May 28, 2024
The Globe and Mail
After a largely sleepless night listening to the sounds of the largest Russian drone attack of this 15-month-old war, Kyiv residents spent Sunday defiantly celebrating the anniversary of their city’s founding. The Russian attack – which involved 54 explosive drones, more than 40 of which were launched at the Ukrainian capital – began in the early hours of Kyiv Day, which marks the city’s founding in the year 482. Air-raid sirens screamed shortly after midnight local time, and for the next five hours the city was rocked by the sounds of explosions as Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapons knocked 52 of the 54 drones out of the sky.
More air raid sirens were heard shortly after Sunday turned to Monday local time, and explosions followed a few hours later. Ukraine’s Air Force said Russia fired 40 cruise missiles and 35 explosive drones Sunday night – the majority of them at Kyiv – and that 67 of the projectiles had been shot down by air defences.
However, at least one of the cruise missiles struck a Ukrainian air base in the Khmelnitsky region in the west of the country, damaging a runway and putting five aircraft out of action. A fire also erupted in the Black Sea port of Odesa, which is crucial to Ukraine’s efforts to export grain.
The attack paused around 6 a.m. local time, then resumed about five hours later when another barrage of cruise missiles was fired at Kyiv and other cities. Kyiv mayor Vitaly Klitschko advised residents to stay in shelters as a series of loud explosions could be heard over the city centre.
Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force, said that ground-launched ballistic missiles – which are harder to intercept – were used in the Monday daytime attack. “The enemy used missiles of a ballistic trajectory – preliminarily Iskanders. There is a possibility that S-300 and S-400 missiles were also used,” he said on Ukrainian television.
A 41-year-old man was killed and a 35-year-old woman was hospitalized early Sunday when debris from a damaged drone fell on a seven-storey building in the southwestern Holosiivskyi district of the city and started a fire, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said. Two other Ukrainian civilians were reportedly killed overnight Saturday in separate shelling attacks on the eastern province of Kharkiv.
Few in Kyiv believed it was a coincidence that Russia launched such a major attack on the city’s birthday. “Today, the enemy decided to ‘congratulate’ the people of Kyiv on Kyiv Day with the help of their deadly UAVs,” Serhii Popko, the head of the city’s military administration, wrote
on the Telegram messaging app. The UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, involved in the attack were Iranian-made Shahed drones, Mr. Popko said.
It was the 14th air attack on Kyiv in May alone. However, advanced Western anti-aircraft systems – including an American-donated Patriot missile battery – have destroyed the large majority of the cruise missiles and drones fired at the capital.
Hours after Sunday’s barrage ended, the anxiety faded into a day of relaxed celebration as Kyiv residents packed the city’s cafés and parks on a warm sunny afternoon. On Andriivsky Descent, a steep, cobblestoned street that connects the upper and lower parts of this ancient city, pedestrians perused stalls selling patriotic souvenirs – including flags and T-shirts mocking the failures of Russia’s invasion of this country, as well as toilet paper with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face on it – as a choir of senior citizens sang Ukrainian folk songs.
Thanks to the sense of security provided by the anti-aircraft systems, it was perhaps the closest Kyiv – which largely emptied out at the start of the Russian assault in February, 2022 – has felt to its pre-war normal, with much of the population seemingly now having returned to the city.
The surge in air attacks on Kyiv and other centres comes as both sides are bracing for a long anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive aimed at driving Russian forces out of the roughly 15 per cent of this country that they currently occupy. In its morning update, the Ukrainian General Staff reported 21 combat engagements with Russian troops in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a key adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told The Globe and Mail that the counteroffensive wouldn’t be a single event, but a series of them. “The counteroffensive involves dozens and hundreds of preparatory actions to shape the battlefield and prepare proper conditions for attack,” Mr. Podolyak said in an interview Saturday in the heavily fortified Presidential Administration building in central Kyiv. “What happened will be known clearly only post-facto, when the General Staff comes with a summary.”
While Ukraine’s allies in the West have now delivered the large majority of the equipment – including dozens of main battle tanks – that were promised to aid the counterattack, Mr. Podolyak said the next issue for Ukraine would be acquiring F-16 fighter planes to help defend the country’s skies. While Canada’s air force is largely made up of CF-18 fighters, rather than the more common F-16s that Ukraine is seeking, Mr. Podolyak said he hoped Ottawa would support the effort by helping train Ukrainian pilots and donating money for purchasing air-to-air missiles and aircraft components.
Several European countries have signalled they are willing to hand over some of their own F-16s to assist Ukraine in repelling the Russian invasion. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the promised donation of modern fighter jets “an unacceptable escalation.”
Russia – which accuses the NATO alliance of fighting a proxy war against its troops in Ukraine – announced last week that it was deploying nuclear weapons onto the territory of its ally Belarus for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Mr. Podolyak said the move was “a global
problem” that challenged the international security system. He called for Western sanctions against the nuclear industries of both Russia and Belarus.
Mark Mackinnon is the Senior International Correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a seven-time winner of the National Newspaper Award, Canada’s top reporting prize. Author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (Published 2007 by Random House Canada and Carroll & Graf) and The China Diaries e-book (2013).