is already smarter and farsighted than Russia’s military and political leaders.”
The Russian military shelled the Ukrainian capital Kiev and other cities with cruise missiles and explosive drones over the past three nights, a significant uptick in such attacks that have been launched regularly since October. The Ukrainian military claimed to have shot down most of the missiles and was reserved in reporting damage caused by the attacks.
Putin described the attack on Moscow as a Ukrainian attempt to intimidate its inhabitants. He said Moscow’s air defenses worked as expected, but admitted that protecting a huge city is a daunting task.
“It is clear what needs to be done to strengthen air defenses and we will do it,” he added.
Military observers said the drones used in the attack were relatively crude and cheap, but could have a range of up to 1,000 kilometers. AND they predicted there could be more.
Some of the drones seen flying towards Moscow were Ukrainian-made UJ-22s, capable of carrying explosives; others sighted in the skies near Moscow were similarly small vehicles.
Mark Cancian, senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that part of the reason drones were able to reach Moscow undetected was that Russian air defenses are primarily focused on repelling strikes with more sophisticated weapons.
“They are targeting missiles, ballistic missiles, regional missiles, planes, bombers, but not short-range drones, which can fly very low above the ground,” Cancian told The Associated Press. “Russian air defense just wasn’t designed to do that.”
The Russian military is likely to withdraw some of its air defense assets from the front line to help protect Moscow, Cancian said, a move that would weaken Russian troops in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“That’s good for the Ukrainians in the sense that these systems are being withdrawn from other areas where they could perhaps be used by front line units,” he said.
The Kremlin’s weak response to the attack irked some hardline commentators and military bloggers in Moscow, who had criticized Russia’s leadership for failing to come up with a stronger response.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the maverick millionaire who runs the private military contractor Wagner, who has a key role on the battlefield in Ukraine, he scolded Russian military chiefs as “scum” and “pigs” for failing to protect Moscow.
“You, the Defense Ministry, have done nothing to launch an offensive,” Prigozhin said in a statement released by his office. “How dare they allow drones to reach Moscow?”
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechnya province who sent forces from the region to fight in Ukraine, urged the Kremlin to declare martial law across the country and use all its resources in Ukraine “to wipe out this terrorist gang.”
Vladimir Putin is calm
Some Kremlin observers said Putin’s calm reaction, which contrasted with angry remarks from Russian hawks, reflected his belief that the public will not be unnerved by the attack.
“Putin has repeatedly spoken of the remarkable patience and tenacity of the Russian people,” Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Foundation said in a commentary. “As defiant as another Ukrainian attack is, Putin doesn’t think it could provoke public discontent with the government,” she added.
He noted that while downplaying the attacks makes the authorities appear “embarrassed and powerless,” such a stance is consistent with Putin’s course of prolonging the conflict.
James Nixey, director of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme, said Tuesday’s attack indicated a growing Ukrainian determination to launch attacks inside Russia and predicted more to come.
“It’s not the first or the last,” Nixey told the AP. “In various aspects, the Ukrainians are flexing their muscles, seeing where they can counterattack. It’s one more part of the Ukrainian game to make sure that they’re not just playing defense, but they can play some offense as well.”
Despite loud calls for revenge, the Russian military can’t do much more than it has since the start of the war, Nixey said.
“The reality is that Russia has limits on what it can do. It has limits on the number of troops, limits on its finances, limits on artillery ammunition, missiles, drones, everything,” he added. “They are already spending all their efforts, all their money, all their treasure, all their blood if you will to continue their war in the Ukraine.”
Source: The Associated Press
Translation: Elisa Carnelli