For some it was a rude awakening. Those arriving into Kyiv’s busy central station on Monday morning suddenly found themselves in the middle of an unexpected and unwanted drone war; hammered by the sounds of panicked last-ditch gunfire from the ground that failed to stop five terrifying explosions in two hours.
It was the second Monday in a row the centre of Kyiv had been targeted, and the first time the capital had been hit by Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones. The Russians had been aiming for a power plant a block from the station, but instead hit buildings and people elsewhere. Five died, including a pregnant woman, when a civilian apartment building was hit.
By Thursday, Russian strikes against power stations elsewhere around Ukraine had prompted warnings of daily power cuts. People were told to reduce the use of non-essential appliances, many street lights were turned off; air raid sirens, previously ignored, prompted people to shelter indoors. In Kyiv, the home front is back.
“If beforehand we thought that we will be able to handle winter, and it will be just like a little bit cold and dark right now, we know that it will be very cold and very dark,” said Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian MP and the leader of the liberal Golos party, speaking from a home powered by a generator in the district where the drones struck.
After the Russians retreated at the end of March, Kyiv enjoyed a relatively peaceful spring and summer, last targeted by Russian missiles in June in relatively isolated attacks. But now, on two successive Mondays, the capital has been bombarded, first with missiles and then the crash-landing Shahed drones, and the mood has shifted just as the weather turned cold and wet.
That is not to say the defiance of Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression has altered. The city remains busy, even if many shops and restaurants were closed on Monday after the drones hit. Three branches of McDonald’s reopened in Kyiv last month, and a couple of dozen people were queuing for a fast-food fix on Thursday lunchtime.
“Of course I’m worried, but you can’t be tense all the time,” Irina, 27, said as she waited in line, pointing out that any troubles she faced were modest compared with those of her boyfriend, who is serving in the army. “I believe in the army right now, I believe we can win,” she added, in a familiar patriotic refrain.
People talk of making preparations, although because power cuts and cold weather have yet to fully bite, there is an air of unreality to the situation for some.
Valeria, 30, waiting to buy some fries, said: “I haven’t done anything, but I have friends who have been buying candles. People with houses are looking for generators.” Then she reasons: “Yes, we are scared, but we are more scared to be occupied by the Russians.”
There is still, however, a greater nervousness, even an occasional checking of the sky for possible drones. A calmer Tuesday was followed by a more edgy Wednesday, when several cruise missiles were shot down in the Kyiv district. People in the street, without a mobile phone to hand, asked whether the all-clear signal had been given on the widely used Kyiv digital app.
Elsewhere, though, and particularly in political circles, there is frustration and anger. Over the past six weeks, Ukraine has taken the initiative on the battlefield, pushing the Russians back, first in the north, then the south of the country. But coal and oil power stations, the principal targets of the Russian strikes, appear unsecured and vulnerable.
Some blame the west. Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to the interior minister, said: “Because our allies didn’t provide us with air defence systems on time, we found ourselves in the situation where we could potentially lose our energy system within weeks It may sound alarmist, but feelings are running high after Ukraine admitted losing 30% of its generating capacity in 11 days as a result of about 300 Russian attacks.
Geraschenko wants the west to provide more air defence systems, and fast, complaining that the US “does not want to discuss supplying us with Patriot [missile defence] systems”; that the eight Nasams air defence batteries promised by the US will only cover Kyiv; and that the UK has not supplied anything similar (although it has offered missiles for the Nasams) even though “Russia is not going to attack England”.
The attacks on power networks in Kyiv and elsewhere at this time of year were predictable, Geraschenko said, arguing that the Kremlin’s use of the attack on the Crimean bridge a fortnight ago was simply a pretext. “That was just the official reason. These attacks on energy objects in Ukraine have been prepared for a long time ahead,” he said, adding to a sense of frustration about the events of the last fortnight.
Rudik, an opposition politician, echoes the complaints, contrasting the mood of the summer with now: “Before, it was scary but still comfortable because the weather was not that bad, and plus you have electricity, internet, you have water. So you had the basic things to support yourself and just to feel OK.” Now, she says, the drone attacks have made the city centre more dangerous than the first phase of the war.
Like so many Ukrainians, she stresses that they have learned resilience from the Soviet, and particularly the early post-Soviet, era. “We’ve had all of that: water supplies for two hours a day, electricity for five hours a day, and it’s unpleasant but it’s still not killing you, right?” But she believes that the prospective energy crisis could have been dealt with better: “The west is always reactive.”