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The potential fallout from drone attacks in Moscow

Attacks inside Russia could shift public opinion on Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a tripartite meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace on May 25, 2023, in Moscow, Russia.
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Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

A drone attack hit residential buildings in the Russian capital of Moscow Tuesday morning for the first time in the country’s war against Ukraine. The attack came just after Russia launched a surprise daytime missile attack in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv Monday.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a Telegram post that the drones caused “insignificant damage” to several buildings and that two people were injured but did not need to be hospitalized. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that it had shot down five drones and three others were diverted off course. It’s not clear what their target was, and the Ukrainian government has denied any involvement, even as officials celebrated the attack.

Though life has largely continued as normal in Moscow throughout the war, the drone attack might prove an unsettling reminder to Russian civilians that they are not insulated from the conflict. This follows an attempted drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month, which US officials believe was ordered by Ukraine. Assuming Ukraine is behind this more recent attack, its intent could be more meant to sway public opinion ahead of Kyiv’s long-expected counteroffensive than to gain any military advantage, since the drones were too small to cause real damage.

“It’s largely symbolism and making the Russian public feel like they can’t just sit back and ignore what’s going on in their daily life, probably with the hope that it will degrade support for the war or at least make people less apathetic to what’s happening,” said Ian Williams, a fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy director of its Missile Defense Project.

But it’s not clear whether that will sour Russians on the war effort — or cause them to rally behind their leaders in the face of a threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the attack an attempt to “frighten Russians” on state TV. Russia’s foreign ministry called it a “terrorist attack” by the “Kyiv regime” and said that it “reserves the right to take the harshest possible measures” in response, especially given that NATO officials have assured that Ukraine would not launch attacks deep within Russia. The White House reiterated that it does not condone such attacks on Tuesday, fearing that Russia could use them as a rationale to expand the war.

“There’s always a risk that it could just increase support for the Russian regime [escalating] the war,” Williams said. “People get scared, and they look to the government to protect them.”

The potential fallout

It’s not clear what measures Putin might take in response to the drone attack, which is one of several in recent weeks inside Russia. Drones also hit oil pipeline installations in the Tver region just northwest of Moscow last week. That’s in addition to the attempt on the Kremlin earlier this month.

Putin indicated Tuesday that he intended to strengthen Moscow’s air defense systems in anticipation of further attacks. Russian lawmakers have used the attack to rally behind legislation giving the country’s military and security agencies more powers, including to counter drone attacks.

Russia has also been escalating its attacks on Kyiv; in a span of 24 hours ending Monday, Russia launched three rounds of attacks on the city.

The attacks, which started up again in earnest earlier this month, build on a widespread air campaign Russia unleashed last fall and winter against energy and civilian infrastructure, an effort to weaken Ukraine and deplete the morale of Ukrainian civilians. Russia has a limited number of missiles that it can produce — about 60 per month, Williams said — and in the latest attacks during the day on Monday, Kyiv’s armed forces reported shooting down 11 Iskander missiles with Patriot missile defense systems supplied by Western allies.

“They’re firing at the one place in Ukraine where Ukraine has a chance to shoot them down,” Williams said.

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