Russia Downs 2 Drones Near Moscow, as Ukraine War’s New Phase Intensifies

by Pelican Press
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Russia shot down two drones near Moscow overnight, officials said on Wednesday, the 12th time in the past three weeks they have reported intercepting such aerial assaults in the heart of the capital. The attacks suggest that the effort to push Russia’s war deep into its own territory was picking up pace amid Ukraine’s marathon counteroffensive to take back occupied territory.

There were no casualties or damage, and air defenses destroyed the drones, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said on the Telegram messaging app. Ukrainian officials did not immediately claim responsibility for the attack, but in the past they have acknowledged orchestrating or supporting strikes in Russia and made clear that the war’s devastation would not be limited to Ukrainian soil.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said that taking the war to Russia is “an inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process.”

The drone attacks came on the same day that a powerful explosion ripped through a warehouse outside Moscow, killing one person and injuring at least 60 others, some seriously, according to a post on Telegram by local officials.

The blast, at a warehouse storing fireworks on the grounds of the Zagorsk Optical-Mechanical Plant in the town of Sergiyev Posad, less than 50 miles from the capital, sent up a giant plume of dark smoke that could be seen for miles. It blew out windows in schools, a sports complex and about 20 apartment buildings, according to the local government administration.

The authorities said the blast was not related to the drones flying near Moscow. But the explosion raised some eyebrows in Ukraine.

The Zagorsk company is a leading developer and manufacturer of optical and optoelectronic devices for law enforcement agencies, industry and health care, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. It produces night vision devices and binoculars for the Russian military as part of the country’s defense conglomerate Rostec, The Moscow Times reported.

According to documents uncovered by the independent investigative outlet Agentstvo, the plant had also signed a contract through 2027 to produce parts for a stealth long-range bomber for the Russian Ministry of Defense. The regional governor said the plant had not been in operation “for some time,” but that could not be independently confirmed.

Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee said on Telegram that it was looking into the possible “violation of industrial safety requirements” at the plant. Dmitry Akulov, the head of the district, wrote on Telegram that several people could be buried under the rubble, and that the authorities had ordered a “total evacuation” of all the plant’s buildings and workshops.

The drone strikes and the warehouse explosion came as Russia has unleashed a wave of attacks on Ukraine recently. Since the collapse of a deal that allowed Kyiv to ship grain around the globe through the Black Sea despite a naval blockade by Russia, Moscow has pummeled Ukrainian ports on the Danube River.

Russia has sent waves of drones to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, damaging administrative and residential buildings. This week, it struck the small city of Pokrovsk, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, in a “double tap” attack with missile strikes, 37 minutes apart, killing nine people and injuring 82 others.

And on Wednesday evening, Russian strikes in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia killed at least three people and injured five others, the mayor and other officials said.

Though both Russia and Ukraine possess significant air-defense capabilities, both countries have struggled to fend off attacks from small drones. Overnight, before being shot down, one swooped into the Domodedovo area on the southern outskirts of Moscow, and the second flew in the Minsk highway district to the west, Moscow’s mayor, Sergey S. Sobyanin, said in a Telegram post.

For years, Washington has spent significant resources researching how better to defend against the threat of small drones, considered formidable, particularly if they are used at night or in a swarm formation coming from different directions.

“A small drone flying close to the earth and flying quickly is very difficult to pick up if you are carrying out counter-drone efforts — and that’s just as true for Moscow as it is for Washington,” said Seth G. Jones, senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Frankly, they are pretty perplexing challenges for any state to defend against.”

In May, Ukraine launched an audacious drone strike on the Kremlin, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the war and demonstrating that Moscow was not immune to the conflict. That attack was said to have unnerved the Biden administration.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has reported at least 29 drone attacks on Russian territory since May. Though the assaults have caused minimal damage, especially in comparison to the devastation Moscow’s forces have inflicted in Ukraine, they have highlighted Ukraine’s reach.

The attacks in Moscow have raised questions about gaps in the air-defense systems set up to protect the capital, said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at C.N.A., an independent research organization based in Virginia.

“Most air defenses around the world were developed to target aircraft, helicopters and incoming missiles — large, easy-to-identify targets,” Mr. Bendett said. “Most of the air defenses were not developed to try to interdict small U.A.V.s,” he added, using the abbreviation for unmanned aerial vehicles.

An analysis by The New York Times of attacks in Russia using Ukrainian-made drones, as well as interviews with experts and officials, found that Ukraine was racing to scale up its homegrown drone fleet and aiming to attack more frequently.

While the Russian authorities have largely tried to play down the risks of drone attacks, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said last week that “measures are being taken” to build up defenses around the capital.

Some Russian military bloggers have suggested that the attacks are an act of desperation by Ukraine, aimed at making headlines while its slow counteroffensive grinds on. But some have acknowledged that the assaults could have a psychological effect on the Russian public, which has largely escaped the day-to-day reality of the war.

“The attacks are certainly applying psychological pressure,” Mr. Bendett said. “But the question is how much of an effect, if the Russian society is resigned to this war.”

In Moscow, a businessman, Azamat, 30, who like others interviewed declined to give a surname out of safety concerns, said of the drone incursions: “To be honest, I don’t even know if I’m scared or not. My brother lives near the Moscow City complex, which has been attacked several times by drones. They are absolutely calm. His children go to kindergarten and don’t think about it at all. On the day of the attack, they watch the news, but it doesn’t create such fear and terror as the Ukrainians or whoever is doing it would probably like.”

Eva, 38, a doctor from Moscow, also said, “I learn about drones from the news or when I find myself in the center of Moscow.” She added, “I’m not afraid and I’m not going anywhere.”

But even as some Moscow residents shrug off the drone strikes, the wider war has rattled nations in the region like Romania, a NATO member whose territory lies across the Danube, where Russia has launched unrelenting attacks. And Poland, which shares a sizable border with Belarus, an ally of Russia’s, said that it would send an additional 2,000 troops to reinforce its border, days after two Belarusian helicopters breached Polish airspace, heightening jitters in the region.

Belarus has welcomed hundreds of fighters from Russia’s Wagner private mercenary group after their short-lived mutiny in Russia in June. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, last week expressed alarm about possible “provocations” and “sabotage actions” by the relocated Wagner fighters.

The war has also taken a toll on the ruble. On Wednesday, Russia’s central bank announced that it would stop buying foreign currency on the domestic market starting on Thursday. The bank said it was making the move in response to currency volatility, in an effort to shore up the ruble, which has weakened to roughly 97 rubles per dollar — the weakest level since March 2022.

Reporting was contributed by Gaya Gupta, Milana Mazaeva, Cassandra Vinograd and Marc Santora.

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