This article was updated at 8 p.m. local time May 31 with reports of new strikes inside Russia
On the night of May 30, military drones attacked the Russian capital. There were no casualties – just broken windows and minor damage to homes. Ukraine claims it had nothing to do with the attack, and it is instead the frenzied artificial intelligence of military machines that do not understand why they are sent to Kyiv.
While the Ukrainian president’s office jokes that someone in Russia has again been smoking somewhere they shouldn’t, analysts are placing bets on the real reasons for the Moscow strikes. Many believe that Kyiv's real military target can by no means be the capital of Russia itself: it is too far from the front and too well defended – and strikes on Russia, at least with Western weapons, run counter to Ukraine’s agreements with allies, who have said that their weapons cannot be used to attack inside Russia.
Eight apartment buildings, four homes, a school and two administrative buildings were damaged during the shelling in Shebekino, a village in the border region of Belgorod, its governor said, as the oblast increasingly becomes a hotbed of straying violence.
On Wednesday, new reports of a “massive” shelling attack inside Russia's borders that injured at least four people in Belgorod and a drone sparked a fire at an oil refinery further south.
If the goal is not directly military, maybe it is psychological: to scare the residents of the capital, who live in a parallel reality and have no idea how life feels for Ukrainian civilians. Forcing people to live with this reality could push the Kremlin to retreat, or at least make concessions and negotiate with Kyiv. If neither sanctions nor the elite could sober Vladimir Putin up, could angry Muscovites?
But neither Russia's military command nor its political leadership depends on the opinion of citizens. And there are enough special forces in Moscow to crush any mass protest.
Laying bare Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inability to guarantee his country's security, in front of Russia’s remaining international partners or among the country’s elites, is also an unlikely goal. The Russian army has already seen such embarrassing failures that a few drone strikes on the Kremlin can’t possibly change how Putin is seen as a leader, or Russia as a state. So why would Kyiv launch attacks on Moscow?
Let's go back to the date of the shelling: May 29 is Kyiv Day, a holiday in the Ukrainian capital. It was also the 16th attack on Kyiv in May alone, unprecedented in its scale, even compared to the winter months when Russia had still hoped to cut off Ukrainian electricity and leave Kyiv residents, or even the whole country, freezing in the dark.
The backdrop: the Ukrainian counter-offensive to liberate the occupied territories, which is in the works, if not already launched.
Last week, the Head of the Presidential Office, Mykhailo Podolyak, said that the Ukrainian counterattack had begun, and had been going on for several days.
New front lines
Meanwhile, the Russian army is demonstrating its stockpile of cruise and ballistic missiles of unknown origin, and continues to try to deplete the Ukrainian air defense, using Iranian-made drones.
But Putin is hesitant to mobilize troops more for political reasons. He hopes to defeat the Ukrainian offensive thanks to the deeply echeloned defense of the Donbas, where Russians have been digging in since the 2014 occupation. He is well aware that even with Western weaponry and new fighters, it would cost Ukraine dearly to retake the Donbas and reach Crimea, which means an excellent opportunity to make a bad peace, which would suit Moscow well, and freeze the conflict.
Russian saboteurs in Belgorod and drone attacks on Moscow fit perfectly into this theory.
The Ukrainian military command is well aware that the key to a successful offensive lies in creating new front lines, where Russia will have to relocate troops from Ukraine and thus weaken the existing front. That means these lines must be on Russian territory itself. Russian saboteurs in Belgorod and drone attacks on Moscow fit perfectly into this theory.
A police officer examines fragments of the drone that hit an apartment block in southwestern Moscow.
War affects both sides
"Ukraine needs to show the Russian command that the frontline isn't just 1,000 miles of Ukrainian land where you can build up any human resources or material. The real frontline stretches from the Russian border northward, all the way to Moscow," says Russian politician and blogger Maxim Katz. "Ukrainians want to show them that they better keep an eye on their borders to avoid armed saboteur attacks in the future, and that air defense systems should be all over the place to be able to protect Moscow. You can no longer build up your resources along the line of contact. The updated line of contact is Russia in its entirety."
Ukraine's goal is to force Putin to cover the borders with troops and artillery, and to use up air defense missiles to shoot down Ukrainian drones over Moscow's elite neighborhoods.
The attack on the Russian capital is not just a one-off act of intimidation, but the beginning of a wider shift of hostilities, into the territory of Russia itself.
It's not beating up any one side.
"Russians have to get used to the fact that war affects both sides. It's not beating up any one side. And they're starting a new life now," says Ukrainian aviation expert Valery Romanenko. "Right now, three or four drones have hit Moscow. Tomorrow there will be 50. So let them get used to it. War is war."
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