For months, Russia’s state media insisted that the country was only hitting military targets in Ukraine, leaving out the suffering that the invasion has brought to millions of civilians.
On Monday, the mask came off. Russian state television showed gas lines in Ukraine, empty store shelves and a long-range forecast promising months of freezing temperatures there. And rather than focus on the civilian destruction in Russian-held areas as they usually do, news broadcasts in Russia showed columns of smoke and carnage in central Kyiv.
“There’s no hot water, part of the city is without power,” one anchor announced, describing the scene in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
The sharp shift was a sign that domestic pressure over Russia’s flailing war effort had escalated to the point where President Vladimir V. Putin felt a decisive show of force was necessary.
His military has come under increasingly withering criticism from the war’s supporters for not being aggressive enough in its assault on Ukraine, a chorus that reached a fever pitch after Saturday’s attack on the 12-mile bridge to the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea — a symbol of Mr. Putin’s rule.
With Monday’s brutal escalation of the war effort, Mr. Putin in part appears to be responding to those critics, momentarily quieting the clamors of hard liners furious with the Russian military’s humiliating setbacks on the battlefield.
“This is important from the domestic political perspective, first and foremost,” Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, said of Monday’s strikes. “It was important to demonstrate to the ruling class that Putin is still capable, that the Army is still good for something.”
But with his escalation, Mr. Putin is also betting that Russian elites — and the public at large — do indeed see it as a sign of strength, rather than a desperate effort to inflict more pain in a war that Russia appears to be losing.
“The response was supposed to show power, but in fact it showed powerlessness,” Mr. Gallyamov said. “There’s nothing else the army can do.”
After Monday’s strikes, some of the invasion’s harshest critics among the Russian hawks declared that the military was finally doing its job. The strongman leader of the Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov — who recently excoriated the army’s “incompetent” leadership — said in a Telegram post that he was now “100 percent happy” with the war effort.
“Run, Zelensky, run,” he wrote, referring to Ukraine’s president.
Other cheerleaders of the war triumphantly recalled Mr. Putin’s declaration in July that Russia had not “started anything yet in earnest” in Ukraine.
“Now, it seems, it’s started,” one state television talk show host, Olga Skabeyeva, said.
Mr. Putin described Monday’s strikes as a response to Ukrainian “terrorist acts,” casting them as a one-time assault to deter future Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory. In his home city of St. Petersburg, where he had traveled on Friday for his 70th birthday, Mr. Putin spoke on national television for just over three minutes in what the Kremlin characterized as the start of a meeting with his Security Council.
He made a point of saying the strikes came at the military’s initiative, an apparent effort to head off assertions that he was plotting the war effort in isolation.
“This morning, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Defense and according to the plan of the Russian General Staff, a massive strike with air, sea and land-based high-precision long-range weapons was launched against Ukrainian energy, military command and communications facilities,” Mr. Putin said. “If attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on our territory continue, the measures taken by Russia will be tough and in their scale will correspond to the level of threats posed to the Russian Federation. No one should have any doubt about it.”
In his speech, Mr. Putin made one notable omission: he did not mention the West as the ultimate culprit behind Saturday’s Crimean bridge explosion or other suspected Ukrainian attacks. That was a departure from the typical Kremlin rhetoric that portrays Washington and London as the puppeteers behind Ukraine’s resistance.
The shift was a possible signal that the Russian leader was interested in controlling the escalation of the war, and that he was not on the verge of provoking a direct conflict with NATO.
But some signs pointed to Mr. Putin being prepared for a wider escalation of the war. On Saturday, he appointed a general known for his ruthlessness, Sergei Surovikin, to lead the war effort in Ukraine. And Mr. Putin’s closest international ally, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, declared on Monday that thousands of Russian soldiers would soon arrive in the country to form a joint military group with Belarusian forces — creating the specter of a new threat to Ukraine’s north.
Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, said Mr. Putin had bent to pressure from right-wing hawks who are calling for even more escalation. He said he expected that Mr. Putin would “sooner or later” heighten the threats of potentially using tactical nuclear weapons.
In central Moscow, many people said they were unaware of what had happened in Ukraine. People soaked up the sun in the chic neighborhood of central Tsvetno, or rushed to work or appointments.
Some younger people, more attuned to social media, said they were aware of the strikes on Ukraine but felt powerless to assign blame. “It is bad when people are killed for any reason,” said Sasha, 19, a university student. Still, she went on, “In any fight, both sides are responsible.”
In Russia, the penalties for criticizing the war — or even using the term war — come with hefty fines and even jail time, so many Russians are cautious about making comments that might have a negative connotation about the war.
Valerie Hopkins reported from Moscow. Alina Lobzina also contributed reporting.