About Those Drone Strikes in Russia
Explosions near Moscow and arson attacks on draft boards make for a long, hot summer.
ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, the Moscow suburb of Sergiev Posad, about forty miles from the city center, was rocked by a massive explosion that shattered windows, sent debris flying, and caused a huge column of gray smoke to rise toward the sky. The site of the blast was the Zagorsk Optical and Mechanical Factory, described as a producer of optical and optoelectronic devices for various clients including the Russian military. But as theories about the cause of the explosion multiplied, so did questions and reports about what had really been inside the building.
The blast in Sergiev Posad, which killed one woman and injured at least sixty people, may or may not have been directly connected to Russia’s war in Ukraine. But it’s part of a bigger picture in which Russian targets away from the frontlines are increasingly vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes—and to unexplained attacks likely related to pro-Ukraine sabotage. As the Ukrainian offensive slowly but surely grinds on, these incidents add up to a general sense that Russia is, well, burning.
The initial explanation for the Sergiev Posad explosion from local authorities was a negligence-related accident at a fireworks company, Pyro-Ross, which indeed occupies a part of the building. However, the director of Pyro-Ross has reportedly told the media that the explosion happened in a different part of the building—and during the unloading of a truck, which suggests the use of explosives. Russian-speaking Israeli journalist and military expert Sergei Auslender told an interviewer on the Khodorkovsky Live YouTube channel that from the look of the blast, it definitely wasn’t fireworks. News reports also showed objects scattered by the explosion that appeared to be empty artillery shell casings, suggesting that the factory was producing ammunition.
Further deepening the mystery, the dissident Russian news site Agentstvo (“Agency”) has reported that the factory in Sergiev Posad was developing a sophisticated new bomber scheduled for completion in 2027. Could this have made it a target for the Ukrainian military? On the Khodorkovsky Live program, independent Russian journalist Sergei Aslanyan pooh-poohed the idea, saying that the bomber sounded like a classic Russian boondoggle—an ostensibly high-tech research project whose only real purpose is to siphon off money from the government, unlikely to be a high priority for Ukrainians. Regardless, it appears near-certain that the factory site was involved in at least some work with a military purpose—and it seems more likely than not that the blast was intentional, not negligent.
It could have been explosives planted by Ukrainian agents or Ukraine sympathizers. Or it could have been a drone strike—perhaps, as Khodorkovsky Live host Yuri Belyat suggested, part of a larger attack in which two other drones were shot down near Moscow on the same morning. At least one local resident was certain that she had seen a drone hovering over the building in Sergiev Posad seconds before the explosion, while others mentioned hearing a buzzing noise. While TASS and other official Russian news agencies have said that the drone-strike explanation had been rejected, we all know how much official Russian denials are worth: This could mean simply that the authorities have decided it’s inconvenient or embarrassing to admit a successful Ukrainian hit in the vicinity of Moscow. Auslender told Khodorkovsky Live that both negligence and drone strike are credible scenarios. The drones may have come from Ukraine—or, conceivably, could have been launched by pro-Ukraine guerillas on Russian territory.
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Whatever the truth may be, it is worth noting that “drone attack” was the first thing that came to mind for many locals. “I thought: well, now it’s come here too,” one woman who heard the explosion while walking about half a mile away told TV-Rain. Not a surprising reaction after drones crashed into government office buildings in downtown Moscow on July 31 and August 1.
An even more telling reaction was captured in a short video in which a woman who sees the cloud of smoke rising in the distance utters a couple of expletives and then asks, “Is that the voyenkomat burning?”—i.e., the military commissariat, or draft board. Late July and early August saw a wave of strange draft-board arson attacks in Russia, with alleged perpetrators ranging from teenage girls to retirees in their eighties. The strange part was that all the people detained in these attacks have claimed to be victims of scams. Some said they received a call from someone claiming to be a part of the FSB, the state security service, and instructed to help an FSB operation by torching the local draft board office because it had been infiltrated by Ukrainian spies or other enemy agents. Others said the scammers had locked them out of their bank accounts and said their access to their money would be restored if they cooperated. One might suspect that these were self-exculpatory claims coordinated among antiwar protesters who had planned a draft-board arson spree; but it appears that nothing in the detainees’ backgrounds suggested any involvement with protests. The calls could be the work of an actual Russian antiwar underground, or of Ukrainian intelligence.
Either way, these attacks undoubtedly contribute to simmering tensions in Russia, especially in conjunction with signs that a new round of mobilization may be under way—and with other fallout from the war in Ukraine, from more dead Russian soldiers to murders, rapes, and robberies by convicts returning home as “special operation” veterans. Amid escalating repressions, these tensions won’t translate into serious Russian antiwar protests anytime soon. But they do translate, on a daily basis, into steady and worsening erosion of morale.