May 31, 2023 - 7:00am


On Sunday evening, Ukrainian defence forces faced a massive onslaught as Russia launched 59 drones towards Kyiv in what has been described as the largest such assault since the beginning of the war. Ukrainian defence systems intercepted all but one of the inbound drones, with none landing in Kyiv, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

After 17 attacks recorded in May alone, the past 72 hours have seen a particularly explosive continuation of the raids. Ukraine’s Air Force reported the interception of the majority of air-launched cruise missiles and kamikaze drones sent by Russian forces during Monday morning’s raid, which saw the city’s metro system flooded with civilians seeking shelter from both direct impacts and the falling debris of intercepted weapons. 

In what has become a standard part of daily life, residents once again took to the underground on Tuesday morning. During yesterday’s raid, Ukrainian officials reported that 29 out of 31 drones launched over Ukraine were shot down, another testament to the efficacy of the country’s interception systems. One Kiev resident died due to falling debris from an intercepted Russian projectile, with at least four others injured.

“Our apartment isn’t very high up, but none of us can sleep through the noise,” one couple tells me as they comfort their young daughter. She has brought a stuffed animal down with her. “Night after night after night,” a man remarks to me in broken English. “Will they never run out of things for us to shoot? When will it be done?”

Ukrainians take cover in a Kyiv metro station. Credit: Sam Forster

William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, sees these air raids as a crude and desperate strategy by Russia, aimed at introducing chaos into Ukrainian life rather than pinpointing specific offensive military assets. 

“The Russians are hoping to discombobulate or discourage Ukrainians in their counteroffensives,” he tells me, adding that the strikes have lessened in precision throughout the course of the war. “The beginning of the attacks on civilian targets focused more on energy infrastructure, which was a bit more strategic, though the Ukrainians learned to repair that infrastructure fairly quickly.”

According to Courtney, the shambolic attempts to land strikes on Kyiv might also reflect the Kremlin’s desire to force Ukraine’s long-awaited push along the southern and eastern fronts before it is fully ready. “The Russians may be hoping that these strikes will cause the Ukrainians to launch a counteroffensive prematurely or erratically, thereby lessening its impact.”

There has previously been speculation that this element of Russia’s aggressive military posture may be geared towards capitalising on the economic asymmetry between launching air raids and defending against them. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, kamikaze drones can cost as little as $20,000 to produce, whereas the cost of firing a surface-to-air missile can range from $140,000 for a Soviet-era S-300 to many multiples of that for more advanced Western systems like the NASAMS and Patriot systems.

As Courtney observes, however, the Ukrainians have adopted an economical approach in order to reserve these more advanced defence systems for Russian missiles like the hypersonic Kinzhal. “Ukraine is not wasting Patriots against drones,” he notes. “The Ukrainians have learned to use anti-aircraft machine guns, and the kill [interception] ratios are so high that the Russians are accomplishing very little by launching these attacks.”

Despite Ukraine’s relatively successful interception record, the violent air raids above the capital show no sign of relenting in the near future. And in light of an unprecedented drone attack launched on Moscow on Tuesday morning — an incident that Ukraine has denied involvement in and that Russia has described as a “terrorist attack” —  there is reason to believe that retaliatory strikes could be facing Kyivans for weeks to come.

Sam Forster is a freelance journalist who has lived in Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Dallas, New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires, where he worked as a reporter for the Buenos Aires Times.