As Ukrainian attacks pick up inside Russia, the war is coming home for Putin

The attempted drone hit at the Kremlin, which the Russians have blamed on Ukraine and the U.S., is the latest in a series of attacks inside Russia that targeted journalists, civilian infrastructure and military bases, raising questions on Moscow’s red lines

May 05, 2023 05:47 pm | Updated 06:54 pm IST - Moscow

A still image taken from video shows a flying object exploding in an intense burst of light near the dome of the Kremlin Senate building during the alleged Ukrainian drone attack in Moscow, Russia.

A still image taken from video shows a flying object exploding in an intense burst of light near the dome of the Kremlin Senate building during the alleged Ukrainian drone attack in Moscow, Russia. | Photo Credit: Reuters

For months after the Ukraine war began, which Russia still calls a “special military operation”, many ordinary Russians, particularly those whose families were spared from the mobilisation, saw the conflict as something that’s happening far away from home. Not any more: with drones attacking the Kremlin, the seat of power in the Russian capital, just a few days before the Second World War Victory Day celebrations, the war is coming home for Russians.

The drones were shot down by the Russian military at 2.30 a.m. on May 3, just over the Kremlin’s Senate Palace, which hosts the President’s office and apartment. It was inside the Palace, President Vladimir Putin received his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on March 21.

The incident which the Kremlin classified as a “planned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt targeting the President ‘‘ was immediately deemed as a huge insult to Moscow, and Mr. Putin personally. Ukraine denied involvement — as it did on all similar occasions in recent months — and alleged that the Kremlin staged a “false-flag operation” to justify an escalation in the war and distract attention from Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive.

A view shows a part of a suicide drone Geran, which local authorities consider to be Iranian made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-131/136, shot down during a Russian overnight strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine May 4, 2023. The inscription on the part reads: ‘For Kremlin’.

A view shows a part of a suicide drone Geran, which local authorities consider to be Iranian made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-131/136, shot down during a Russian overnight strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine May 4, 2023. The inscription on the part reads: ‘For Kremlin’. | Photo Credit: Reuters

“In my opinion, the version that the attack was staged by Russia is out of question,” Ruslan Pukhov, director of Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told The Hindu. Given the technical aspect of the attack, he said he had been expecting something like this for a year now, and I think such attacks will continue. “As commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions are getting more and more common, which means a drone can be assembled in a garage, it will soon be available not only to state actors and such highly motivated groups as ISIS, but also to individuals,” Mr. Pukhov noted.

When asked whether Moscow’s air defence capabilities should be questioned, experts suggested that most air defence systems are developed to perform against aircraft and ballistic missiles, while cruise missiles and UAVs are more difficult to shoot down. “Debating whether the air defence was effective or not in this particular case is like reasoning whether the glass is half full or half empty. We just have to be prepared for the fact that such attacks will be numerous all over the world,” Mr. Pukhov added.

U.S. officials claimed that they had no foreknowledge about the drone attack and later called the Russian claim that the U.S. had directed Ukraine to carry out the attack “ridiculous”. Previously, the U.S., reacting to the killing of Daria Dugina, a 30-years-old journalist and a daughter of writer and political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who is known for his intellectual influence on President Putin, had voiced concerns that Ukrainian attacks inside Russia could widen the conflict. More recently, the Washington Post reported, citing a classified report from the U.S. National Security Agency, that Ukraine’s plans to attack Moscow on February 24, the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, were postponed “at Washington’s request”.

Drones and explosives

Ukraine’s strikes deep inside Russian territory intensified in the past few days, which many experts related to Kyiv’s upcoming counteroffensive.

The Russian flag flies on the dome of the Kremlin Senate building behind Spasskaya Tower, while the roof shows what appears to be marks from the recent drone incident, in central Moscow, Russia, May 4, 2023.

The Russian flag flies on the dome of the Kremlin Senate building behind Spasskaya Tower, while the roof shows what appears to be marks from the recent drone incident, in central Moscow, Russia, May 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

On April 29, a fuel depot in the port city of Sevastopol, the capital of Crimea, caught fire after a drone attack. On May 1, a power line pole was blown up in the Gatchina region near St. Petersburg. On May 2, in the Bryansk region, railway tracks were damaged by detonation of an explosive device, derailing freight trains, in two separate incidents. On the same day, an aeroplane-type drone with explosives (VOG-17) attempted to attack the electrical substation in Belgorod region. Later that day, several other UAVs dropped explosives in various parts of the region, injuring one person. On May 3, a drone attacked a petroleum storage tank in the village of Volna in the Krasnodar region, and the following night, two oil refineries were attacked in Krasnodar and Rostov regions.

In December, Ukraine carried out a successful attack on Engels military airbase, near the city of Saratov, about 730 km southeast of Moscow. Residents of Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk regions bordering Ukraine have also been witnessing artillery shelling and sabotage attacks on critical infrastructure almost on a daily basis after Russian troops were ousted from the Northern Kharkiv region in September last year.

In March, a car carrying three children was shot at by pro-Ukrainian activists in Bryansk, killing two adults and injuring a 10-year old boy who, despite being wounded, led two minor girls to safety in the forest.

Ukraine hasn’t officially taken responsibility for any of these attacks. However, in January, the adviser to the Office of the President of Ukraine, Mikhail Podolyak, said in an interview with Russian opposition journalist Michael Naki that “escalation in the Russian domestic market will be inevitable” and that “in particular, cities that are “pampered” and “lazy” and thought they lived in a different reality, will be affected. Such cities as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg”.

The killings of Daria Dugina in Moscow and Vladlen Tatarsky (real name Maxim Fomin), a military blogger and writer, in the centre of St. Petersburg proved Ukraine’s intentions. Tatarsky was killed by an explosive mounted into a statuette gifted to him by Daria Trepova (she was arrested the following day and is currently under trial), who is believed to have been recruited by Ukrainians. Over 30 people were injured in the attack.

No retaliation different from a new missile attack on Ukraine, and no large public outcry followed — despite rising casualties. While Western media was focusing rather on Tatarsky’s ambiguous biography than the scale of the attack, Russian media, too, didn’t follow up on the story for long — except a few local outlets that interviewed other victims.

Similarly, the Kremlin attack was also downplayed at home. Some TV channels covered the incident without playing the video of the drone being shot over the Kremlin. The next day’s front pages, too, didn’t carry the images of the drones over the Kremlin. The stories about the attack were buried deep inside.

From red to maroon

The humiliating footage of a drone crashing over the dome of the Senate Palace of the Kremlin raised questions of Moscow’s red lines, yet again.

Russian military bloggers and public figures actively supporting Russia’s “special operation” have noted, sarcastically, that the Kremlin attack was “a mockery” of its red lines, compared to the shelling of Russia-controlled Donbass region, leading to deaths and injuries on a daily basis, or the bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline and the Crimean bridge, or the assassination of Russian journalists inside Russia.

Reacting to the attack, prominent politicians such as Mikhail Sheremet, State Duma deputy from Crimea, and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s ex-President and Prime Minister who is currently Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, called for a strike on the residence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. The speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, called for recognising Ukraine “a terrorist state” (the initiative is already being discussed by legislators with no outcome so far) and demanded the use of weapons “that can stop and destroy the Kyiv regime”.

Dmitry Solonnikov, director of the St. Petersburg-based Institute of Modern State Development, in a conversation with The Hindu, criticised Russian politicians and public speakers for “intimidating with strikes of retaliation”, saying such comments only harm Russia’s reputation both outside the country and in the eyes of society. “Russia hasn’t practically responded to such provocations before, and the only response to crossing all the “red lines” would be a complete victory in the “special military operation”, with the fulfilment of the tasks set by the President of Russia,” he said.

Speaking about the limited reaction by the public to the ongoing attacks, Mr. Solonnikov pointed out that the Kremlin initially made a mistake in positioning the Ukraine conflict to Russian society. “Painting the conflict as some limited military operation, and attempting to show that life hasn’t changed, with large concerts and celebrations being held in Moscow, was a mistake. The awareness should have been created, that this is a life-and-death struggle,” he said.

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