Drone attacks bring war home to Russia

Ukraine’s apparently growing capacity to strike deep within Russia has rattled nerves

Elena Yurgeneva awoke at home on Tuesday in Rublyovka, a gated community for Moscow’s elite, to a loud bang from a drone attack, shaking walls, and a big shift in client demand.

“A lot of people seem anxious and are asking about properties with a bunker or at least a basement,” said Yurgeneva, an estate agent who specialises in luxury property.

It is a sign of the times for Muscovites that one of the houses on Yurgeneva’s books has a 200sq m ferroconcrete bunker, allowing its owners “to get through any unforeseen events safely and even quite comfortably”.

Tuesday’s drone strikes, one of the largest in Moscow since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, have underlined to how vulnerable the country has become to blowback from the war.


More than a year since the assault began, Russia is further away from a battlefield victory than ever and making plans to beef up Moscow’s air defences instead of triumphantly taking Kyiv as president Vladimir Putin had planned.

The mounting attacks deep inside Russian territory pale in comparison to Russia’s assaults on Ukrainian cities. But they have spooked even Moscow’s beau monde hitherto insulated from most of the war’s consequences, despite the prominent recruitment posters on Rublyovka.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said a defensive Kremlin had been forced to “act like this is routine”. “The goal is not to inflame the situation,” she said. “Nobody in the Kremlin wants the people to wake up.”

In Moscow, most locals continued to go about their business in the hours after Tuesday’s attack. “We haven’t heard anything, and the city appears unchanged today: restaurant terraces are open, and people are enjoying Aperol Spritz,” said one resident who lives three kilometres from a building on Leninsky Prospekt in southern Moscow where one of the drones crashed.

But Ukraine’s apparently growing capacity to strike deep within Russia has rattled nerves.

Last week, 52 per cent of respondents to a survey by Kremlin-friendly pollster FOM said their friends and family were “anxious” rather than “calm” – the highest result in January and the first shift since Russia wound down a mobilisation drive at the end of last year.

Tuesday’s attacks were the latest in a series of drone strikes, cross-border raids, and sabotage behind enemy lines that have increased in recent weeks in advance of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks. But they appear targeted at sapping Russian morale and redirecting resources away from the frontline – moves that help Ukraine roll back Russia’s advances.

“If they’re going to strengthen anti-air defences in Moscow, that means they’ll have to weaken them in other places. That’s what Ukraine is aiming for,” said Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The attacks have also raised concerns among Ukraine’s western backers. They have repeatedly insisted to officials in Kyiv that Nato weaponry provided to the country not be involved in any attacks on Russian territory.

After pro-Kyiv Russian militias raided an area of Belgorod region from Ukraine last week, using US-made Humvees and MaxxPro light tactical vehicles, the US reiterated the limits of its support. “As a general matter, we do not support attacks inside of Russia,” a US National Security Council official said.

But despite the public denials from Ukrainian officials over attacks on Russian territory, Western officials are convinced Kyiv was behind several operations on its enemy’s home soil.

“They [the Ukrainians] see targets in Russian-occupied territory and inside Russia as equally fair game,” one said, adding it was seen as being “for defensive purposes”.

In Russia, hardline nationalists have urged the Kremlin to respond to the attacks by abandoning the facade of normality in Moscow and declaring a state of total war.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the notorious Wagner paramilitary group, released a foul-mouthed voice memo after the drone attacks in which he accused the defence ministry of being asleep at the wheel.

“How the f**k can you let these drones fly to Moscow?” Prigozhin yelled. “What are ordinary people meant to do when drones armed with explosives fly through their windows?”

But a senior official in Moscow’s mayor’s office said life had quickly returned to normal. “There was no panic among the establishment ... this was not the first time Moscow had experienced drone attacks,” he said. “Things do seem to be relatively normal.”

The general indifference in Moscow has fostered resentment among residents along Russia’s border with Ukraine, where drone attacks have been commonplace for much of the past year.

“They simply aren’t accustomed to drone attacks and incoming artillery fire like us,” said Sergey, a resident of the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.

“When I hear a loud noise, my immediate thought is an explosion. But when a Muscovite hears a loud noise, which turns out to be an explosion, their first thought is that the lightning storm came,” Sergey added.

The regular attacks have radicalised Belgorod’s governor, Viacheslav Gladkov, who said on Monday that the area was living in a “de facto state of war”. He claimed the only way to protect it from Ukrainian artillery fire was to annex neighbouring Kharkiv – a step not even Putin has suggested.

Shebekino, a town just a stone’s throw over the border with Ukraine with about 40,000 residents, has been among the worst hit and features regularly in Gladkov’s social media posts.

Though locals initially tried to ignore the regular shelling and drone strikes, that changed on one day in late October; the “Galeria” shopping centre in Shebekino burned down after shelling and another shopping centre was partially destroyed. “That’s when people began to understand the gravity of the situation,” said Alexander, a local blogger.

Following these incidents, some entrepreneurs opted to close their businesses, while others started fortifying windows with sandbags. A few families began leaving. Others questioned how long they could endure the ongoing attacks.

Although Alexander chose to remain in Shebekino, he began saving money in case he needed to start anew elsewhere. Like other residents, he has grown used to water and electricity disruptions from shelling, just as children have become accustomed to the closure of schools.

“Some people are starting to feel like Shebekino has been completely abandoned,” said Alexander. The locals are infuriated by state TV presenters consistently mispronouncing its name and frequently referring to the city as a village or settlement, which he said plays down the danger.

In recent days, tensions have escalated, particularly after the pro-Ukrainian militias raided the area. Frightened by sirens, locals have fled to bomb shelters – only to find many are closed, unprepared to hold them, or even flooded, Alexander said.

The growing disparity is threatening to further undermine Russian popular support for the war by exacerbating long-standing gripes about Moscow’s concentration of wealth and power, said Luzin of Tufts University.

“A lot of places in Russia are feeling schadenfreude or even pleasure when Moscow gets hit,” Luzin said. “People aren’t just sick of the war, but about rising poverty and inequality between the capital and the regions.”

“Lots of them would be happy if Moscow got bombed more – especially if it’s not ordinary people dying, but the drones are blowing up over gated communities, ministries, and the Kremlin,” he added.

– Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023