Intel

Russia Missile and Drone Strike Blitz Hits Ukraine on New Year’s

January 3, 2023Nolan Peterson
drone patrol.jpeg

A Ukrainian mobile air defense unit on the lookout for Russian missile and drone strikes. Photo courtesy Ukrainian Ministry of Defense via Twitter.

KYIV, Ukraine — The sharp treble blast smacked the eardrums. The boom’s bass note instantly followed, rattling windows, shaking walls, setting off car alarms. Scared birds took flight. Pedestrians outside sprinted for safety.

About an hour earlier, at 12:49 p.m., Kyiv’s first New Year’s Eve air raid alert had sounded. In the minutes that followed, Ukrainians — in Kyiv and across the country — remained glued to their smartphones, tracking reports on Telegram channels about a wave of inbound Russian cruise missiles, many of which converged on Kyiv. When the explosions began, the intellectual expectation of those approaching missiles transformed into concrete, life-or-death dangers.

Ukrainian air defenses intercepted seven Russian missiles over Kyiv that afternoon. The aerial explosions were visible in the city center, leaving little doubt about the need to seek immediate shelter — even among the most hardened civilians who have now endured nearly a year of Russian bombardments.

In the historic Lypky neighborhood, the explosions sent residents of an apartment block racing into an underground bomb shelter. Out of breath, they descended into the spartan, Soviet-era basement and stepped over the blast door’s threshold. They sat and immediately took out their smartphones to get the latest information and to tell friends and family they were safe. Some had trouble typing text messages, their hands trembled so much.

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Inside a Kyiv bomb shelter on Dec. 31, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Rather than panic, these civilians exhibited excited energy. Almost everyone laughed like they were sharing a joke. Amped up from the adrenaline, they understood they’d survived something serious and wanted to talk about it, laugh about it, whatever — they just had to share it. Like a group therapy session, each person spoke up and recounted what he or she was doing when that big blast boomed nearby.

A gray-haired man named Volodymyr sat beside his wife and said, “This is insane.”

“This is insane,” he said again.

On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 31, one Russian missile impacted a hotel in Kyiv's city center, destroying the building’s front face. A missile impacted the campus of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, while another hit a neighborhood, killing one person. A 46-year-old man wounded in the attack later died from his injuries, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced on Monday.

Kyiv's air raid alert lifted at 4:03 p.m. Hours later, a crowd gathered at Sophia Square in central Kyiv. Typically, a towering and extravagantly illuminated Christmas tree stands in the square during the winter holiday season. In ordinary times, crowds gather here to celebrate New Year’s Eve with live music and dancing and eating and drinking and a jubilant countdown to midnight. This year, a simple Christmas tree stood in Sophia Square. It was illuminated in blue and yellow lights and adorned with a Ukrainian trident on top. Generator-powered spotlights lit up the nearby domes and tower of St. Sophia Cathedral — an inspiring sight considering the new normal of nighttime blackouts that civilians in Kyiv and across Ukraine have gotten used to as Russian missiles and drones continue to attack the nation’s power grid.

The New Year’s festivities in Sophia Square were drastically understated this year. Yet, the crowd’s presence sent a message more powerful than any illuminated display, and louder than any rock concert or midnight countdown. Just a few hours earlier, Russian cruise missiles had exploded overhead and caused death and destruction on the ground. Even so, hundreds of civilians came out to celebrate, unbowed and with unbroken hope in victory and a better year ahead.

“I will say one thing, our lives will never be the same as before,” Lucy Rudenok, a 33-year-old marketing specialist from the Kyiv area, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

“This war changed everyone a lot. I know for sure that Ukraine will win; the question is at what price. And light, internet, heat in the house — these are all little things. The main thing is that we must survive.”

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A crowd gathers on Kyiv's Sophia Square to celebrate New Year's Eve on Dec. 31, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Kyiv’s nightly curfew begins at 11 p.m., and there was no exception for New Year’s Eve. Across the capital city, families and friends gathered in apartments to mark the final moments of 2022.

Thirty-five minutes after midnight, the air raid sirens wailed again in Kyiv. Minutes later, more explosions. Russia had launched another barrage of Iranian-made, Shahed-136 exploding drones at targets across Ukraine, including Kyiv. The booms were loud, sharp, and unrelenting. Normally, the percussions of air defense intercepts arrive intermittently. On this night they kept going and going. The bigger blasts left you wondering whether it was an air defense hit or if one of those Russian drones had gotten through and hit its target.

Back in the Lypky neighborhood, a group of young people trundled into their building’s bomb shelter. They’d been celebrating the holiday in an apartment a few stories overhead. The attack spurred them to seek safety, but it wasn’t enough to destroy their celebratory mood. The group stood in the stairway of the bomb shelter and passed around a tequila bottle while the sounds of explosions thundered outside.

Preceding tequila shots they toasted, “To victory!” and “Fuck Russia!”

Among the group was a 30-year-old woman named Aliona. “This is our crazy new reality,” she said. “Russia wants to ruin our lives, but we won’t let them.”

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An impromptu New Year's party in a Kyiv bomb shelter during a Russian drone attack on Jan. 1, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

The air raid alert did not lift until 4:51 a.m. — more than four hours after it first sounded. Ukrainian air defenses downed 45 Iranian-made drones Russia launched against Ukraine that night — a number that included all 32 drones that were targeted against Kyiv, the Kyiv City Military Administration reported.

No serious damage was done in the capital city, and the next day life appeared, at least superficially, to go on as normal. Outwardly, it seemed like many Ukrainians had already acclimated to these extraordinary attacks. Yet, there’s no real way to measure the long-term impacts of living with the risk of random death by a Russian missile or drone for so long. Or, what it does to a child’s psyche to hear, over and again, those loud explosions and to race down to the bomb shelter while holding a parent’s hand.

“It seems that it will no longer be possible to live according to the old rules, to live in the usual rhythm, as before. It will not work, remembering the great price of victory, which my country is paying now,” Volodymyr Kohut, a paramedic from Odesa, told Coffee or Die.

“After victory, it will be necessary to rebuild not only the parts of the country destroyed by war, but also the exhausted human souls. We will gradually learn to live with a sense of stability and confidence in the future. I believe in the victory of the Ukrainian people and the coming of the long-awaited peace.”

Russia’s strategic air attacks have hardened Ukrainians' resolve to resist, rather than weaken it. A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology from Dec. 4 to 27 found that 85% of Ukrainians are unwilling to make territorial concessions to Russia to end the war. That share is slightly up from the 82% of Ukrainians who were against territorial concessions in May, underscoring an increase in national resolve after Russia’s recent strikes. Even so, Russia continues to test Ukraine's national morale.

The air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv once again at 11:38 p.m. on Sunday night. Telegram channels reported drone sightings creeping closer and closer to Kyiv — then the explosions began. That night, Olga Terefeyava’s son crawled into bed with her. Terefeyava, an interior designer who lives in Kyiv, said she couldn’t help tearing up when her son told her, “Better to die with you than without you.”

Russia launched 40 drones at Kyiv on Sunday night into Monday, Klitschko reported Monday in a Telegram post. Ukrainian air defenses downed all 40 of those drones — of that number, 22 were shot down over the city itself, Klitschko said. Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile units, fighter jets, and mobile air defense units (comprising truck-borne weapons) all contributed to the anti-drone operation, according to Ukraine’s air force.

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A Ukrainian mobile air defense unit on the lookout for Russian missile and drone strikes. Photo courtesy Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

During the Jan. 1-2 nighttime attack, the sounds of explosions and the thunder of anti-aircraft cannons roared through Kyiv for hours. One drone reportedly damaged a critical infrastructure site, city officials reported, creating an emergency blackout in some city quarters. In other places, the lights briefly flickered but never went out.

Inside the Lypky neighborhood bomb shelter, the familiar habits of the bomb shelter routine repeated themselves. A young couple sat holding hands until the woman got too tired to sit upright and laid her head in her companion’s lap and went to sleep. A 5-year-old girl played a video game on her parent’s smartphone for a while until she curled next to her mother on a camping cot and drifted to sleep.

The night dragged on and so did the sounds of Russia’s aerial assault. At 3:47 a.m., after a four-hour-long air raid alert, the all-clear signal finally arrived. Tired civilians trudged upstairs; they were exhausted, drained, and still on edge. No one spoke as they exited the bomb shelter doors and flipped on their smartphone lights to cross a pitch-black, outdoor courtyard.

Hours later, the sun dawned on Monday. Across Kyiv, life resumed its usual rhythms. The malls and supermarkets were open. People strolled the parks and down Khreshchatyk, the city’s main avenue. People went to gyms and barbershops and doctor's appointments and sat in coffee shops and dined in restaurants. The motions of ordinary life once again filled the gap between bouts of Russian bombardments.

“It is impossible to be ready for war,” said Kohut, the paramedic.

“At such a moment, a shock transformation of consciousness takes place, and the safety of one's self, and close ones, and those around you becomes key. Feelings gradually freeze, plans are erased, and you begin to appreciate every moment — a moment between the sound of sirens, a moment between explosions, a moment of peace.”

Read Next: Ukrainians Prepare for a Solemn Wartime New Year’s Eve

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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