VASYLKIV, Ukraine — The records of the resistance in the small garrison town of Vasylkiv have already taken on the glow of legend. There are reports of downed Russian transport planes, hunted paratroopers in the woods and even an unknown Ukrainian pilot, nicknamed the Ghost of Kiev, defending the skies.
Hyperbole aside, the people of this quiet provincial town of tree-lined streets and low-rise buildings dating back to the Russian Empire managed to fend off Russian forces in the critical opening days of the war, preventing Russian forces from capturing strategic bases. that could have allowed the country’s capital, Kiev, to be surrounded.
Vasylkiv — home to an aviation school that has trained generations of pilots, a counter-terrorism task force and an air defense command center protecting the capital and central Ukraine — became one of the first targets of a Russian attack in the early hours and days of the war. Cruise missiles hit the air base and then Russian airborne troops attacked in a series of ground attacks.
They have not been victorious. Reports from residents, government officials, armed forces personnel and civilians who engaged territorial defense units describe how Ukraine repulsed the Russian attack and helped thwart Russia’s broader objectives of seizing control of the country.
An air base on the outskirts of Vasylkiv was one of the first targets hit at 5 a.m. on the morning of February 24, in the opening salvos of the war. The strikes damaged buildings, equipment and air defense systems.
Russian airborne troops were dropped in nearby villages and launched an attack, local officials and officers said. The Russian soldiers attacked in an air raid and used it to their advantage as Ukrainian troops took cover in air raid shelters.
“After the airstrikes, they tried to test the perimeter,” said an Air Force officer involved in fighting at one of several military installations in the area, on the condition that he would only be identified by his rank – a major – and his military code. name, [email protected] “They tried to sneak in and they succeeded.”
For security reasons, the officer did not specify exactly where the fighting took place, except in the Kiev region.
The Russian attackers were most likely dropped by helicopter in villages away from their target and continued on foot, he and other officials said. They attacked two separate military targets and Ukrainian troops repelled several attacks for four days. At one point, he said, the Russians managed to enter one compound, but retreated after taking casualties.
Officials said some of the Russian attackers were already in the city, living as sleeper cells for months. The city’s mayor, Natalia Balasynovych, said some had even bought apartments in a new residential complex and moved in with their families for cover.
The Ukrainian army claimed at the time that one of its fighter jets had shot down a Russian transport plane that same night. There were also media reports that two military cargo planes bound for Vasylkiv had been intercepted and shot down by Ukrainian air defense forces.
But the wreckage of downed planes has proved elusive. Members of the territorial defense units, many of them ex-military volunteers and local fighters, said they searched the forests and surrounding countryside but found no wreckage from aircraft.
But Ukraine’s skies were full of Russian helicopters during the early nights of the war, said Yuriy Ignat, a public relations officer with Ukraine’s Air Force Command. “We don’t think they came with big planes, but there were a lot of saboteur groups in a lot of places.”
By the fourth night of the war, the Russian attackers had regrouped and were better organized, said the Air Force officer, [email protected], a member of the rapid response unit involved in the battle.
He said the Russians were equipped with assault rifles, silencers and night vision goggles, which allowed them to attack in the dark.
“At 4 a.m., when the fighting started, our guard was shot silently, in the head, in complete darkness,” he said.
A fierce firefight broke out when the Russians entered the compound, he said. The Ukrainians quickly lost six dead and two wounded. But with accurate fire and throwing grenades, he managed to kill five of the attackers and wound a sixth, forcing the remaining Russians to retreat.
“We’re lucky they didn’t know how to throw grenades,” [email protected] said of the Russians. “If they had managed to throw grenades, that would have been very sad,” suggesting the Ukrainians could be overrun.
The Russians appeared to have been backed up as there were signs they were carrying their dead and wounded with them. “We saw the bloodstains, but found no bodies,” said [email protected] They even recovered their shell casings, he said.
He said he was the only Ukrainian with thermal imaging night vision and was able to shoot three of the attackers. He mourned his lost comrades, who he said did not have the same advantage. “The hardest thing, as always, is losing your friends,” he said.
The attackers had left a sign on the tarmac of the area indicating they were members of Alpha, Russia’s elite special forces unit, he said. He showed a photo on his mobile phone of a chalked sign on the asphalt with the symbols “A” for Alpha and a “Z”, the letter used by the main Russian battle group fighting in Ukraine. The sign was six feet wide, he said, possibly intended to be visible from the air.
After that battle on February 26, the Ukrainians saw scouts conducting reconnaissance around the perimeter of their bases, but the Russians made no further attacks. Then, about a week ago, they completely disappeared.
Inside the bases they were repairing and reactivating some of Vasylkiv’s air defenses that had been damaged the first night.
The airstrikes were “extremely painful, but not fatal,” said Konstantin, an air defense soldier who spoke on the condition that only his first name be published, with no mention of his rank.
Buildings and equipment were damaged, but they managed to save a working system within days, Konstantin said. “If we have two destroyed cars, we can build one,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s air defense equipment dates back to the 1970s and 1980s and was much less sophisticated than the systems used by the Russians, he said. A single missile would show up on Ukrainian radar, but when they shot it down, he said, they discovered a second missile behind it that would hit the target.
Vasylkiv was repeatedly the target of rocket attacks and rocket attacks in the weeks that followed, as did the capital, Kiev and Ukraine’s defenses to intercept them all, he said.
“It was like a heavy wave of strikes,” Konstantin said. “Our defense couldn’t take them all down at once.”
He added: “It is important to say that with modern equipment we can stop all air strikes.”