War in Ukraine spills into Russia as drones strike Moscow

War in Ukraine spills into Russia as drones strike Moscow
The creeping escalation of the war in Ukraine entered a new phase as drones struck Moscow, Kyiv was bombed and border towns in Russia's Belgorod region were shelled. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in London May 30, 2023

The creeping escalation of the war in Ukraine reached a new phase as long-range drones hit residential buildings in the Russian capital of Moscow, sending residents fleeing but bringing the fight that has decimated Ukraine home to them for the first time in over a year.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin confirmed the drone attack on Moscow, saying: "This morning, at dawn, a drone attack caused minor damage to several buildings. All the city's emergency services are on the scene. Fortunately there were no reported casualties in the incident.”

Moscow Region Governor Andrey Vorobyov said that several unmanned aerial vehicles were shot down near Moscow.

The attack comes only a day after children in Kyiv were sent screaming into shelters after missiles started to hit the Ukrainian capital.

Kyiv was bombarded by 54 missiles a day earlier, by the biggest Russian missile attack since the war started, and a week after anti-Putin Russian militias crossed into Russia to briefly “liberate” a Russian village in the Belgorod region. The drone attack on Moscow is the third to occur this year, as it appears that Ukraine is increasingly targeting targets inside Russia.

The first drones hit residential buildings in Moscow at dawn, causing loud explosions but no fatalities. A total of eight drones made it to the capital, but the authorities claim that a total of 32 were inbound, most of which were shot down by the city’s air defences.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attributed the attacks to the Kyiv regime's response to “effective strikes on a command centre in Ukraine.” However, he reassured the public, saying: "Thank God there were no victims, and there is no threat at the moment for residents of Moscow and the Moscow region."

State Duma Deputy Alexander Khinshtein listed five locations where drones were reportedly shot down, including the village of Razdory, close to Rublyovka Schosse where many millionaires have their dachas and where Putin's Moscow residence is located. Three high-rise buildings in the southwest of the city sustained damage, according to RIA Novosti, and another building off the major spoke road of Leninsky Prospekt was also hit.

Videos of the incident showed a downed drone exploding in a field in the Moscow region, resulting in a large fireball. Moscow’s air defences have been beefed up in recent months and many important buildings, including the Ministry of Defence that is close to the Kremlin, have anti-aircraft weapons on their roofs to counter potential drone strikes.

"All enemy drones were downed. Three of them were suppressed with electronic warfare systems, lost control and deviated from their intended targets. Five more unmanned aerial vehicles were shot down with a Pantsyr-S anti-aircraft missile and gun system in the Moscow Region," the Defence Ministry said.

Kyiv has also considerably beefed up its air defences. Ukraine’s defence forces claim to have shot down 52 of the 54 Russian missiles, but the falling debris killed one man in Kyiv. The attack came on Kyiv Day, the anniversary of the city’s founding over 1,500 years ago. The attack on Kyiv continued on May 30 with about two dozen more missiles targeting the Ukrainian capital, all of which were shot down, the local authorities claim.

The Moscow attack was the first time that Muscovites have directly felt the consequences of war. As bne IntelliNews’ Moscow correspondent has reported, life in the Russian capital has continued largely undisturbed since the war started over a year ago.

However, the war has slowly been getting closer. A wave of drones were fired from Ukraine into Russia in February, hitting targets in southern Russia. One drone made it to within 100 km of Moscow suburbs before being shot down.

Moscow suffered a second attack more recently when two drones hit the Kremlin on May 3 in what Russian authorities claimed was an attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin. That seems unlikely, as the drones were timed to arrive at the Kremlin at 2:30am when Putin was not there, and their explosions were small, causing little damage, leading some to speculate that the strike was a false flag operation by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Located more than 1,000 km from the Ukrainian border, military bloggers suggested that the latest attack used a new type of drone that has been developed with a longer range. The range of the reconnaissance drones used in the February attack was 800 km, which puts Moscow just in range. The two drones used to hit the Kremlin were reportedly of shorter range, suggesting they may have been launched inside Russia.

Mystery origin

The Russian authorities were quick to blame the attack on Ukraine, as they have with the previous attacks. However, Kyiv denied it had anything to do with the drones, calling it an “internal affair”.

Spokesperson of the Air Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Yuriy Ihnat said the UAV attack on Moscow was not Kyiv’s doing. "I read it. Saw it. I was glad. They can't say anything else about what happened there in Russia. These are their internal problems," Ihnat said during a National Telethon in support of the war.

Kyiv has not taken responsibility for any of the attacks that have happened inside Russia or on Russian-controlled territory. Last summer a massive explosion destroyed much of the airfield that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet’s air force based in the Crimea that was widely believed to be a Ukrainian special operation, but Kyiv said nothing. Likewise, a month later a truck bomb did significant damage to the Kerch bridge that connects Russia’s mainland to the Crimea that was also thought to be a Ukrainian black-op, but again Bankova remained silent.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak denied any involvement in the aerial assault on Moscow but hinted at potential future attacks and said Ukraine was watching the panic in the streets of Moscow “with pleasure.”

Others have claimed that Russian partisans may be behind some or all of the attacks and Russian media recently reported that sabotage attacks inside Russia have doubled in the last years. As bne IntelliNews reported, Russian partisans are becoming increasingly active inside Russia – working both independently and in co-operation with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

Former Russian Duma deputy and now exiled opposition figure Ilya Ponomarev claimed the two drones that hit the Kremlin were organised by the Freedom for Russia Legion (FRL), a militia with many members based in Ukraine but made up of Russians. The FRL also participated in the incursion into Russia last week in the Belgorod region, before being driven back over the border by Russia’s counterattack.

Ukraine’s Air Forces of the Armed Forces spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat also linked this Moscow drone attack to the FRL. "The Freedom of Russia Legion will also create problems for [Russia], which already in Belgorod and other regions wants to throw off Putin's bloody regime so that Russia can finally become a free state, and the legion of the Republic of Ichkeria [Chechen separatists] is already gaining momentum. Well, I hope that other Russia will also rise up against this tyranny.”

Kyiv missile attack

Kyiv has been under bombardment for two days after a heavy Russian missile attack started in the early hours of Sunday and continued into a rare daylight attack on Monday May 29.

A series of explosions rang out on Monday morning, sending pedestrians scrambling for cover as a fresh wave of missiles arrived.

As bne IntelliNews columnist Alexander Kabanovsky reported from Kyiv ten days ago, residents of Kyiv have become blasé about missile and drone attacks in recent months and rarely run to shelters when the air raid sirens sound, trusting in the effectiveness of the air defences and the infrequent missiles attacks against the capital since the start of this year, but the air raid sirens have been sounding almost nightly this month.

"A total of 11 missiles were fired: 'Iskander-M' and 'Iskander-K' from a northerly direction," Ukraine's Armed Forces chief Valery Zaluzhny said on May 29. "All the targets were destroyed by air defences," he added.

Zaluzhny said that a total of "up to 40 missiles" and "around 35 drones" had been launched against Kyiv in the last 48 hours, and almost all of them were downed.

Other settlements in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region were also targeted; one man was killed and nine people wounded, including a 11-year-old child, local authorities said. A village in the eastern Kharkiv region was hit, wounding six, including a pregnant woman and children aged 10 and 14, the authorities said.

Russia's Defence Ministry said its forces had attacked Ukrainian airfields and "all the assigned targets have been destroyed." The Ukrainian authorities admitted that five planes had been destroyed.

The rapid escalation in drone and missile attacks targeting the capitals of the two warring parties represents a worrying escalation in the conflict that has turned into a grinding war of attrition on the main battlefields, with neither side gaining much advantage.

The escalation also comes shortly after the US gave the go-ahead to arm Ukraine with its advanced F-16 jet fighters, something that Moscow warned would lead to a strong reaction. That promise follows on from the UK decision to supply Kyiv with Storm Shadow missiles with a range of over 250 km that can hit targets deep in European Russia and half of Crimea. France also said it would send similar missiles to Ukraine.

The US has been reluctant to supply Ukraine with long-range missiles for fear that Kyiv would use them to attack Russia proper. The highly accurate and deadly HIMARS missiles it has already supplied are a version that has a maximum range of 80 km, although there is another version with a range of over 350 km that have not been supplied. Even with the mooted delivery of F-16s, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has promised they will not be used to attack Russian territory and Washington has said the first planes will not arrive in time to be used in the highly anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive.

The drone attacks are unlikely to be welcomed in Washington, as the US has been adamant that Kyiv should not use Nato-supplied weapons to hit targets inside Russia, for fear of provoking Russia into a retaliatory strike on a Nato target, such as an airfield in Poland. And it is notable that the drones used to hit Moscow seem to be Ukrainian made and not anything supplied by Nato to Kyiv.

But the creeping escalation continues, with fresh reports on May 29 that rockets have been fired into Russia's adjacent regions and that Ukraine-backed Russian militias have re-crossed the border back into the Belgorod region and are carrying out fresh attacks.

The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, which lies on the border with Ukraine, said that his region had suffered shelling attacks on May 29 and Russia was in a “state of de facto war” and called for the annexation of adjacent Ukrainian territory.

"Settlements of the Shebekino city district were shelled by Ukrainian forces for over an hour. To our great sorrow, one civilian resident was killed. The man was tending to his household when a shell landed in his courtyard; the man died immediately. His spouse was hospitalised in a severe stress reaction and his mother was hospitalised with hypertensive crisis. All necessary medical aid is being provided," the governor said.

According to the governor, the shelling shattered windows in ten residential buildings, and damaged facades, fences, utility buildings and a power line. The Ukrainian armed forces fired about 220 rockets into the Belgorod Region over the past day, the governor reported, with 48 of them hitting the town of Shebekino and 42 hitting the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka. Shells also hit the village of Zhuravlevka. The Borisovsky district was shelled by mortars, and the Volokonovsky district was shelled twice, the governor added, describing the bombardment. A drone with an explosive device on board was found near the village of Polevoy on some farmland, but failed to detonate on landing.

“We live in a state of de facto war. Whether we like it or not, it’s happening,” Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said during an interview on state-controlled TV channel Rossiya 24 on May 29, adding that at least six "sabotage-reconnaissance groups" were operating in his region.