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The Nonstop Work of Ukrainian Air Defenses: ‘We Have No Days Off’

Find it, target it, shoot it.

The drill is the same for Ukraine’s air defense crews as they work round the clock to combat the relentless barrage of missiles the Russians launch at Kyiv, mostly foiling the most intense bombardment of the capital since the first weeks of the war.

In the month of May alone, Russia bombarded Kyiv 17 times. It has fired hypersonic missiles from MIG-31 fighter jets and attacked with land-based ballistic missiles powerful enough to level an entire apartment block. Russian bombers and ships have fired dozens of long-range cruise missiles, and more than 200 attack drones have featured in blitzes meant to confuse and overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses.

It presents a constant struggle for Ukrainian defenders. Russian assaults can be unrelenting. They come mostly at night, but sometimes in daytime hours, as they did on Monday.

Even when Ukraine manages to blast missiles from the sky, falling debris can bring death and destruction. Early Thursday, Russia sent a volley of 10 ballistic missiles at Kyiv; Ukrainian officials said they were all shot down but that falling fragments killed three people, including a child, and injured more than a dozen others.

Yet overall, very little has penetrated the complex and increasingly sophisticated air defense network around Ukraine’s capital, saving scores of lives.

“We have no days off,” said Riabyi, the call-sign of the 26-year-old “shooter” who is part of a two-person antiaircraft missile crew responsible for protecting just one patch of sky just outside Kyiv.

Ukraine’s air defenses are a stitched-together patchwork of different weapons, many of them newly supplied by the West, protecting millions of civilians in Kyiv and other cities, and guarding critical infrastructure that includes four working nuclear power plants. Tom Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, called it “a sort of a dog’s breakfast” of systems.

There are hundreds of people like Riabyi, equipped with American-made surface-to-air Stinger missiles and other portable weapons. Many more are operating more complex launchers that have arrived recently, like the Patriot (American), NASAMS (Norwegian-American) and SAMP/T (French-Italian). Ukraine also uses German-made Gepard antiaircraft guns, and a mix of Soviet-era air defenses.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, said the recent air raids aimed at the capital are a “massive and unprecedented” assault designed to exhaust air defense systems, strike a powerful symbolic blow at the heart of the ancient capital, and sow terror.

President Volodymyr Zelensky once again thanked “the defenders of the sky” in his address to the nation on Tuesday night. The battle in the skies, he made clear, is as important as the bloody struggle being waged by soldiers on land.

Air defense teams have managed to shoot down roughly 90 percent of the incoming missiles and drones recently and, remarkably, 100 percent of the ballistic missiles aimed at Kyiv, according to the Ukrainian Air Force. Those statistics could not be independently verified.

Air defense assets will also be critical in Ukraine’s looming counteroffensive — keeping newly acquired weapons safe as they stage for battle and then providing cover for Ukrainian troops if they manage to break through Russian lines.

Riabyi and his partner, Oleg, 38, are responsible for protecting a sector of the sky measuring around 10 square kilometers outside Kyiv. When the alarm sounds, he said, they race from a base in the Kyiv area to one of a handful of secret firing positions outside the city, pull the tarp off a truck-mounted Stinger system and prepare.

“If an air target is coming close to our sector, our commander gives us command number one: find and annihilate,” he said, demonstrating the procedure recently at a secret location outside Kyiv.

After the team fires, their position is exposed and they have two minutes to move or risk being targeted.

On the side of the team’s truck, Ukrainian tridents mark their successes. The first two tridents represent Russian fighter jets they said they shot down during the first days of the war. They said they had since shot down six Orlan reconnaissance drones, two Russian attack helicopters, and two Iranian-made Shahed drones.

Continuing success in the skies, however, is by no means assured.

Leaked Pentagon documents made public in April expressed deep concern that Russia could achieve air superiority as Ukraine runs out of antiaircraft missiles for Soviet-designed S-300 and Buk systems that still make up the backbone of Ukraine’s air defenses.

Since that analysis was leaked, Ukraine’s Western allies have stepped up delivery of new systems and ammunition. The arrival of two Patriot batteries in late April gave Ukraine its first system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.

Still, Ukraine must make difficult decisions about how to deploy limited resources.

Mr. Karako of the Missile Defense Project said the recent attacks on Kyiv have shown “how stressing and challenging a concerted air assault can be,” underscoring the need for Ukraine to keep building its defenses as the Russians try to wear them down.

While Ukrainian and Western officials have noted that Russia is likely running low on precision missiles, and relying more on less accurate missiles and drones, Moscow has shown that it still has the capacity to stage attacks at a regular tempo.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion 15 months ago, it has fired over 5,000 missiles and attack drones at targets across Ukraine, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But like Russia’s ground offensives, the air assaults have failed to produce the strategic military effects Moscow desired, according to the study, and Ukrainian air defenses have “greatly shaped the course of the war, limiting Russian striking power.”

Mr. Yusov, the representative of Ukrainian military intelligence, said that the Russians changed tactics after bombardment of civilian infrastructure and cities over the winter and early spring failed to cripple Ukraine’s ability to function.

Moscow is now targeting more military installations to undermine Ukraine’s counteroffensive, he said, while also setting its sights on Kyiv because it remains “an unconquered target for the aggressor.”

Peter Mitchell, writing for the Modern War Institute at West Point, asserted that the barrages are designed to fill the air with more incoming targets than the defenses can handle, “using a combination of land-, sea-, or air-launched missile platforms.’’

For Kyiv residents, the nearly nightly blitzes have been exhausting and terrifying. The first alarm usually sounds after midnight and the assaults last for hours.

“I’m checking the information trying to understand what is flying and from where,” said Natalia Ulianytska, 32, a human-rights activist who lives in Kyiv.

Many people follow Telegram channels that track radar reports, providing real-time information about looming threats, and they know how much time they may have between the wail of the air raid siren and bombs bursting.

If the threat is from bombers taking off from one of the 39 Russian bases Ukrainian officials say used to launch strikes, or from Iranian attack drones with a top speed of around 124 m.p.h, people in Kyiv usually have a couple of hours to take cover.

But ballistic missiles are different. They can strike the capital within 15 minutes of launch, offering precious little time to do more than scurry away from windows and brace.

“When there’s a massive missile attack I go to the bathroom together with my cat,” Ms. Ulianytska said.

She said she is not so much scared as anxious and “very angry.”

She knows when the Russian drones and missiles arrive by the thunderous explosions in the sky. Even when air defense teams successfully shoot down a target, there is danger as fiery wreckage rains down on the streets below.

Several people have been killed and injured by falling debris in Kyiv in the past month, and scores of businesses and apartment buildings have been damaged.

Riabyi, the gunner, said he has had to learn on the job. He was still going through training at a base in Ukraine’s west when Russia invaded.

His wife, pregnant with their first child, fled their home north of Kyiv before Russian soldiers could occupy the village; Riabyi was dispatched to Kyiv.

His daughter was born in May but he did not see her for the first time until December. They spent a few days together and then he had to return to his post to help ensure she could sleep safely.

Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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