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How Ukrainian air defense fends off Russian attacks

Oleksandra Indyukhova
June 15, 2023

Portable air defense systems are an important part of Ukraine's defensive plan. Fighters from a mobile task force told DW how they protect the airspace over the Kyiv area.

Soldier in camouflage holding military equipment on a military vehicle
Kyiv, May 2023Image: Oleksandra Indyukhova/DW

A few fishermen sat alongside a reservoir in the greater Kyiv area as families nearby on folding chairs enjoyed the sunny weather when a black and green Humvee military vehicle with a mounted Stinger anti-aircraft system suddenly pulled up. The people quickly packed their belongings and checked their mobile phones for a missile warning they might have overlooked.

Two soldiers got out of the vehicle and reassured the people, saying it was only a mobile air defense unit exercise. Oleksandr, the commander, made it clear, however, that in the event of an air attack, everyone should leave the area immediately.

"It is life-threatening to be out in the open near a body of water because from time to time, Russian missiles and Iranian Shahed drones fly along here, which we intercept," the 36-year-old told DW. The other soldier, 39-year-old Ivan, walked the area fully armed, looking closely at everything on the water, on the opposite shore and in the surrounding area.

'Good eyesight and ingenuity'

Ukrainian air defense forces have occasionally shot down targets from the side of the reservoir using a Dual Mount Stinger portable air defense system that can intercept missiles, planes and helicopters from a distance of five kilometers and at an altitude of up to three kilometers. The two men recreate a real combat situation they have practiced many times: They quickly pull boxes with missiles from the vehicle, open them and put the projectiles into the launcher. Oleksandr jumps onto the roof of the vehicle and inspects the airspace, spinning on a special seat.

"I can fire two missiles in five seconds," he said. The radar signals a target in the air before he sees it, transmits coordinates and tells him where to aim. "Once I see the target, I get the 'fire' signal."

Mobile air defense system, two soldiers wearting camouflage on and  beside a military truck, workjng on something
Oleksandr and Ivan train often to be ready to intercept Russian air attacksImage: Oleksandra Indyukhova/DW

With the exception of the Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile, Oleksandr said he could get pretty much anything out of the sky. Careful not to give too much detail, he said the air defense job takes "good eyesight and ingenuity." The system might see a cloud above a drone as a target, in which case he has to think on his feet to actually get to the drone.

In recent weeks, most of the Russian missile attacks on Kyiv and the region occurred at night. Those were tense situations, Oleksandr and Ivan said, as it is much more difficult to detect targets, and there were far too many of them. According to Ivan, the Russian army aims to diminish the Ukrainian air defense stocks and weaken fighting morale. But they won't succeed, he said.

"We have enough missiles and we have learned not to sleep at night," Ivan said.

Not everyone can stand the strain, said Oleksandr — not even soldiers.

"I'm now used to staying awake for eight hours at night," he said, adding he can fall asleep for a few hours in the afternoon because he knows the night might hold more attacks.

'I am responsible for many lives'

Oleksandr struggled for words when asked about his feelings when he failed to shoot down a target. He said it is very difficult to note that a drone or missile has hit an apartment building, a kindergarten, a school or a hospital.

"I realize then that I failed to save lives. I am responsible for many lives," he said, adding that's why soldiers train constantly. For every enemy target they shoot down, they paint a trident, Ukraine's national emblem, on their vehicle. Their Humvee sports 12 tridents.

Drawings by children and a poster taped to the inside of a vehicle
The soldiers say they are defending their country and their familiesImage: Oleksandra Indyukhova/DW

The Ukrainian Army's Air Defense Command had never informed the media about the work of the mobile squads. Only now, after more than a year of war, has Oleksandr been allowed to talk about his experience. In the first months of the war, he shot down two Su-25 aircraft and two K-52 helicopters in the Kyiv region, he said, adding that helicopters are particularly difficult to hit because they deflect missiles with a laser.

"They said you can't shoot them down. But anything is possible if you try. I kept changing my position, came under artillery fire, but finally succeeded," he recalled. He said he also intercepted a total of eight drones elsewhere in the Kyiv region and in Kharkiv.

Relief thanks to IRIS-T and Patriot system

According to estimates by the Armed Forces Command of Ukraine, Ukrainian air defenses are now successfully repelling larger missile attacks on the Kyiv area. Success depends on the mobile man-portable air defense systems, which are difficult to locate and can be rapidly assembled and disassembled. Oleksandr and Ivan said it was a relief when Ukraine received the powerful IRIS-T and Patriot missile defense systems from their partners.

Green vehicle marked with 12 tridents, next to a soldier whoc has covered the lower half of his face
The soldiers paint a trident on their vehicle for each of the enemy targets they shoot downImage: Oleksandra Indyukhova/DW

Oleksandr, who was a professional soldier before the war, already knew how to use the Dual Mount Stinger. Lithuania provided the portable air defense system to Ukraine and he took a crash course. His orders were to protect the airspace over Ukraine.

"I went to war to protect Ukraine, my family — my wife and child, whom I didn't see for eight months."

Ivan was trained during the war and said he was motivated to serve in air defense because, before the Russian invasion, he worked in disaster response, saving people's lives. He, too, said he is defending his country and his family.

The two men did not reveal how many other mobile air defense units protect the Kyiv area. Everyone would know if there were too few, they argued. They also promised to speak in more detail about their experiences after the war — the success as well as the losses.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.

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