Russian Missile Barrage Staggers Ukraine’s Air Defenses

KYIV, Ukraine — A swarm of drones and a volley of cruise missiles rocked towns and cities across Ukraine on Thursday, the biggest assault in weeks and the latest in a wave of ever more sophisticated aerial duels pitting Russia’s evolving tactics against Ukraine’s growing arsenal of air defense weapons.

At dawn in Kyiv, the capital, puffy contrails from missiles or air defense weapons lingered in the sky and fragments from successful intercepts rained down on a playground and on private homes.

Russia, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, had been “saving one of the most massive missile attacks since the beginning of the full-scale invasion for the last days of the year.” Ukraine’s air defenses were at times overwhelmed.

Iranian-made exploding drones, which Russia began acquiring last summer, were launched in a first wave, apparently to bog down air defenses before the cruise missile strikes, the Ukrainian air force said. It said its defense forces had shot down 54 of 69 cruise missiles and had also knocked out drones.

The attack appeared likely to prompt new calls from Ukrainian officials for more Western air-defense systems, given that the growing arsenal of advanced weapons sent by Kyiv’s allies has failed to stop Moscow’s debilitating attacks on energy infrastructure.

Valya Kravchun, 16, surveying the damage in his neighborhood in Kyiv on Thursday. Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

After the strikes, Russia’s Defense Ministry released a picture on its official channel on Telegram, the social messaging app, showing a Kalibr cruise missile and a message: “Kalibrs will never run out.”

The White House condemned the strikes as part of Russia’s “barbaric war” and pledged to continue to help Ukraine defend itself.

The new wave of strikes frustrated anew the work of crews trying to repair Ukraine’s power grid and raised the prospect that many Ukrainians would be without power for the New Year holidays.

For three months, Russia has launched volleys of cruise missiles and drones at Ukraine’s energy grid, in what military analysts say is a strategy of plunging the country into cold and darkness to lower morale.

The latest bombardment killed two people and wounded four others, including a 14-year-old girl hit by falling debris, the authorities said.

Air-defense weapons shot down four of six cruise missiles near the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, but the two that got through hit power plants, knocking out 90 percent of the city’s electricity, the mayor, Andriy Sadovoi, said in an interview.

“Putin uses the scenario of demoralizing the Ukrainian people,” Mr. Sadovoi said.

But Lviv will hold out, he said. Diesel generators switched on in hospitals so operations could continue, he said, and the city is well stocked with firewood for emergency heating shelters.

Amid the barrage, two provinces — Dnipropetrovsk, in central Ukraine, and Odesa in the south — pre-emptively switched off electricity to limit damage in case the grid short-circuited in a strike, a utility company said in a statement. In Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the strikes had left 40 percent of the capital without electricity.

A home in Kyiv damaged in a Russian strike on Thursday. Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Amid the mayhem in the sky, as missiles and drones streaked in and Ukraine fired air defense missiles in response, a Ukrainian S-300 interceptor missile flew into Belarus and was shot down by that country’s military, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said. There was no immediate information about casualties and no indication that Belarus, a close Russian ally, would treat the incident as anything other than a mishap. In November, an errant Ukrainian air-defense missile landed in Poland, killing two people and briefly raising fears that the conflict might expand.

In Ukraine, the attack began with air-raid sirens sounding at about 5:30 a.m. The Ukrainian military’s southern command said two Russian ships in the Black Sea had shown signs that they were preparing to launch missiles, setting off the alarms.

As the sun rose, reports of strikes came in from cities around the country, and seven or eight explosions rang out in Kyiv. One rattled windows and set off car alarms in the city center.

Leonid Fatkulin, 79, was still in bed on the first floor of his two-story brick home in an outlying district when the missiles struck. “I was going to get up and shave when the explosion shook the house,” he said.

A natural gas pipeline caught fire.

“It’s not a war,” Mr. Fatkulin said, standing beside the remains of his house, a coat thrown over his bathrobe. “It’s a crime against humanity.”

Leonid Fatkulin, 79, outside his damaged home near Kyiv on Thursday. Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

In Kyiv, Mayor Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging app that Ukrainian air defenses had shot down 16 missiles over the city but that falling debris had wounded three people, including the teenage girl.

The Ukrainian general staff headquarters said in a statement that Russia had launched 13 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones at energy infrastructure in Kharkiv, and that air defense systems had shot down all but two. Another five Shahed drones were shot down around the city of Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, the military said.

The cruise missiles followed, striking after Ukraine’s air defense forces had been firing at the drones. The Russian military launched the missiles from several directions, firing from airplanes and ships at sea, the air force statement said.

But Ukraine is now able to fight back with a growing and increasingly sophisticated arsenal of air defense weapons.

The Pentagon has delivered the first two of eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, which are equipped with radar-guided missiles capable of hitting drones and cruise missiles. Germany supplied the first of four ultramodern Iris-T systems, which are so new that they had never been used on the battlefield, while France and the Netherlands also pledged additional air-defense missiles.

Visiting Washington last week, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was offered a battery of Patriot missiles, the United States’ most advanced ground-based missile defense system. But it is likely to be several months before Ukrainian crews are trained and it is deployed.

Some residents of Kyiv were determined to try to maintain as normal a life as possible.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Ukraine’s air defense capability has been one of the surprise successes of the war, as improved coordination between early-warning systems and the ground-based units responsible for shooting down rockets has helped Kyiv’s forces stop a large percentage of Russian strikes.

But Russia’s barrages are often so overwhelming — about 75 missiles are launched in a typical barrage, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency has said — that plenty still get through. And Russia appears to have more weapons in its stockpile, due in part to the growing supply of exploding drones from Iran.

And even successful shoot-downs pose risks as the twisted, silvery metallic debris rains down on cities.

On Thursday, two fragments landed in a playground in the Pechersk neighborhood of Kyiv.

“It was a first for us that it was so close,” said Galina Khomina, a graphic designer who was pushing her 3-year-old daughter, Nastya, on a swing set in the playground a few hours after the strikes. She said she couldn’t stay home in fear, despite the near miss.

“We hope it will end soon,” Ms. Khomina said. “We are used to it, and we are not afraid. Life goes on. You only have one life.”

Reporting was contributed by Oleksandr Chubko, Carly Olson, Shashank Bengali, Ivan Nechepurenko and Eric Schmitt.

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