Putin Prepares Moscow Air Defenses, Ukraine Fears Ballistic Missile Barrage

On January 19, Pantsir-S1 air defense systems began appearing conspicuously on the roofs of buildings in central Moscow. Days earlier, more sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile systems were spotted in parks outside of the downtown area.

While Ukraine has offered no indication that it is preparing to strike the Russian capital, the sudden appearance of additional air defense assets suggests that Kremlin officials sense a real, increased threat to Moscow's skies.

"If these systems are being positioned in and around Moscow, it means they can't be used at the front or along the border with NATO," Marcel Plichta, a former U.S. Department of Defense analyst and current doctoral candidate at the University of St. Andrews, told Newsweek.

"These are scarce military resources," he explained, "and so if the Russians are prioritizing the defense of Moscow, they're doing so at the expense of protecting other potential targets that are of greater military significance."

Given the fact that Moscow was already protected by a layered network of air defenses, the reasoning behind Russia's decision to deploy additional systems in civilian areas of its capital remains unclear, even to those well-versed in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

On January 20, 2022, the site FlightRadar24 showed a slow-moving aircraft bearing the callsign "FCKPTN2" circling southern Ukraine. The speed of the aircraft suggests that it was unmanned. It is not clear whether or not this particular UAV possesses the necessary range to reach Moscow from Russia's border with Ukraine.

"The Ukrainian military prides itself on being a professional, ethical, modern fighting force," former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor told Newsweek, "and I can't even imagine a hypothetical scenario in which their general staff would decide that attacking Moscow would be an appropriate course of action."

"Their aim has been and remains the expulsion of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory," he added, "and a strike against Moscow would not advance that aim."

This does not mean that Ukraine has not—nor that it will not—strike military targets inside of Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. While Kyiv has refrained from claiming responsibility for past explosions—at Russian oil facilities and ammunition warehouses in the Belgorod and Bryansk regions, at the Russian Black Sea Fleet's headquarters in Sevastopol, at Saky air base in western Crimea, at Engels air base near Saratov, and at Dyagilevo air base just over 100 miles southwest of Moscow—most military analysts, including Plichta, believe that these events were the result of Ukrainian actions.

"Ukraine doesn't exactly advertise these strikes, and so you have to hope that someone on the ground has captured footage of them," Plichta explained. "But from what we've been able to see, these haven't been the result of 'Russian soldiers smoking where they shouldn't,' as Ukrainian officials sometimes say."

Judging from all of the available open-source evidence, no Western-supplied weaponry has been used in any of the events which resulted in damage to military objects on Russian territory, nor to similar objects on the territory of Russian-occupied Crimea. And while Ukraine has not yet demonstrated a capability to strike Moscow itself, it certainly possesses a level of technological sophistication sufficient for carrying out attacks on targets inside Russia's borders.

"It's not a Lockheed Martin level of engineering that's required to repurpose a one-way drone capable of penetrating a few hundred kilometers into Russian airspace," Plichta said. "You need wings, you need a guidance system, and you need an internal combustion engine strong enough to power a moped."

Still, even if Ukraine's willingness and ability to strike military objects located on Russian territory is not news, this fact does not explain the Russian decision to unveil additional air defense systems on the roofs of buildings in central Moscow and in parks ringing the city center.

On January 20, 2023, the Kyiv Post showed photographs of the Pantsir-S1 air defense system placed on the roof of the Russian Ministry of Defense in Moscow, Russia.

"If there are military objects on the territory of the Russian Federation which are being used to launch strikes against Ukrainian military and civilian targets," Ambassador Taylor said, "then those objects do become legitimate military targets."

"Ukraine has every right, for example, to hit Russian air bases which are being used to launch strikes against the Ukrainian energy grid," Taylor explained. "But the idea that they would even consider carrying out some sort of symbolic strike against Moscow is something that simply does not line up with the manner in which Ukraine has waged this war."

While some Western Kremlin watchers have speculated that Moscow's very public deployment of air defense systems is part of an information operation aimed at reminding its un-mobilized citizens that they are indeed at war, Moscow-based military analysts have reached a different conclusion.

"This is being done in order to counter a real threat," Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin told Newsweek. "Ukraine is likely to soon acquire long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, and their task will be to cause the maximum amount of damage as deep behind Russian front lines as possible."

Although he agrees that the city of Moscow contains very few legitimate military targets, Shurygin believes that Ukraine would be interested in striking the city for propaganda purposes.

"In my analysis, a strike against Moscow would be a matter of prestige," he said. "It would have an enormous psychological effect, and so of course Ukraine would aim to carry out such a strike provided it can obtain the capability."

Despite speculation that the appearance of Pantsir trucks on rooftops and S-400s in parks is part of a Kremlin operation aimed at producing a different sort of psychological effect within the Russian public, Muscovites themselves remain largely indifferent to the new development.

Kyiv Rocket January 2023
People walk among the debris of a damaged industrial area in Kyiv, Ukraine following a morning missile strike on January 26, 2023. The strike left one person dead and two wounded. Air sirens sounded across Ukraine as Russia fires missiles from aircrafts and vessels, causing fatalities and damaging civilian energy infrastructure. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

"Most people haven't even noticed the systems being installed, and those that have are more inclined to make jokes than to really care about it," Andrey Nikulin, an independent political analyst in Moscow, told Newsweek. "Just as before, people simply try to go on living in their own world as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening around them."

Rather than attempting to rally the public around the flag, the Kremlin powers-that-be really do seem to be supplementing Moscow's already robust air defenses out of a genuine concern for their own safety.

"There's no effort to draw people's attention to the new air defense systems, nor to frighten them with predictions of attacks against Moscow, nor to mobilize regular people behind the war effort," Nikulin explained. "From the Kremlin's perspective, a good, respectable Russian citizen is not one who takes the initiative to put a 'Z' sticker on their car."

"If your boss tells you to go to a political demonstration and clap, you do it," he added. "But you don't go out on the street of your own initiative, not even to show support. A good, respectable Russian citizen sits quietly until he is told what to do."

The contrast with life in Kyiv, where Ukrainian flags dominate the cityscape and grassroots volunteers spend their free time doing whatever they can to support the war effort, could not be starker. While the Ukrainian capital's air defense systems are not on public display, air alert sirens provide a daily reminder of the real threat that Russia's rockets and drones pose to civilians throughout Ukraine.

Since October 10 of last year, Russia has been waging an aerial campaign aimed at crippling Ukraine's civilian energy infrastructure. While Moscow's dwindling supply of missiles has led to longer gaps between waves of attacks, Ukraine still needs more—and better—air defense systems of its own.

At a press briefing held at the Ukraine Media Center in Kyiv on January 27, Speaker of the Air Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Iurii Ihnat outlined the situation.

"For Kalibr, X-101, X-555, and Iskander ballistic missiles, [Russia's] production lags behind their use," Ihnat said. "Therefore, the time intervals between Russian terror attacks against our state has increased."

However, if Russia succeeds in supplementing its stocks of ballistic missiles via imports from Iran, that situation could change.

"We still have no way of shooting down ballistics," Ihnat warned in a television appearance on January 30. "Our partners understand that we still need systems such as PATRIOT PAC-3 and SAMP-T in order to defend against ballistic threats."