KYIV, Ukraine—A unit of Ukrainian volunteers took aim as the drone passed through the fog at the end of last year, emitting its trademark growl. One member pulled the trigger of his modified Soviet-era heavy machine gun.
The drone—a Shahed-136 produced by Iran but launched by Russia—plummeted to the ground, the gun operator later recalled.
It was another success for a group playing a key role in a battle taking place far from the war’s front lines: protecting Ukraine from Russian drones and missiles targeting civilian infrastructure that keeps the country running.
Ukraine’s government says civilian and military units now intercept about 80% of Russian missiles and drones, denting Moscow’s campaign aimed at demoralizing the civilian population.
Having failed to gain air superiority in Ukraine early in the war, Russia has turned to missiles of various speeds and sizes to deprive entire cities of power. Ukraine’s own arsenal of Soviet-era arms and the air-defense systems it has received from the West, such as Stinger portable missiles, proved a match for Russia’s air force in the war’s early stages.
The U.S. has since provided midrange Nasams and Germany has sent the medium-range Iris-T as well as Gepard mobile antiaircraft guns.
But Russia’s use of cheap drones acquired from Iran is undermining those defenses. Deploying Iris-T surface-to-air missiles worth up to $500,000 against cheap Shahed-136 drones would quickly deplete Ukraine’s defenses against Russian warplanes and cruise missiles.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and Germany have pledged two Patriot surface-to-air systems capable of downing ballistic missiles, but the cost of using them—$4 million for a projectile—means the country can’t rely solely on them for protection.
Jet fighters also struggle against the drones, partly because the slowest speeds at which they can stably fly are more than double the speed of the drones, said Viktor Kevlyuk of the Center for Defense Strategies, a Ukrainian security think tank.
Ukrainian pilot Vadym Voroshilov won fame in October after intercepting five drones in one sortie over the city of Vinnytsia, but his plane caught fire after debris from one of the drones smashed into it forcing him to eject from the cockpit and parachute to land.
That is where the volunteer unit with its MacGyvered Soviet-era machine guns come in. They soldered pieces of metal to create gun turrets for the weapons and built separate sections to hold ammunition.
“We could shoot those drones down with the Patriot or with S-300s,” said Serhiy Sas, a retired constitutional judge who commands the volunteer unit. “But from a financial point of view, using small arms to destroy them is justified 100%.”
The foundation of Ukraine’s air defenses is built on Soviet-era weapons like the Buk, Tor M, and S-300 systems. But Western support is coming slowly, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to drones, cruise missiles and ballistic rockets.
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Ukraine can shoot down certain projectiles, such as Kalibr cruise missiles. But ballistic rockets such as Kinzhal or Iskander have a speed and trajectory that currently outmatch the arms at its disposal. When they arrive, the Patriots will fill that gap.
Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force, said Russia was firing simultaneously from multiple locations from the air, land and sea, seeking to scramble Ukrainian air defenses. Russian ground forces fire MLRS and S-300 rockets, while Tu-22 jet fighters and warships fire cruise missiles from the air and sea.
Since Russia began launching its barrages last autumn, videos have proliferated showing Ukrainian soldiers celebrating after intercepting cruise missiles and drones. During an October attack on Kyiv, a clip of three policemen firing at a Shahed drone with Kalashnikov rifles went viral.
A mobile unit of an antiaircraft missile regiment patrols in the Kyiv region of Ukraine.
Soviet-era weapons are the foundation of Ukraine’s air defenses.
Ukraine can shoot down certain projectiles, such as Kalibr cruise missiles. But ballistic rockets have a speed and trajectory that currently outmatch the arms at its disposal.
Volunteers scan for drones from the roofs of Kyiv’s high-rises.
Ukrainian mobile air-defense units constantly change position to track the likely path of Russian missiles, as Russia makes its own adjustments in response.
Air-defense teams like Mr. Sas’s have become heroes. His volunteer unit includes barbers, small-business owners and security guards, who keep their day jobs alongside their military duties. Once an air-raid siren sounds, they climb to the roofs of high-rise buildings or drive into fields to monitor the skies and try to shoot down drones.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the Russians. Ukrainian mobile air-defense units constantly change position to track the likely path of Russian missiles, as Russia makes its own adjustments in response.
“First we need to detect them and then we need to destroy them,” said Mr. Ihnat. “Meaning that we need to be in the right place at the right time, always aware.”
Major Artem Moskalenko, the commander of a battalion operating several air-defense batteries and mobile teams equipped with Stingers and British-made Stormer HVM antiaircraft systems, dispatches his troops to locations with a 360-degree view overhead when he receives reports that Russia has launched an attack.
“Every day we change our positions,” said Maj. Moskalenko. After each attack, they analyze where Russia sent its drones and rockets and adapt their positions in the future.
Ruslan Feschuk, a 32-year-old serving under Maj. Moskalenko, spent New Year’s Eve in a pickup truck with a DShKM Soviet heavy machine gun in the back, scanning the sky for Russian drones. “Our team celebrated by downing a Shahed just hours into the new year,” he said.
The teams have come a long way since Russia began deploying waves of cheap Iranian drones in October. At least six drones struck a military base near Kyiv that month, and less than two weeks later another batch killed four people in the capital.
The drones are designed to explode upon impact, and shooting them down doesn’t completely neutralize them, although it prevents them from striking their intended target. After Mr. Sas’s unit shot down the drone over Kyiv in late December, emergency services rushed to the scene of the explosion, but no one was injured in the blast.
As a reward for the successful hit, the Ukrainian armed forces gave Mr. Sas’s unit a Soviet NSV machine gun that is a more modern version of the Maksim gun they fielded. But even when advanced Western air defenses arrive in Ukraine, the 65-year-old says older weapons may remain the best available solution to Russia’s drones.
The cost in ammunition used by the volunteer unit to down the Shahed drone in December was dwarfed by the cost of the drone itself, Mr. Sas said.
And “when it’s shot by a fighter who doesn’t get paid for his work, then for the state budget it’s an even better bargain,” he added.
—Yevhenia Sivorka and Isabel Coles contributed to this article.
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