A new campaign of drone strikes has targeted the Russian capital in recent days as Kyiv has demonstrated its ability to hit Moscow and to keep the Kremlin’s war in the hearts and minds of the Russian elites and others seeking to ignore the invasion of Ukraine.
Video on Friday showed a drone slamming into the ground and exploding near a residential area in the north-west of the city, as rowers nearby participated in a national championship in the Krylatskoye district.
Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have downed other drones on Friday and earlier in the week on the south-west approaches of the city, illustrating Kyiv’s ability to target the Russian capital on a weekly or even daily basis, although with mixed success.
Earlier waves of drone strikes have hit military and energy infrastructure, the Moscow city financial centre, other residential buildings, or targeted areas in the wealthy western suburbs of the Rublyovka district, just miles from where Vladimir Putin keeps his Novo-Ogaryovo residence. Video from earlier this year also showed a UAV hitting a building inside the Kremlin walls.
Samuel Bendett, an expert on military drones at the Center for Naval Analyses, said Kyiv had a “strategy to demonstrate Ukrainian capability. Last year Ukraine lacked a lot of the capability to strike deep inside Russia. Starting late last year and all of this year, Kyiv has demonstrated that it has the technology, the UAVs and the drones, to actually bring the war to the Russian territory. A lot of Russian military and civilian targets were struck, along with attacks on civilian territories, in a response to Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians.”
He noted that striking Moscow, which is supposed to be Russia’s most well-defended city, and a centre of political, economic and social life, put some pressure on both the Russian government and the population, and showed that Ukraine would not leave devastating attacks on its civilians unanswered.
“It’s a social-cultural response to Russia’s attacks on civilian targets,” he said.
Ministry of defence sources in Kyiv said the drone attacks had the twin aims of raising morale at home at a time when successes at the fronts were scarce and raising a question among the Russian public over whether Putin was able to protect them.
The raids into the bordering Belgorod region, by both dissident Russian units and Ukrainian saboteurs with a loose link to the official military, were said to have the same purpose, with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, increasingly talking up the reach of his country’s forces.
Ukraine’s western partners, once extremely sensitive to the charge that Nato weaponry was being used in attacks on Russian soil, had come to accept that Kyiv had the right to use its own resources to destabilise Putin’s regime, officials in Kyiv said.
Yet the documented psychological impact so far has been dubious, with polling indicating little shift in the way Russians feel about the war and anecdotal evidence from psychologists and reports by journalists showing that many Russians have simply decided to ignore the attacks.
“Society is not as worried about drones as when they first started hitting Moscow,” said a Moscow-based psychologist, Alexander Kichaev. “There is some frustration and anger, but it is not overwhelming at all … the pain threshold has been passed and now people are used to it.”
According to Kichaev, the issue of drone attacks had slowly become normalised over time. Officials have tried to downplay their effect. The number of injuries from the drone strikes in Russia have been small, especially when compared with the hundreds of deaths caused by Russian missile strikes on civilian targets in Ukraine. In some cases, they entrench views on the war.
“In the beginning, some of my clients living in Rublevka and other elite areas said they were uncomfortable about the drones,” he said. “They knew the drones flew over their neighbourhood. But they have since stopped bringing the topic up. When I talked to them about the drones, I just told them there isn’t much they can do to change the situation, and that helps them tackle anxiety.”
Anecdotal evidence has shown the same. “It is awful but also it’s very unlikely that you are there when the drone lands. You just have to continue to live, to work. I think the military is doing well to stop most of them,” said Maksim, a business consultant who had worked at Moscow City, where several drones hit the IQ-Quarter last month.
Even at Vnukovo airport in western Moscow, where air traffic has been regularly halted because of reports of drone activity, officials have grown used to the situation. “Not a big deal, everyone is used to it already,” one Vnukovo official said.
Russians, who have largely shrugged their way through the war despite a large-scale mobilisation and growing repressions, appear to be unmoved by the occasional Ukrainian strikes on the capital.
“Yes, Ukraine can strike Moscow, everybody knows that now. But so what? The society is not going to change its attitude toward Ukraine at this point, that’s it, we’ve reached this point of no return,” said Bendett. “That’s what I’m trying to understand right now.”