FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Russia Is Suddenly Deploying Air Defense Systems On Moscow Rooftops

Russia is increasingly concerned about security from the sky: air defense systems have been installed on rooftops in Moscow's government quarter. Systems have also appeared in several other places in Russia, including near Vladimir Putin's lakeside home in Valdai. What is the Kremlin really worried about?

photo of ice on the river in Moscow
Clear skies, cold reality along the Moskva River
Anna Akage

-Analysis-

The Russian Defense Ministry has refused to comment. State Duma parliamentary officials say it’s a fake. Still, a series of verified photographs have circulated in recent days of an array of long-range C-400 and short-range air defense systems installed on three complexes in Moscow near the Kremlin, as well as on locations in the outskirts of the capital and in the northwest village of Valdai, where Vladimir Putin has a lakeside residence.

Some experts believe the air defense installations in Moscow were an immediate response to recent Ukrainian statements about a new fleet of military drones: The Ukroboronprom defense contracter said this month that it completed a series of successful tests of a new strike drone with a range of over 1,000 kilometers. Analyst Michael Naki suggests that Moscow’s anti-air defense systems were an immediate reaction to the fact that the drones can theoretically hit Kremlin.

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Yet the air defense installations in Valdai seem to have been in place since late December, following Ukrainian drone attacks on a military airfield deep inside Russia’s Sorotov region, 730 kilometers (454 miles) southeast of Moscow.

Others pose a very different rationale to explain Russia’s beefing up anti-air defenses on its own territory. Russian military analyst Yan Matveev argues that Putin demanded the deployment of such local systems not as defense against long-range Ukrainian drones, but rather for fear of sabotage from inside Russia.

"These air defense systems are designed for short-range drones because we already know several cases when sabotaging Ukrainian groups acted inside Russia,” Matveev believes. “It is easy to assume that Ukrainians with small short-range drones will approach Moscow or launch them within, and thus either bring some reconnaissance or conduct sabotage."


Information wars

According to the analyst, drones, no matter how modified they may be, cannot inflict any significant damage on the Kremlin or the Ministry of Defense building, let alone as a plausible way to depose Putin or any top names from the Russian military leadership.

Indeed, one can also look at the air defense system in Moscow as the latest move in the information wars, and an audience that is neither Ukraine nor the international community but the Russians themselves.

Analysts at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War believe Putin is using this new move to portray Ukraine as the aggressor and Russia as the defender of its territory. This would explain the leaking of images of the air defense system as an attempt to convince the Russians that the country is in danger and, therefore, prepare before the second wave of mobilization.

Mikhail Podolyak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, also suggests that the air defense over the Kremlin is just another way to justify Putin’s holy war, which the Russians are constantly reminded of by state television and the president himself.

MaxarTechnologies

Engels-2 airbase in Russia that was targeted by Ukrainian drones in December

Inevitable escalation

"Ukraine does not strike on Russian territory," Podolyak repeated again, when asked if Putin had installed air defenses to protect himself from Ukrainian drones. "Nevertheless, the logic of war and escalation of war within Russia will be inevitable, including such pampered lazy cities where people live in another reality as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and so on will be exposed. Everything will be subject to an escalation of the war. But this escalation is an internal problem of the Russian Federation."

Military analyst Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team says Ukraine has too many other more important targets, and not enough drones to launch attacks on Moscow.

"Air defense is deployed in Moscow because the systems on the border proved ineffective, but Ukraine has other priorities, and those are military targets."

Officially, Kyiv will continue to deny any military action on Russian territory until the war's end. Some of the operations will remain classified as secret for decades afterward. However, it is also clear that the bombing of military airports in Russia and the air defense system in Moscow and near Putin's dacha is directly linked, which means that the Kremlin seems to be seriously concerned about an air attack.

Paws or wings?

Late last week, the U.S. and Europe announced new arms shipments to Ukraine on the eve of the summit of defense leaders at Ramstein military base in Germany. The list does not include anything directly threatening Moscow, but we also know that Ukraine has deployed on the battlefield weapons that have not been officially announced.

Much has been made about Germany’s hesitation to send Leopard heavy combat tanks to Ukraine. Yet Andrei Piontkovsky, a well-known Russian military expert in Washington, believes that the panic in the Kremlin is indeed more about the battle from the air than from the ground — in other words, what will change the war is not tanks but missiles.

"It is quite possible that there are British-French Storm Shadow air-to-ground cruise missiles in the lists of weapons to be supplied to Ukraine that are closed to the public,” Piontkovsky said. “(UK Defense Secretary) Ben Wallace has previously said that if Russia continues its barbaric shelling of civilians, Britain will provide Ukraine with these weapons."

Russia is preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Just days before the Ramstein summit, there was an attack on a residential apartment building in Dnipro where 46 people, including children, were killed. It was an event that should have a real influence on the decisions of Ukraine's military partners. No matter how vital the tanks are on the battlefield, Ukraine cannot win this war without long-range missiles.

"Russia is preparing for the worst-case scenario," Piontkovsky concluded.

Analyzing the development of the war in its hottest spots, using the example of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian expert of the Center for Military Strategies, Viktor Kevlyuk, also stated the importance of supplying missiles.

"The battles for Bakhmut and Soledar are a prototype of the battles of the nearest two to three months - the battles of infantry, supported by artillery. Although the delay in delivery of tanks does not look like a tragedy, we are short of guns and missiles, and it should be the leitmotif of the allied assistance to Ukraine in the first quarter of this year," he said.