On Tuesday morning, at least eight attack drones entered Moscow’s airspace before being shot down by the city’s air defences, a few hitting residential buildings on the way down.
The Russian government accused Ukraine of a “terrorist attack”, which Kyiv officials wryly denied.
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“You know, we are being drawn into the era of artificial intelligence. Perhaps not all drones are ready to attack Ukraine and want to return to their creators and ask them questions like: ‘Why are you sending us [to hit] the children of Ukraine? In Kyiv?’” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on the YouTube breakfast show of exiled Russian journalist Alexander Plushev.
President Vladimir Putin said the attack was aimed at “civilian targets” with the goal of frightening Russians.
“Yep, those are Ukrainian UFOs buzzing around us,” a banker in his 30s in the Russian capital, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera. “It’s still pretty calm here; there’s no fuss, but don’t forget how they gracefully landed by the Kremlin as well. So the ‘great plan’ [for the invasion of Ukraine] turned out to be so-so – I wonder how the public will react further.”
On his Telegram feed, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin said two people were injured but “nobody needed hospitalisation”.
After targeted buildings were inspected, residents who had fled began returning to their homes.
“It sounded like a motorbike,” a witness said, in comments carried by the popular Russian channel Shot on the Telegram messaging app. “Then there were two claps, and the smell of kerosene,” said the woman. “We live on the fourth floor and felt some heavy object hitting the building, which forced us to get up and have a look.”
As some in the capital reeled, questions are being asked about security.
“Stinking beasts, what are you doing?” Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of Russia’s force of Wagner mercenaries, raged on his Telegram channel, blaming Russian officials, with whom he has had frequent public disagreements, for failing to stop the attack.
“You are the Department of Defence. You didn’t do a damn thing to step up. Why the f*** are you allowing these drones to fly to Moscow? The fact that they are flying to your homes in Rublyovka [a posh neighbourhood] … to hell with it! Let your houses burn. What will ordinary people do when explosive drones crash through their windows?”
Parliamentary deputy Maxim Ivanov described it as the most serious attack on the nation’s capital since World War II.
“The morning attack on Moscow is the most serious since the time when the Nazi invader in 1941 trampled our land on the outskirts of the capital,” Ivanov wrote on Telegram, although Moscow has suffered several deadly bombings and hostage incidents since then. The bloodiest example is the 1999 apartment bombings, in which at least 300 people were killed in attacks blamed on Chechen rebels.
“You will either defeat the enemy as a single fist with our Motherland, or the indelible shame of cowardice, collaboration and betrayal will engulf your family,” said Ivanov.
Other politicians were less melodramatic.
Lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said that “a new reality … needs to be realised.”
“Undoubtedly, the sabotage and terrorist attacks of Ukraine will only increase,” he wrote on Telegram, “and it is necessary to radically strengthen defence and security measures, especially in terms of countering drones.”
That eight drones were shot down was “remarkable”, he said. “But this should not reassure anyone. Don’t underestimate the enemy!”
The influential military analysis channel Rybar, which has more than a million subscribers on Telegram, speculated that Ukraine was behind the attack, that it was aided by the United Kingdom, and that it was an attempted attack on military installations.
“We do not believe the Ukrainians intentionally launch UAVs at residential buildings in Moscow. Not because Ukrainians are so innocent and cuddly, it’s quite the opposite – give them free rein, they will turn all of Russia into dust. But because the decision on such strikes is made not by the Ukrainians, but by the British. There are enough objects in Moscow that Ukrainian formations could aim at. Residential buildings as a target, to put it mildly, are not militarily justified,” it said.
Andrey Medvedev, a journalist and official of the local Moscow parliament, suggested the attack was aimed at boosting morale among Ukrainians – and among Kyiv’s Western partners.
“The UAV raid on Moscow was quite predictable. But it seems that this time the Armed Forces of Ukraine prepared it in a hurry … The urgency was due to the need to somehow change the information agenda in Ukraine. Does this seriously affect the course of the war? Absolutely not,” he said on Telegram.
“But yes, the enemy’s PR campaign turned out quite well. True, I repeat, for internal use and for the collective CNN. There, all the Western media, lining up like a pig, go on the attack and write about chaos and panic in the Russian capital and the Moscow region. In general, it should be understood that a UAV PR attack will now, in principle, be accompanied by disinformation on social networks and online chats. [They will say] that in fact, another 10 UAVs ended up, say, in a military hospital, but the authorities are hiding it, and so on. Information hygiene is such [an important] thing.”