Nuclear escalation warning after Ukraine drone strikes bring war home to Putin's Russia

Russia alleges the Kremlin has been hit by drone strike

Ukraine’s barrage of drone strikes, hitting targets deep in the heart of Moscow, “bring the war home” to Vladimir Putin’s Russia – but also increases the risk of a dangerous escalation with the West, an award-winning journalist has warned. Owen Matthews also warned the attacks could potentially work in the Russian President’s favour by prompting his country’s citizens to rally behind him – just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is believed to be gearing up for a major counteroffensive.

Several buildings were damaged in what the Kremlin swiftly denounced as a “terrorist drone attack” on the nation’s capital yesterday – on the day Russia targeted Kyiv with drone strikes of its own for the third day in a row.

And Mr Matthews – whose revised and amended 2022 book, Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on Russia, is published next month – predicted the explosions would have rattled those who had hitherto been largely shielded from the reality of the conflict since the invasion on February 24, 2022.

He told “It’s not the first time that Moscow has been hit, because there was that famous double drone strike on the Kremlin a few weeks ago.

“But actually, today has been the first time that I think the war came home for the majority of Muscovites.

“It’s really extraordinary – if you look at social media channels, Telegram and VKontakte, which is the Russian equivalent of Facebook, they are actually sort of buzzing.”

The drone strikes had hit some of Moscow’s wealthiest residential areas, in the west of the city, Mr Matthews pointed out.

He added: “So the psychological impact for Russia’s elite of those drones being shot down or at least striking harmlessly at the very epicentre of rich Moscow suburbia is really dramatic.

“And I think actually, maybe in retrospect, it’s a kind of turning point of the war. The question is – a turning point in what direction?”

The major issue for the Americans and other backers was the risk of “nuclear escalation” which could result from Ukrainian attacks Russian soil, Mr Matthews explained.

Vladimir Putin

Drones also targeted the Kremlin, where Vladimir Putin lives, last month (Image: GETTY)

He continued: “Also, almost more dangerously, it actually risks strengthening Putin’s narrative that the Russian homeland is under attack by NATO.

“So in that sense, there’s an open question about the wisdom of these attacks. Are they helping or hindering attempts to undermine Putin’s war effort?

“Obviously, they’re undermining Putin’s war effort in one sense, because it shows that the capital is vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.

“But at the same time, in a flagging war effort, and on the eve of a major Ukrainian offensive, these kinds of attacks could be the kind of thing that the Kremlin would consider a godsend because it unites Russian people behind their leader.

“And when people are scared, they look for protection, and that protection is Vladimir Putin. So the reaction could be both ways, but clearly, this is a turning point.”

The war was entering a different phase, because the Ukrainians were now demonstrating their potential for launching relatively large-scale, albeit so-far symbolic, attacks “at the heart of the Russian capital”, Mr Matthews stressed.

Asked how confident he was that the drone strikes could be traced back to Ukraine, he said: “The Kremlin has launched false flag operations that have killed hundreds of Russians, notably in September of 1999, when Putin was still Prime Minister, in the lead-up to the second Chechen War.

“There was a series of false flag attacks, which is pretty clear, which were done by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in which up to a thousand Russians were killed by being blowing up in their own apartments.

“The Kremlin is definitely capable of false flag attacks, there’s no doubt that the FSB has form killing Russians for their own political purposes, all that is totally possible.”

Drone attack in Moscow damages several buildings with no casualties

Police in Moscow after yesterday’s drone strikes (Image: Getty)

However, he suggested: “I think in this particular case, if you were putting together a false flag attack, you would not literally attack the Kremlin. You would not literally attack the houses of the high elite.

“If you were putting together a false flag attack, it would be on a kindergarten or on a residential building or something to cause maximum outrage.

“So in that sense, I think it just shows too much vulnerability and I think you can tell just from the way that the Kremlin media are playing down the attacks, that’s also strong evidence that it was not a false flag.

“If it’s a false flag operation, the whole point is to publicise it, you don’t sort play it down.”

Asked to pinpoint who was responsible, Mr Matthews reasoned: “It’s someone who has access to up to 30 very expensive, Ukrainian-made long-range drones. So clearly it’s not partisans throwing Molotov cocktails, we’re talking about a different situation, we’re talking about a systematic attack.

“Whether it’s Zelensky or not is a little bit more of a complicated question, because in fact, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, a young guy called Major General Kyrylo Budanov has been behind a series of attacks inside Russia.”

Budanov had consistently denied all responsibility until a couple of weeks ago, Mr Matthews said.

He asked: “The question is, is Budanov fully under the control of Zelensky? Because Washington has very much signalled to Zelensky that it’s very much against attacks inside Russia.

“Nonetheless, Budanov has personally said that he’s behind it at the same time as these attacks in Moscow, which have not been officially claimed by anybody.

“But then there’s a presidential adviser called Mykhailo Podolyak who explicitly denied that Kyiv was behind these drone attacks.

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Drone attack in Moscow damages several buildings with no casualties

Several buildings were damaged in Moscow – but no casualties were reported (Image: Getty)

“So the problem is we’ll never know exactly who it was inside the Ukrainian government that ordered these attacks but I think it’s pretty clear that it’s a government agency connected with Ukraine of some description.”

Asked to explain why operatives at the least aligned with the Ukrainian government had decided to launch such high-profile attacks in the face of Western disapproval, Mr Matthews speculated: “Ukraine’s allies don’t want a lot of things.

“The Americans don’t want to provide them with long-range rocket artillery systems called ATACMS for fear that the Ukrainians are going to attack deep inside Russia.

“The Ukrainians want exactly that thing in order to do exactly that.

“It’s a debate but the short answer is pretty straightforward: they want to boost their own morale and they want to destroy Russian morale, and in that sense, it brings the war home and shows fear and loathing undoubtedly inside Russian society.”

He emphasised: “The risk, as I mentioned earlier, is that that fear and loathing actually could be used by Putin to escalate the war and strengthen the position.

“But first and foremost, it does indeed undoubtedly, show that fear in the Russian elite and undermines one of Putin’s narratives that the war is kind of distant, and that undermines the complacency of Moscow.

“I’ve been to Moscow three times since the beginning of the war and the main impression of Moscow is that it didn’t notice.


People walk near burned-out cars damaged by fragments of a… (Image: Getty)

Ukraine: Kyiv is targeted by Russian drone strikes

“There’s like no sense that you’re in the capital of a country that’s fighting the biggest war of the 21st century. Everyone kind of ignores it, but now you know, from today onwards, it’s becoming pretty impossible to ignore.”

Given Russia’s own nuclear doctrine provided for the use of nuclear weapons should the homeland come under attack, the dangers were obvious, Mr Matthews said.

He added: “So in that sense, the attacks on Russian soil do give Putin the excuse that he needs. The question is, you know, it doesn’t really change anything about the strategic downsides to Putin.

“Because the question, and the problem is for Putin is, will nuclear use bring an end to the war, or will it just escalate the war and actually turn it into a far more dangerous war for him by getting NATO directly involved?

“And that’s a debate to which the answer is really not clear. We just don’t know either how the West is going to react.

“In other words, is America ready to find World War III over whether this town or that town in Donbas is Russian or Ukrainian? I don’t know.

“But are they willing to fight World War 3 against a country that’s willing to use nuclear weapons offensively? That’s the ultimate nightmare that America would prefer not to think about.”

*Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on Russia, is published by Harper Collins on June 8