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KYIV — Inna Kozich, a communications specialist from Kyiv, still cries when she remembers the first weeks of last year’s Russian siege of the Ukrainian capital.
“At one moment my kids and I slept in a corridor for three weeks. I was going to bed, not sure if we all wake up the next day,” Kozich remembers.
But the air defenses now protecting the capital make her feel safer in Kyiv than anywhere else in Ukraine — so much so that she’s afraid of venturing beyond the city.
“I was even afraid to take my kids for a summer vacation because I knew other regions unfortunately do not have as strong air defense as we now do. And I feel so much pain for Ukrainians from other regions, who are still forced to live under daily Russian bombardment,” Kozich said.
When the full-scale Russian invasion launched on February 24, 2022, a desperate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for the West to close Ukraine’s skies to Russian aviation and missiles. That didn’t happen, but Ukraine’s allies have steadily sent some of their best air defense systems to help protect the country’s cities, and especially Kyiv.
When the war broke out, Kyiv relied on Soviet-era S-300 and Buk M1 medium-range anti-missile systems — a problem as replacement missiles are largely made by Russia.
Those defenses have now been beefed up by short-range Gepard systems from Germany and Avenger Short-Range Air Defense from the U.S. to knock down drones and cruise missiles. At medium range, Ukraine is using MIM-23 Hawks from the U.S. made by Raytheon; NASAMS, developed by Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg; and Germany’s IRIS-T SLM. Long-range defenses are provided by the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 and the Eurosam SAMP/T supplied by France and Italy.
Ukrainian air defense troops have shown they are capable of integrating modern systems with Soviet ones, Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, told POLITICO.
“We continue to expect support from allies and partners. We need more air defense. Diverse. And not only for the capital but also for every Ukrainian city. Each anti-aircraft missile complex is worth its weight in gold,” Popko said.
“We were waiting for those Patriots like manna from heaven,” Kozich said. “It was such a relief.”
Soon, people from other regions, where air defense is not as strong, started moving to Kyiv and the surrounding region, even though it is still frequently attacked. This weekend Russia sent waves of drones against Kyiv, most of which were shot down.
“Your accuracy, guys, is literally life for Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in a weekend public address. “As winter approaches, there will be more Russian attempts to make the strikes more powerful. It is crucial for all of us in Ukraine to be one hundred percent effective.”
Ukraine’s cities have become lifeboats for people fleeing Russian attacks. Kyiv and the surrounding region now host almost 600,000 displaced people from other parts of Ukraine, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration estimated in September. Other large cities are also seeing influxes of internal refugees, with about half a million now sheltering each in the Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv regions.
“The first active phase of internal migration began immediately after the liberation of the Kyiv region. People from cities where active hostilities were taking place were coming at that time. Then, when Patriot arrived, people from Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia began to actively move and look for housing in Kyiv, explaining this by the fact that Kyiv is protected and fewer missiles are flying here than in their cities,” said Oleksandr Zhytiuk, a local realtor.
“Ukrainians from abroad also started to return after this May, when Russians were shelling us almost daily, proving the effectiveness of air defense. Today people believe it is calmer in Kyiv,” he added.
That’s led to a jump in local real estate prices from a collapse in the early months of the war.
Before the full-scale invasion, about 3.9 million people lived in the Ukrainian capital. By the spring of 2022, however, 1.9 million had fled, said Denys Sudilkovsky, brand and business director of LUN, an online real estate platform. Most are now back.
“Back then it was not uncommon to find offers to rent apartments in Kyiv for the cost of utilities,” Sudilkovsky said.
Rental prices had almost returned to pre-invasion levels by the fall of 2022, according to LUN data.
“The return of people slowed down when Russians started shelling energy infrastructure. However, the winter of 2022-2023 showed Kyiv is capable of protecting its skies with modern Western air defense systems, and already from the spring of 2023, we began to observe a further increase in demand for long-term rental housing in Kyiv,” Sudilkovsky said.
Still a war zone
But the capital isn’t entirely safe — as this weekend’s attacks showed. Air raid sirens still howl almost daily, and Ukrainian officials urge people to remain cautious, Popko said.
“With the additional air defense systems, the level of protection of the capital from air attacks has become better. But I never get tired of repeating that the best defense is to go to the shelter during an air alert. Bitter experience proves that even shot-down missiles carry a deadly threat due to numerous debris,” he said.
While people in Kyiv do feel safer, those in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions are still suffering from daily bombardments. Russians are hitting Odesa and its strategic port, as well as the regions of Kherson, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia.
“I still remember the sound I heard when our Patriot shot down the first [Russian hypersonic] Kinzhal missile this summer. After that I know whatever Russians shoot at us, our air defense will shoot it down. However, other cities still cannot allow the luxury of feeling like I do,” Kozich said, adding she is still afraid to leave the city to go to her country house.
The Ukrainian government has been urging its allies to provide more air defenses to cover other cities.
“The more protected the Ukrainian skies, Ukrainian cities, and villages are, the more opportunities our people will have for economic activity, for production, among other things, [for] defense industries, ” Zelenskyy said in a video statement.
The Ukraine president also said Kyiv wants to co-produce weapons with its partners, and expects its allies to send more air defense systems by the end of the year to fend off Russia’s anticipated winter attacks on energy infrastructure.
“Russians are insidious, and intimidation of civilians with missile terror is one of their strategies. They will never give up shelling civilians and infrastructure. Therefore, we must be sure we have something to protect our people,” Kozich said.