The Russian capital’s glitzy office district is Ukraine’s latest target. What is Kyiv’s targeting strategy?
Despite the Kremlin’s studied displays of calm after two drone attacks on the prestigious Moskva City complex, a collection of skyscrapers on the Moscow River, they caused much anxiety among government officials and big corporations’ employees, who have offices in the damaged high-rises.
No one was killed or seriously injured, and the drones only destroyed glass on several floors. But the attacks brought war to the desks of Russian society’s top echelons.
Moskva City is the only place in the Russian capital reminiscent of American downtowns. Brand-new skyscrapers of all kinds and shapes comprise the most desirable office space in the capital’s center – not the least because they provide access to government officials who occupy the Tower of Ministries, built as part of the complex in 2016. And it is that tower, which was hit, twice, on July 31 and again on August 1 by Ukrainian drones.
“I was sure that it was impossible, according to probability theory, that the same building could be hit twice. So when I left my office on Monday I was absolutely calm. But on Tuesday that feeling was gone,” admitted a friend of the authors who works in the damaged building.
The belief in probability theory was obviously shared by Maxim Reshetnikov, minister of economic development, who had refused his staff the opportunity to work from home after the first attack. After the second, that changed and many employees chose to stay away from the office.
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The Tower of Ministries houses three Russian ministries — digital development, economic development, and industry and trade. The Ukrainian drones hit two out of three, with only industry and trade avoiding a strike.
This was an attack on civilian targets, forbidden by the laws of war but familiar to Ukrainians who suffer such attacks by Russian forces almost daily. It begs the question of why these ministries, on the surface entirely civilian, might be attractive for Ukraine’s targeting staff.
Let’s start with drones. All three ministries are directly involved in the Russian national unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program. In April, Putin chaired a conference on the program. Among the participants were Maksut Shadayev, minister of digital development, Maksim Reshetnikov, minister of economic development, and Vasily Osmakov, first deputy minister of trade and industry. They sat alongside the head of the FSB and the deputy minister of defense and discussed government-guaranteed, long-term demand for drones, at least up to 2030. It is no secret that the Kremlin hopes to use these products against Ukraine.
Of course, not all officials in those ministries are involved in military programs. Most have nothing to do with the Russian war effort and have no security clearance or military training. They are, by any definition, civilians. And many of them are young, highly skilled, globalized professionals, who look not very dissimilar to their counterparts in places like the City of London. But in a regime like Putin’s, it hardly means they are guaranteed to stay uninvolved in the state’s criminal activities.
For instance, those three ministries are key actors in the Russian import substitution program. At first glance, this program has nothing to do with the military, at least officially. It is designed to help the economy survive the sanctions. But taking a closer look, it becomes clear that this program helps companies to substitute for sanctioned foreign microchips — and some of those chips end up in the missiles hitting Ukrainian cities.
Telecommunications development, which is supervised by the digital development ministry, has become a tool of subjugation and occupation since it’s responsible for the deployment of Russian operators’ networks in the occupied territories. Russian networks by law must have censorship and surveillance equipment installed, and this means that once deployed in Ukraine, its civilians fall under the gaze of Russian Big Brother. The ministry’s administrative staff will no doubt tell themselves that they are just implementing regulations, and following instructions and laws. All very legal.
Now they are scared because the war has come to their workplace. That may be seen as a success in Kyiv, but they will not be deserting their posts en masse.
Unfortunately, totalitarian regimes like Putin’s don’t work that way. Government employees in the Tower of Ministries may be terrified by the attacks, but the plain truth is that retribution delivered by Ukrainian explosive drones remains less likely than retribution from the FSB.
Employees only have to glance across their workspace to the spacious office of the Ministry of Digital Development in the Tower of Ministries that was until recently occupied by Maksim Parshin, deputy minister. He supervised the national import substitution program. In mid-July he was arrested and sent to jail.
There is still a slim chance that probability theory can be applied to drone attacks, but it surely gives no protection against repression.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.