Civilians Under Air Attack in Ukraine Warned: “Overconfidence Is Your Weakness”

By Brian Dooley

In the early hours of this morning, Kyiv was hit by what a local official described as an “exceptional” number of Russian missiles.

For those of us sheltering in the capital city, it was a heavy night. We were first told to shelter around 2:30 am, and soon after could hear the blasts of the air defenses combatting incoming missiles. About an hour later we were given the All Clear and went back to bed, only to be sent back into the shelters ten minutes later for another hour.

This was the eighth air attack on Kyiv this month and one of the most intense of the war. The attacks were launched from the north, east, and south of the country.

Ukrainian officials said they shot down all 18 missiles fired at us last night, including six of Russia’s powerful hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, nine Kalibr missiles, three ballistic rockets, six attack drones, and three reconnaissance drones.

Things are intensifying here ahead of a long-anticipated Ukrainian spring counter-offensive.

The mood in the shelter during the night was one of familiar tension and boredom. People doze, react nervously to the sounds of explosions above, and look at their phone apps waiting for the message saying it’s safe to venture out.

Over the last 14 months, I’ve been in basement bomb shelters from the far west to the far east of Ukraine, in hotels, private homes, and random shops. Anywhere underground will do when the alarms go off — I’ve sheltered in metro stations, shopping malls, pizza cafes, car parks, and public buildings.

Some basements are kitted out with chairs, blankets, kettles, and tea and coffee. Some have a table with paper and pencils on which kids can draw. Official announcements say if you can’t immediately find a shelter during an air raid alarm you should go to where “at least two walls separate you from the potential shell impact zone,” — an inner room away from outside walls and windows.

But the almost constant interruption of sleep over many months tempts many to stay in bed and not to scurry to the basement every time an alarm sounds — which can be several times a night. It’s a long way down to safety if you live high in a multi-story block, especially if the electricity isn’t working and the elevators are out of action.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, is so close to the Russian border that warnings of an imminent air raid sometimes come after the bombs have already landed on the city. When the Kharkiv alarm sounded in the early hours of Sunday morning this week, I went to the basement at around 1am and stayed there until the All Clear sounded more than nine hours later. A large missile penetrated the city’s air defenses and struck during the night, the noise of its loud explosion booming through the shelter, waking whoever was asleep.

Locals see Ukraine’s air defenses as being very effective, which also leads some people to not bother sheltering.  “I lived in Kharkiv throughout the intense shelling last year and I just got used to it. I don’t run to the basement now, I usually stay in bed. You can’t live your whole life in a shelter,” said Anna Hontarenko.

Official announcements warn against complacency. A message from the Head of Kharkiv Regional Military Administration Oleg Sinegubov sent via Telegram on Sunday morning urged the public “not to ignore the alarm signals and stay in the shelters!”

Another message broadcast in Ukrainian and English over the public address system in my Kharkiv hotel warned “Attention… Air Raid Alert… Proceed To The Nearest Shelter… Don’t Be Careless… Overconfidence Is Your Weakness.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on May 16, 2023


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