Vladimir Putin has vowed to retaliate against what he claimed were Ukrainian drone strikes on Moscow, which exposed Russia’s growing vulnerability to blowback from his invasion.

Russia’s president accused Ukraine of “terrorist activity” and “provoking us to respond with tit-for-tat measures” after strikes hit residential areas in the Russian capital early on Tuesday morning, which he said were aimed at “scaring Russian citizens and hitting residential buildings.”

Although Putin did not say how Moscow would respond and claimed Russia did not attack civilian targets in Ukraine, he made his first reference for several months to a possible nuclear escalation of the war, accusing Ukraine of trying to cause an accident at a nuclear power plant in occupied Zaporizhzhia or use a dirty bomb.

The claims, first made last autumn, sparked fears in the west that Russia could be using the accusations to manufacture a pretext for its own nuclear use as its battlefield position deteriorated.

Putin said Moscow’s anti-air defences had proved “satisfactory” but “there is still work to be done”, adding Russia had experienced similar problems at Hmeimim air base during its campaign supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in the Syrian war.

The drone strikes came as Russia launched another wave of aerial attacks on Kyiv, killing at least one person, hospitalising others and forcing the evacuation of a high-rise building — the fourth attack in three days on Ukraine’s capital.

Such attacks have become a regular occurrence in Kyiv since Russia began targeting civilian infrastructure with mass air strikes last autumn. The assault on Tuesday was the 17th on the capital in May alone after Ukraine’s forces shot down dozens of ballistic cruise missiles and drones over Kyiv in the early hours of Sunday and into Monday.

Ukraine’s Air Force spokesperson Yuriy Ignat said Nato-grade air defence systems, including the US-made Patriot system, had been used to defend the capital in recent days. A Financial Times reporter observed the Patriot system knocking out a missile during morning rush hour on Monday. Debris from several missiles fell on to building tops and roadways in the capital.

In Moscow, two people suffered minor injuries after a number of drones crashed into residential buildings in the city’s south-west, mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Ukraine had used eight drones in the attack but that none had hit their targets. He claimed Russia had downed five drones outside Moscow with Pantsir anti-aircraft systems and forced the other three to crash after jamming their control systems.

Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attack, which would mark one of its largest drone strikes on Russia since the start of the war and demonstrate Kyiv’s growing capabilities to strike deep behind enemy lines in Russia.

Kyiv has embarked on a campaign aimed at stoking fear and undermining the Russian army ahead of an expected counteroffensive, according to Ukrainian officials.

The UK has defended Ukraine’s right to “project force” beyond its own borders on self-defence grounds.

“Legitimate military targets beyond its own border are part of Ukraine’s self-defence,” said foreign secretary James Cleverly during a news conference on Tuesday.

Videos on social media showed drones flying low over Russia’s capital, with one exploding over Rublyovka, a wealthy suburb that is home to many of Russia’s political elite. Others showed damage after three drones crashed into residential buildings.

“If the goal of the assault was to stress out the population, then the fact of Ukrainian drones appearing in the skies over Moscow has done enough of that already,” wrote Rybar, a popular pro-war blogger on social media app Telegram.

The attacks in Russia have brought home the reality of the war to a capital that had been largely insulated from its effects.

Earlier in May, two drones attacked the Kremlin in a daring night-time raid, one exploding directly over its medieval onion domes and the other crashing into a building.

Two Ukraine-backed militias led by anti-Putin neo-Nazis from Russia also conducted a brief cross-border attack last week.

Experts have said that assault is likely to have been launched from near Moscow, given the small drones used and their different directions.

But pro-war Russian commentators, citing video footage and pictures of fragments, suggested Ukraine could have launched the drones from central and eastern border areas from which Moscow retreated last year after a series of humiliating defeats.

“This once again raises the issue of whether it was justified to pull our troops out of Chernihiv and Sumy regions a year ago and leave a buffer zone north of Kharkiv last fall,” Rybar wrote. “It also calls into question our reconnaissance in the border areas and the enemy’s activity in those regions.”

Additional reporting by Lucy Fisher in London

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