A protest sign outside Iran's embassy in Kyiv on Oct. 17, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
KYIV, Ukraine — About half an hour after the 5:55 a.m. air raid alert, you woke to the sounds of gunfire and air defenses. You went to the window and opened it and let in the frigid air. Outside, the snow-covered sidewalks and tree branches showed white against the pre-dawn darkness. You strained your ears during a quiet interval and wondered if they’d deceived you until you heard the firing again and there was no mistaking it for anything else. Then the sounds of several explosions barged in, one much louder than the others. A police officer standing at a checkpoint on the street below sharply turned his head in the direction of the arriving sound waves.
You closed the window and got dressed and grabbed a power bank and your iPhone and slipped on your shoes and descended downstairs and, in the dark, crossed a snow-covered courtyard to your building’s bomb shelter entrance. You went in, and several stories underground you encountered dozens of other people. A few quietly said, “Good morning,” as you took your seat on a bench along a wall in the spare, Soviet-era fallout shelter.
The chilly air inside smelled musty. Peeling paint covered the walls. It's an unpleasant place to spend an early morning. Yet, after months of Russian missile and drone attacks, the building’s residents have improved the shelter to make it more livable. They’ve set up Wi-Fi, cots, and camping chairs and placed blankets on top of all the metal benches. Someone even brought down a beanbag chair. There's a crude toilet, too, but no one ever uses it. Usually, if you really have to go, you just chance it and go back topside to your apartment.
A gray-haired woman named Nina entered the shelter and plopped down on a bench with an exasperated exhalation. "I'm so tired of this torture," she said.
"We will never forgive Russia," she added. "Never."
Inside a bomb shelter in central Kyiv during a Russian attack using Iranian-made exploding drones. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
The bomb shelter routine has become the new normal of life in Ukraine's capital city, and across the country, as Russia continues its campaign of missile and drone strikes against civilian infrastructure. Moscow claims its strikes are exclusively aimed at military targets and the power grid, but residential buildings are often hit. Yes, the chances of a wayward Russian missile or drone hitting your particular building are absurdly unlikely, but low-probability events happen all the time. How many times have we seen stories of people who died at home from missile or drone attacks? Surely, they, too, felt as confident in the odds as we do.
On this morning, a 5-year-old girl watched cartoons on her mother’s smartphone. The girl’s father, Anton, sat beside her, his eyes glued to his phone as he scrolled through Telegram channels and called out updates about the Iranian-made, Shahed-136 drones that Russia launched against Kyiv on this Wednesday morning.
"Those bastards," Anton said. He clinched his jaw and shook his head. "They just want to kill civilians."
A protest sign outside the Iranian embassy in Kyiv in October 2022, following a deadly Russian attack with Iranian-made drones. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
The news trickled in. Ukrainian officials reported that Russia had launched 13 of the exploding drones at Kyiv. Ukrainian air defenses shot down all 13. Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv's military administration, said debris from a destroyed drone struck two administrative buildings in Kyiv’s central Shevchevenskyi district. Bits of downed drones also damaged at least four homes in the surrounding Kyiv area.
“People were not injured,” Popko said.
Russia has fired about 400 of the Iranian drones against Ukraine since mid-September, underscoring an ongoing aerial war of attrition, which pits Ukraine’s air defenses against Russia’s arsenal of missiles and exploding drones.
Yurii Ihnat, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force, said Russia is now launching drone attacks in darkness to make it harder for Ukrainian ground units to destroy them with small arms and machine guns. At night, Ukrainian air defense units must rely on radar, as well as their limited air defense missile stocks, to down waves of relatively inexpensive Iranian drones.
CNN reported on Tuesday that Washington is in the final stages of approving deliveries of Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine. The move would backfill Ukraine’s ability to down Russian missiles, freeing up other, less advanced systems to maintain the shield against exploding drone attacks.
"Patriots are being sent to defend Ukrainian cities from Russian missile strikes on civilian infrastructure. They don't provide Kyiv with the capability of conducting strikes deep into Russian territory. The status quo is dangerous for Ukrainian civilians and this move will help," Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Russia’s armed forces, tweeted on Wednesday.
From ground level in Kyiv and other cities across Ukraine, it doesn’t matter whether the explosion you hear is from a missile or a drone. They both can kill you. Yet, despite this constant background din of danger, the morale of Ukrainian civilians remains hardened and unlikely to waver.
Despite nearly 10 months of full-scale warfare, and more than two months into Russia’s countrywide missile and drone strike campaign, Ukrainians remain resolutely committed to victory. A popular refrain among Ukrainians is that they'd rather live without power and heating than live with Russia.
A November poll by the Ukrainian think tank Rating found that some 85% of Ukrainians support liberating all Ukrainian territory currently under Russian occupation, including Crimea and the eastern Donbas region. That attitude is uniform across Ukraine, with at least 80% of respondents in every region supporting the complete liberation of occupied land.
The ways in which this society-wide spirit of resistance reveals itself are not outwardly extraordinary. Rather, many Ukrainians maintain a quiet determination to go about their normal routines, which loudly underscores their common commitment to victory.
Down in the bomb shelter, Anton looked at his watch and said, "I hope this ends soon. I need to get to work."
The minutes passed. And then the hours. The Telegram channels upon which we relied for information reported another wave of inbound exploding drones. Yes, you wanted to go back upstairs and into your apartment. A fresh cup of coffee and a soft couch sounded tempting. But why not wait a little longer?
You resolved to wait until 7:30 a.m. — 7:30 a.m. came and went without the air raid ending. You decided to wait until 8 a.m. The air raid alert didn’t end by then, either.
Despite Russia's attacks, life goes on in Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv in December 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
The rational part of your brain told you there was nothing to worry about. You’ve stood atop tall buildings in Kyiv before and scanned the outstretched, urban skyline and felt comfort in the statistical improbability of your random death by a Russian missile or drone. Yet, after hearing the nearby explosions, after seeing with your own eyes the destruction of past strikes, it just doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. And each time you disregard an air raid alert, and it happens often, there is this little part of you that wonders whether that decision decided your fate.
That thought isn’t enough to really scare you or alter your habits. Yet, it is always there. Like tinnitus to your thoughts, which you never silence. Living in Kyiv these days, it’s easy to forget how absurd it is to weigh potentially lethal consequences each time you go to the supermarket or to the gym or to meet friends at a café. That’s the wartime reality for millions of Ukrainians. Even so, life goes on. People adapt to the danger.
At 9:07 a.m., the all-clear signal sounded on our smartphones. Without delay, everyone rose and filed up the stairs. It was dark when we entered the shelter; now a sunny Wednesday morning awaited us. We stepped into the daylight and went onward to work or school. We resumed our lives, knowing that soon enough, we’d be back in the bomb shelter again.