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‘The next stage will be scaling’ Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak explains what Kyiv thinks about the drone attacks on Moscow

Source: Meduza
Kirill Zukov / imago images / Scanpix / LETA

Over the past week, the office towers of Moscow City, a major commercial development in the Russian capital, have been attacked by drones twice. The Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula has seen 16 drone attacks just in the last month. While Kyiv strives to distance itself from incidents like these, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested that “war is gradually returning to Russian territory and its symbolic centers and military bases.” Meduza’s correspondent Elizaveta Antonova spoke with Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak about Kyiv’s perspective on who is targeting objects within Russia and what future developments this might herald.

Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff

— In a comment on the most recent, August 1 drone attack on Moscow, you wrote that the full-scale war would soon shift to its instigators’ territory, and that anything happening in Russia next would be a matter of “objective historical process.” Is this process entering a new phase?

The new phase is going to be scaling. The previous phase, testing the Russian air defense systems, is complete. Ukraine, regrettably, has no means to defend itself from the missiles used by Russia to attack it, and we’re trying to address that problem. But it’s just as clear that Russia itself doesn’t have sufficiently mobile defense systems for deflecting such attacks. This means that the next step is to scale them.

Many of these drones are just DIY devices made by ordinary people, with a pretty limited range and flight time. Drones like these can be launched from the Moscow region and the nearby areas.

It seems to me, some people in Russia are starting to realize that the power vertical in their country has weakened; that there’s no one to make critical decisions; and that Putin himself is weak. This creates more room for pressuring the regime. We see the results of this in the sabotage at different facilities (like draft offices, for example), and also in the number of drone attacks. Any weakness [of the state] provokes these internal upsurges.

— Don’t you think that drone attacks might unite Russians in supporting the war and going to the front in greater numbers?

I don’t think so. This war is devoid of an idea. It’s a senseless war of occupation; its sole reason is to loot without paying. This kind of war can be well-received at home if there are no repressions, if people don’t feel that they’re being fleeced or their opportunities are being curtailed. Russia has triggered the process that will completely negate the people’s allegiance to this war. They went to Ukraine to loot, but now they’re being killed there and persecuted at home, where they’re completely defenseless. They like this war from the comfort of their homes in Russia; but they don’t like losing money or their freedom of movement, or being hauled off to the front. There is no ideological basis for uniting people around this war.

— You have said that Ukraine doesn’t target inner Russia with its missiles, because it adheres to international law and only engages in defending its own territory. You also write that Russia is going to see “more drones, destruction, civil unrest, and war.” Is there a scenario under which Kyiv would reconsider its abstinence from strikes into inner Russia?

No, we don’t plan to engage in aggressive warfare or to attack objects within Russia. That would make no sense for us. What’s important for us is to intensify the strikes on Russian infrastructure on occupied territories. This would in turn provoke internal attacks within Russia, not by Ukrainians, but by protest groups already beginning to display more aggressive models of behavior. What we need is to increase the scope of the destruction on occupied territories, along the defense line. Once this happens, internal unrest will gain momentum within Russia.

— So you don’t see a scenario under which Ukraine would attack Moscow with missiles.

What do we stand to gain from that, with our missile shortage? Russia has lots of missiles, or at least it did, at the time when it started attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. We have a bit of a missile shortage, and also some limitations in terms of range. Russia, for example, has missiles ranging 1,500–3,000 kilometers [roughly 1,000–2,000 miles]. Our missiles range 250–300 kilometers at best. These values simply don’t compare. What problem would [a strike on Moscow] solve?

Russia has concentrated all of its residual combat resources on occupied Ukrainian territories. By destroying these resources, we are leaving Russia internally vulnerable, meaning that anybody inside Russia can intercept state power, which is what’s ultimately going to happen there. You can see the mood of the liberals as well as the ultra-patriots: both sides are extremely negative towards Putin.

By the way, Prigozhin made a surprising display, baring the weak points in the system. He has shown that there’s no law enforcement that could resist 5,000–8,000 armed people. Nor did anybody rush to Putin’s defense. It was later, when it became clear that Prigozhin bit off more than he could chew, that everyone began to speak up [in support of the president].

Prigozhin’s coup and its aftermath

Just the beginning of the end of the beginning Prigozhin’s short-lived coup exposed Putin’s weakness in controlling the military and the state security apparatus. Its full consequences are yet to be seen.

Prigozhin’s coup and its aftermath

Just the beginning of the end of the beginning Prigozhin’s short-lived coup exposed Putin’s weakness in controlling the military and the state security apparatus. Its full consequences are yet to be seen.

— What about the missiles striking Russia’s border regions?

Russia’s border regions are often struck by Russia’s own missiles. Do you know why their forces launch missiles from the Caspian Sea? It’s because 25–30 percent of them, the faulty ones, drop into the sea. The same thing often happens with their S-300s and S-400s, which land in the Belgorod, Kursk, and Rostov regions. But yes, every now and then something unruly strikes those regions. Occupation forces are everywhere, and we destroy them everywhere, including the borders.

— I’d like to ask you about the recent attacks on the Moscow City towers, where Russia’s Economic Development Ministry has its offices. Are the drones primarily targeting government spaces and military facilities?

We must first understand who is launching those drones and what their goal is. For us, for example, the greatest interest lies in military facilities like the Defense Ministry or certain military institutes, including those situated in Moscow.

As for the Economic Development Ministry, it’s hardly a priority target for Ukraine. On the other hand, for some internal power groupings, it can be. The thing we should analyze is what those groups might be preparing for. So I think that the ministry could be targeted by some internal groups within Russia, because it’s such an odd choice of target, especially twice in a row.

— I’m assuming that when drones strike Moscow it’s done in the interests of Ukraine.

Anything that flies over Moscow without Moscow’s control works in the interests of Ukraine and of ending this war. But it’s not a fact that Ukraine is moderating everything that flies over Moscow.

— Why do you think the drones strike at night?

I don’t know; this is a question for the drone operators. Maybe they’re minimizing the risks to aircraft, since Russia sleeps at night.

— Let’s talk about the military aims of these attacks. They don’t seem to be causing a lot of damage.

They don’t need to cause damage. As I understand the people who stand behind these attacks (and I’ll emphasize again that Ukraine has nothing to do with them), they’re meant to solve a fundamental problem. They prove the same thing that Prigozhin’s mutiny proved: that Russia’s system of governance and its power vertical are weak; that Russian air-defense and electromagnetic suppression systems aren’t working; and that the whole myth of Putin’s rigid power vertical is a fiction.

I think that those who are behind these drone strikes are doing a favor to anyone who’s ready to intercept state power in today’s Russia, since Russia’s internal political conflict has already been programmed. It’ll arise as a result of Russia’s defeat in the war.

— Do you think that residents of small towns that don’t have any military objects should still feel apprehensive about drone or missile strikes?

When it comes to urban or rural infrastructure in places without any military objects, I don’t think there’s any risk. The danger is more real in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. Taking into account that Russia doesn’t have a grip on its own internal processes, there’s also significant risk to places that have military facilities.

The risks are highest on the Crimean Peninsula. It’s amazing that anyone would still try to spend their vacation there. Clearly, if you’re traveling to an occupied region during the hot phase of the war, you’re increasing your risks, both physical and legal. The Crimean Bridge is used to transport military cargoes, munitions, weapons, missiles. It’s a key bridge for supplying the Russian army’s Southern grouping. It’s a mystery to me why anybody would want to drive over a military object.

The recent Crimean Bridge explosion came as no shock to locals

‘These things used to shock us’ The Kerch bridge explosion through the eyes of Crimea residents and Russian tourists

The recent Crimean Bridge explosion came as no shock to locals

‘These things used to shock us’ The Kerch bridge explosion through the eyes of Crimea residents and Russian tourists

Few people in Russia seem to realize that their government is not in control of the way the war is going (as their propaganda tells them it is) and that they’re risking much more than they’re told.

By the way, the Kremlin has lately changed its approach to propaganda: they’ve decided to say less about the war itself, and to produce more “positive” news. Compared with just two months ago, there are fewer panicked cries on Telegram. The Kremlin seems to have realized that the war is a negative for Moscow, and it’s time to start extricating themselves — so that, at some point in the future, they can finally say: “That’s it, we’re done! We’ve retreated back to Belgorod, and we’re victorious!” Which would only be sensible, after all. It’s high time Russians realized that they’s only win when they return Ukraine to its 1991 borders.

— By silencing the voices of panic, do you mean the arrests of pro-war figures like Strelkov?

Yes, and this is a standard process. When the state does not control the situation, it tries to control the information. For two-thirds of the war, the regime paid no attention to people like Strelkov, because they hoped to break Ukraine. But now they’re trying to change the informational environment, so that no one would criticize them.

Radicals like Strelkov, who want a much more aggressive war than the state itself can manage, do a lot of damage to the state. They represent the only electoral group that sincerely endorses the war. They are impassioned in their hate-filled stupidity, and all the noise they make creates an illusion of national support.

Besides, the whole ultrapatriotic scene has adopted a brutal, obscene, and uncensored tone. To get this under control, the regime will eliminate the biggest radicals, either by putting them in prison or just having them disappear. The rest will be brought under rigid control, under a unified propaganda system.

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How Russia finances its propaganda ecosystem

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Interview by Elizaveta Antonova. Translated by Anna Razumnaya.

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