The Kyiv sanctuary: Building the Ukrainian defence against Russian missiles

Ukraine, together with its Western allies, has created an effective air defence system against Russian missiles and drones in Kyiv. Now it is time to extend that system to the rest of the country

Handout undated photo of a Patriot missile battery in an undisclosed location. The United States is finalising plans to send its sophisticated Patriot air defence system to Ukraine following an urgent request from Kyiv, which wants more robust weapons to shoot down Russian missiles and drones that have devastated the country’s energy infrastructure and left millions without heating in the bitter cold of winter. Washington could announce a decision on the Patriot as soon as Thursday, according to US government officials. Photo by U.S. Army via ABACAPRESS.COM
Handout undated photo of a Patriot missile battery in an undisclosed location. The United States is finalising plans to send its sophisticated Patriot air defence system to Ukraine following an urgent
Image by picture alliance / abaca | ABACA
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The nights in Kyiv have become quite noisy recently. Residents often wake up to see Ukrainian air defence systems engaged in nerve-wracking duels with dozens of Russian drones and missiles. Last spring, the consequences of such attacks would have been devastating. But today, Western-supplied anti-missile systems provide Kyiv with a multi-layered defence that has made the city into a virtual missile sanctuary. Having demonstrated the possibility in Kyiv, Ukraine and its Western partners now need to grow that system to cover the rest of the country.

Teach a man to fish

At the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukraine called on its Western allies to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Extensive Russian bombing threatened to exhaust the Ukraine’s economy and destroy its critical infrastructure. Fearing escalation, however, Ukraine’s Western partners decided instead to expand the Ukrainian capacity to defend itself by using a combination of existing Ukrainian and newly provided Western air defence systems.

It took more than a year of war to see the impact of such assistance, but the outcome is probably better than the Ukrainian government had hoped. Ukraine now has an air defence system built with the best modern technology available. Recently, Ukraine’s Patriot air defence system managed to target Russian jets on a bombing run to fire missiles against Ukrainian targets. Russian aircraft now maintain a scrupulous distance from Ukrainian air defences.

In recent weeks, Ukraine’s air defences have demonstrated a significant performance increase compared to late 2022. Ukrainian air defences shot down 73 out of 90 Russian cruise missiles (81 per cent) in November 2022 and 60 out of 76 (79 per cent) in December 2022. By contrast, during the recent attack on 6 June, Ukrainian air defences put in a perfect performance, destroying all 35 cruise missiles launched from Russia.

A few days earlier, Ukrainian defences shot down all drones and missiles over Kyiv for three days in a row (on 24 May, 25 May, and 26 May). On 28 May, Russia launched the largest drone attack thus far on the capital, with around 40 Iranian-made Shahed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Once again, all the targets over the capital were shot down. The most notable success occurred on 16 May, when Ukraine destroyed all six Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles Russia fired at Kyiv. The Kremlin had previously called the Kinzhal “invulnerable” to anti-missile systems. Of course, governments have a long history of exaggerating the efficacy of missile defences. But even if we cannot be certain, the authors can personally confirm that all the explosions that night were in the sky, not on the ground. Moreover, if the air defence had missed any targets over Kyiv, civilians in the city certainly would have noticed the consequences.

One of the main reasons for such impressive performance is the intricate combination of modern air defence systems supplied to Ukraine by Western allies. Ukraine now has the capacity to destroy UAVs and cruise missiles at short range (using German Gepards or US Avengers), medium range (using the US-produced MIM-23 Hawk, the US-Norwegian NASAMS, and the German IRIS-T SLM), and long range (using the US Patriot PAC-3 or the French-Italian SAMP/T).

The Patriot PAC-3 and SAMP/T systems have also increased the anti-ballistic missile capabilities of Ukraine. Previously, Ukrainian forces could only shoot down Russian ballistic missiles with Soviet-made S-300 systems. But stocks of S-300 munitions are not easy to replenish because they are only manufactured by Russia and its allies.

Extending the sanctuary

Ukraine has demonstrated the ability to operate a modern, multi-layered anti-missile shield in which Russian missiles must overcome three air defence echelons

Ukraine has demonstrated the ability to operate a modern, multi-layered anti-missile shield in which Russian missiles must overcome three air defence echelons. But as of yet, only Kyiv has full-scale anti-missile coverage.

It remains a very challenging task to cover even just all the large cities of Ukraine with such a multi-layered anti-missile shield. Russia can still conduct successful missile strikes on cities beyond Kyiv, including in regions far from the border, such as Khmelnytsky and Ivano-Frankivsk. During the unsuccessful drone attack on Kyiv on 28 May, two UAVs still managed to hit their targets in the Zhytomyr region.

Ukraine needs to create Kyiv-style anti-missile shields over all important regional cities: 23 cities in total (not including the occupied regions of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk). These shields will be crucial for protecting Ukrainian critical infrastructure and military logistics for future counter-offensive operations.

Of course, creating 23 anti-missile shields will require a lot of time and many additional resources from Ukraine’s Western allies. With this requirement in mind, Germany and the United States have approved new aid packages for Ukraine that include a lot of air defence equipment. Western allies are also considering giving Ukraine F-16 fighter aircraft, which might significantly increase Ukrainian air defence capabilities. F-16s can be equipped with AIM-120 AMRAAM and IRIS-T air-to-air missiles, which can shoot down cruise missiles. 

Another crucial issue for the future of air denial zones is the uninterrupted supply of air defence munitions from Ukraine’s Western allies. Russia is trying to exhaust Ukrainian air defences through waves of missiles and drones. Ukraine must constantly replenish its munitions to maintain its ability to repel Russia’s missile attacks.

There is much left to do. But the Kyiv missile sanctuary shows just how effective the combination of Ukrainian ingenuity and Western technology can be. The blunting of Russia’s capacity to successfully attack Kyiv has humiliated Russia and strengthened Ukraine’s military capacity and morale. Extending the missile sanctuary to the rest of the country is no easy task, but it will enable future Ukrainian offensives and show the Russians that their illegal war cannot be won.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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