Russia launched a huge drone attack at Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, before dawn on Saturday, sending wave after wave of crewless aircraft packed with explosives toward a city that is home to around three million people.
The Ukrainian Air Force said that the attack had featured “a record number” of one-way attack drones, an estimated 75 in total, most of them directed at Kyiv. Its air defense teams managed to shoot down nearly all of them, preventing mass casualties, officials said.
Still, at least five people were injured in Saturday’s attack, including an 11-year-old child, city officials said, and dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed by falling debris.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called the bombardment “deliberate terror.”
“The Russian leadership is proud of its ability to kill,” he said on Saturday, noting that the attack had coincided with a day on which Ukrainians pay tribute to the millions killed in the Holodomor, a famine orchestrated by Stalin.
Early Saturday, searchlights swept the predawn skies over Kyiv as air defense teams hunted for drones approaching the city from all directions. The first alarms sounded shortly after 2:30 a.m., and the rattle of antiaircraft guns and powerful explosions echoed for hours, the noisiest night that Kyiv has endured in months. The distant glow of fires was visible from the city center.
At 7:15 a.m., the Ukrainian Air Force warned that another wave of drones was approaching. With the sun up, they could be seen flying through the sky and exploding in bursts of orange. An “all clear” signal was issued shortly before 9 a.m., more than six hours after the first alarm sounded.
Although it has been months since the capital was targeted with such ferocity, memories of the attacks last winter remain vivid.
“Well, it’s not the first time,” Natalia Babych, 54, a Kyiv resident whose apartment windows were blown out when a drone crashed into a courtyard outside, said in an interview at the scene.
Emergency workers arrived quickly at the site and set up a tent with tea and coffee. Other volunteers handed out plastic to cover empty window frames, providing some immediate protection against the biting cold.
Ms. Babych joined her neighbors in sweeping up glass and debris as a team of forensic experts searched for remains of the drone in a crater less than 100 yards from her apartment.
“It could have been worse,” she said. “Thank God we’re alive.”
Less than a mile from Ms. Babych’s apartment, debris from another drone had crashed through the roof of a kindergarten. Andriy, 32, who lives nearby, had sought safety in a corridor of his apartment as the battle in the sky raged.
“My wife and I decided, following the ‘two walls’ rule,” to seek shelter in a corridor inside their apartment, he said. But before they got there, a powerful blast shook their home.
“The apartment lit up like a bonfire, and there was a smell of burning,” he said, relaying that he had then looked out his shattered windows to see the kindergarten on fire. Fortunately, he said, no children were there in the early morning hours.
The Ukrainian Air Force said it had shot down or disabled 74 of an estimated 75 drones, most of which targeted Kyiv. The war’s previously largest drone assault directed at the capital, in May, involved about half as many drones.
Russia has been increasing the number of drone strikes across Ukraine in recent weeks as it probes Ukrainian air defense systems, and Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow is testing a variety of new methods to evade detection. A single missile was also shot down over the Dnipro region on Saturday, the air force said.
“The enemy uses electronic warfare, jammers, to mislead air defense and make us respond to targets that do not actually exist,” Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said this month.
Russia is also using methods like unarmed drones that do not pose a serious threat but still require Ukrainian attention.
The most commonly used drones in long-range attacks on targets across Ukraine are the Iranian-made Shaheds, which are designed to dive into their targets and detonate on contact. They can travel more than 600 miles and carry payloads of 80 to 120 pounds, according to Ukrainian intelligence.
Russia has been working to modify and upgrade the Iranian-made drones, according to Western and Ukrainian officials. It is also increasing its domestic production of drones based on the Iranian design, aiming to be able to produce 6,000 by the summer of 2025, according to Western officials.
Ukrainian officials have been bracing for an increase in Russian attacks on infrastructure this winter as they expect the Kremlin to again try to plunge the nation into cold and darkness, deepening the humanitarian crisis.
The attack on Saturday appeared to mainly consist of drones, Ukrainian officials said. But they cautioned that Russia had previously used a combination of drones and missiles in complex assaults aimed at evading and overwhelming air defenses. Ukrainian intelligence officials estimate that the Kremlin has stockpiled more than 900 long-range ballistic and cruise missiles over the past few months.
And while Ukraine has greater defense capacity than it did a year ago, Russia’s military might remains formidable. “The Ukrainian sky shield is already more powerful compared to last year,” Mr. Zelensky said. But it “does not yet fully protect the entire territory.”
Saturday was a solemn day of remembrance for Ukraine as people across the country and around the world honored the millions who died in the Holodomor, which means “death by hunger” in Ukrainian.
For many in Ukraine, Russia’s war carries echoes of the policies of Soviet leaders a century ago, when Stalin orchestrated a famine intended to bend Ukraine to his will.
“They tried to exterminate us, to subjugate us, to torture us,” Mr. Zelensky said at a ceremony Saturday morning. “They failed.”
Daria Mitiuk contributed reporting.