As new air defences appear in Moscow, Russians see more signs of war at home

More visible signs of war are emerging in Russia, with air defences being placed on Moscow rooftops. Some Russia experts say it's possible there may be actual concerns within the Moscow defence establishment about the potential for the war to heat up closer to home.

With Ukraine receiving advanced western weapons, air defences placed on key buildings in Russia's capital

A mural in Moscow promoting military service shows an illustration of a Russian general and a cadet.
A pedestrian walks past a mural depicting a Russian general and a cadet with a slogan reading: 'There is such a profession — to defend the homeland,' in Moscow earlier this month. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

More visible signs of war are emerging in Russia, with air defences being placed on Moscow rooftops and Kremlin officials sharply decrying the widening array of weapons the West is providing to Ukraine. 

Reports emerged on social media last week that anti-aircraft missiles had been spotted on key buildings in central Moscow, including at a defence ministry command centre. Military drills also took place outside the capital, with Russia's defence ministry saying troops "conducted an exercise to repel a mock air attack."

There is nothing abnormal about countries having air defences around key military installations or major cities. But new military drills testing S-300 mobile surface-to-air batteries around the capital, coupled with social media reports that Pantsir S-1 anti-aircraft missiles had been mounted on buildings in central Moscow, suggest Russia may be reinforcing its air defences. 

These developments have occurred alongside growing tensions about tanks and other heavy weapons that Ukraine has been promised by Western allies, leaving Russia weighing their implications for the conflict.

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With arms shipments intensifying, some Russia watchers say there could be real concerns within parts of Russia's defence establishment about the potential for the war to heat up closer to home.

Oleg Ignatov, a senior Russia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization, believes a decision to erect these defences stems from concerns that Moscow should be prepared for the unexpected.

"It seems that [the] Ukrainians have capabilities that allow them to strike deep inside Russia," Ignatov told CBC News from Brussels, pointing to high-profile attacks in Russian-held Crimea and on targets inside Russia.

Ignatov believes Russia is unclear how far Kyiv's reach may extend, as billions of dollars worth of advanced Western military aid pours into the country. 

Dani Nedal, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the West has grown willing to arm Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons, despite initial hesitations. 

"The restraint has been eroded over time," said Nedal, noting the West's shift from an earlier position of providing Ukraine with primarily defensive weapons.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Moscow views recently announced tank shipments and other aid as part of the West's "growing" and "direct involvement in the conflict."

'Very focused' deployment

While people living in Moscow may be watching what's happening with new air defences, Ignatov does not think domestic considerations are driving the deployment.

"They didn't put [them] everywhere," he said. "It's not massive, it's very focused."

A man walks past graffiti on a wall in Moscow that reads "no to war."
A man walks past an inscription reading 'No to war' left on a wall in Moscow on Jan. 26. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

Nedal said these deployments can't be done in secret. And he believes the Russian government has downplayed its significance.

"If you're the Russian government, you won't wait until there is an attack to start placing air defences," he said.

But Dan Storyev, the English-language managing editor of OVD-Info, an independent human rights group that monitors protests in Russia, is more skeptical on the domestic political motives driving new air defences. 

"In my opinion, there is little hard military rationale to deploy [these] in Moscow in such a manner," Storyev said via email, speaking as an individual and not on behalf of his organization.

Storyev said the move might "reassure Muscovites of their safety, but it will simultaneously function as a reminder of war."

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War had a similar take, recently surmising the Kremlin deployed them "to generate inflammatory images that portray the war as more threatening to the Russian public."

Shadows of pedestrians are seen on the wall of an underpass near the Kremlin in Moscow.
Pedestrians' shadows are highlighted against the wall of an underpass near Moscow's Red Square, at sunset, earlier this month. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the air defences could be part of a larger message Russia has presented about the war itself.

"They've been spinning this conflict, from the beginning, as a defensive action by them, as opposed to an offensive action," said Harding, who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, while previously working for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"They've been telling themselves and their people that this was designed to be defending Russia against NATO's encroachment."

A man in Kyiv takes a selfie in front of an illustration depicting a burning Kremlin building in Moscow.
A man in Kyiv takes a selfie in front of giant mock-up of a postal stamp depicting a burning Kremlin building in Moscow, earlier this month. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

As Russia's war with Ukraine nears its one-year anniversary, there's concern about an expected new phase of conflict; Kyiv predicts more Russian conscripts will be drafted into the fight.

If Russia pushes forward with a new offensive, that could provide an impetus for it tighten up its own defences — as it may be doing in Moscow. "If they are preparing for a new offensive, of course they should care about defence of their critical objects," Ignatov said.

Harding, however, said a Ukrainian attack on Moscow seems neither likely nor planned.

"It seems like every time the conflict looks like it could escalate, the parties sort of bring it back to the interior of Ukraine," she said. 

"And I think it behooves everybody in the conflict to keep it limited. Russia doesn't want a wider war. NATO certainly doesn't want a wider war."

A Ukrainian tank fires toward a Russian position near the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.
A Ukrainian tank fires toward a Russian position near the town of Bakhmut, Ukraine on Thursday, as the conflict nears its one-year anniversary. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from The Associated Press