Rare strike on Russian capital unnerves Muscovites who had been told conflict would not threaten them
Moscow has been targeted with a large-scale drone attack for the first time in its 15-month-old war in Ukraine, marking a new inflection point in the conflict, with the Kremlin threatening to take the “harshest possible measures” in response to the strikes.
Russia continues to pummel Ukraine with deadly missile and drone strikes on a near-daily basis. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, faced its third air raid in 24 hours on Tuesday morning.
Video posted on social media early on Tuesday showed one low-flying drone exploding in a field outside Moscow, and others flying over houses in the city’s expensive Rublyovka district or tower flats in south-west neighbourhoods. Another video from Moscow’s outskirts showed a Pantsir surface-to-air missile system firing at a target nearby.
The Russian defence ministry said eight drones targeted the city overnight but Russian media close to the security services wrote that the number was many times higher, with more than 30 drones participating in the attack.
“I woke up at 6.15 from a loud explosion, and then for the next 45 minutes there were around six other booms every 10 minutes or so,” a security guard told the Guardian. He was based in the elite gated community in Zhukovka, near where the strikes took place.
Alexander Khinshtein, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, wrote on his Telegram channel that drones were shot down in five different areas in the Moscow region, including at least two that were flying over Rublyovka, a wealthy suburb that is home to much of Russia’s political elite including Vladimir Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo state residence.
“It was fucked up, everyone came out on their balconies or went outside, no one understood what was happening,” said the security guard.
In a television appearance on Tuesday, Putin praised Moscow’s air defences and said Kyiv was trying to scare Russians by striking civilian targets. Putin also claimed Russian forces were only striking military facilities in Ukraine using “high-precision weapons”.
At least one of the drones appears to have been a Ukrainian-manufactured UJ 22, produced by the Ukrjet company. Footage appears to match images of the unmanned aerial vehicle, which Russia has claimed has been used in other attempted attacks. Looking like a scaled-down light aircraft, the UJ22 has a claimed range of 800km and is able to fly for six hours.
Three of the drones hit residential buildings in the south-west of the city but no explosions were reported. Two people were injured in the attack, said Sergei Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor, and the buildings sustained minor damage. Video showed broken windows and a blackened facade at one address hit by a drone early on Tuesday morning.
Russia blamed the drone attack on Ukraine – which denied responsibility – and threatened retaliation.
The Russian foreign ministry said it reserved the right to take the most “severe measures” in response. “Assurances by Nat officials that the Kyiv regime will not launch strikes deep into Russian territory prove to be completely hypocritical,” the ministry said. “Russia reserves the right to take the harshest possible measures in response to the terrorist attacks by the Kyiv regime.
“This morning, the Kyiv regime launched a terrorist drone attack on targets in the city of Moscow,” the Russian defence ministry said. “Three of them were suppressed by electronic warfare, lost control and deviated from their intended targets. Another five drones were shot down by the Pantsir-S surface-to-air missile system in the Moscow region.”
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said Vladimir Putin had no immediate plans to address the country and claimed there was “no imminent threat to residents of Moscow and the Moscow region either”.
Andrei Vorobyov, the governor of the Moscow region, said several drones were shot down on their approach to the city.
Moscow, located more than 620 miles from Ukraine, has only rarely been targeted by drone attacks since the start of the conflict, even though such attacks have become more common elsewhere in Russia. In early May, two drones were shot down over the Kremlin in an attack blamed on Ukraine.
Several prominent officials and politicians attacked the defence ministry for allowing the drones to penetrate Moscow’s airspace. They included prominent war hawks who have called for more aggressive strikes and broader mobilisation for the war in Ukraine.
“To stop the shelling of Moscow, it is necessary to occupy Kyiv. We need to mobilise all forces and means,” said Petr Tolstoy, the vice-speaker of Russia’s State Duma.
“You are the ministry of defence. You haven’t done anything to advance. Why the fuck do you allow these drones to hit Moscow?” yelled Yevgeny Prigozhin, who heads the Wagner mercenary group, in a voice memo. “Let your houses burn. And what should ordinary people do when drones with explosives crash into their windows?”
Some Muscovites played down the effects of the strikes, trying to project an image of calm.
“At 6am it started happening, our house was shaking. There were five to seven explosions, and that was it,” said Dmitry, who lives in the pine-forested Odintsovo district, just west of Moscow. “And that’s it. Then we went back to sleep.”
Others noted that previous strikes had hit higher-value targets, including a drone attack targeting the Kremlin earlier this month.
“Some people are shocked, but nothing can surprise me any more,” said the security guard. “I mean Ukraine already hit the Kremlin before.”
Vorobyov attempted to calm Muscovites unnerved by the first attack in a war that has largely played out on television for them. The Kremlin has largely sought to divert Russians from the war, calling it a small-scale military action even as it has stretched into its second year and become the deadliest conflict in Europe since the second world war.
“This morning, residents of some districts of the Moscow region could hear the sounds of explosions – those were our air defences at work,” he wrote on social media.
Observers also noted the careful response by the Kremlin and top officials that sought to spin the effectiveness of Russia’s air defences rather than the fact that Russian cities are now vulnerable.
“It is striking, of course, how much the Russian authorities … unanimously play down the significance of drone attacks on Russian cities,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R Politik political analysis firm. “They are already hitting Moscow, and in the statements there is widespread pride in how well everything worked.”
Other videos posted by Russians to social media showed their shock, even as they had been told that Russian air defences would prevent any attacks from reaching the capital.
“It’s flying right over our house!” yelled one man as he filmed a video of a drone gliding over suburban Moscow.
“If the purpose of the raid was to stress out the population, then the very fact of the appearance of Ukrainian drones in the sky over Moscow has already contributed to this,” wrote Rybar, a popular Russian military blogger close to the defence ministry.
Observers expect Ukraine to launch its counteroffensive in the coming weeks. One goal of the drone strikes against Moscow may be as a “shaping” operation to pull Russian air defences away from the frontlines in order to protect large population centres.