On Saturday night (May 20) young people gathered in crowded bars in the Ukrainian capital, sharing jokes, stories and drinks, like on any other Saturday. However, two things were out of the ordinary: a curfew was imposed because of the war, so people had to be home by midnight, and an air raid siren rang out over the city 40 minutes after midnight.
Since the beginning of May, Russia has intensified air attacks on Kyiv. Strike drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles have been sent toward the city, but most attacks have had very limited effect.
On Saturday night, war-torn Ukraine witnessed another of these futile attacks. According to the local authorities, as many as 20 Iranian-made Shahed-136/131 drones targeted Kyiv, and all of them were shot down by the air defense forces.
But it was not always so. In late December last year, drone strikes severely damaged Ukrainian infrastructure, leaving local populations without electricity, heating or gas during freezing weather. And in October, a drone strike hit the center of Kyiv, killing at least four people and damaging critical infrastructure.
“Cheap” but Useful
Since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the war has turned into a war of attrition, with both sides trying to grind down the other side’s ability to fight. This is where the Iranian-supplied Shahed drones enter the stage.
“They are pretty rudimentary compared to other drones. They are not as robust against electronic warfare and interference, and, clearly, they have a lot of vulnerabilities because the Ukrainians are shooting them down at will,” says Mick Ryan, a retired major-general from the Australian Army. He is the author of “Futura Doctrina” and a fellow with the Lowy Institute and adjunct fellow with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“They are at the lower end but they are cheap, which gives them utility. And the Russians are trying to impose costs on Ukraine and have them use half a million-dollar missiles to shoot down 20,000-dollar drones to exhaust expensive missile stocks,” says Ryan.
As a result, Ukraine needs increasing assistance from its Western backers, he adds.
“There has been a range of systems given to Ukraine to counter them including the German Gepard systems and different radars to pick them up. It is just a matter of keeping the Ukrainians with supplies to continue and continue providing similar assistance.”
Both sides use different kinds of drones extensively. The Shahed is designed to explode on impact, but there are also surveillance drones used by both sides and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying out missile strikes.
The most famous is arguably the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has been supplied to Ukrainian forces, but commercial drones are in use as well. The Ukrainian armed forces have released many videos showing such types of drones dropping grenades on Russian positions.
IranWire talked to a soldier fighting in eastern Ukraine who wished to remain anonymous. He said the Iranian strike drones are not making a huge impact on the frontlines.
“The thing is, they are slow until they start descent for impact. They’re so loud, like you hear them and can see them. They have a big footprint and stand out in the sky. They get downed by small arms quite regularly,” the soldier said.
“They sound like lawnmowers,” he added.
Because of their characteristic sound, Ukrainians have nicknamed the Iranian strike drones “mopeds.”
The Shahed drones have not been used on a large scale on the battlefield yet, according to Ryan.
“Ukrainians lose 100 drones a week, and the Russians probably lose just as many, so these systems are already in mass use, and the Ukrainians have drone units that hunt other drones, so there are a whole lot of measures now, making it harder for drone operators on both sides,” he says. “You certainly will be seeing more and more ground based autonomous systems and naval systems in the future.”
While the drones are not causing major concerns now, the threat of missile attacks remains and Ukraine needs more anti-air defense weapons.
On April 28 in the Ukrainian city of Uman, a missile strike hit a residential building and killed 23 people, including three children. It was the deadliest missile strike on civilians since a missile killed at least 40 people in the city of Dnipro in January.