VASILKIV, Ukraine — Reports of resistance in the small garrison town of Vasylkiv have already assumed the luster of legend. There are reports of downed Russian transport planes, paratroopers being chased in the woods, and even an unidentified Ukrainian pilot nicknamed the Ghost of Kyiv defending the skies.
Exaggerations aside, the residents of this quiet provincial town with tree-lined streets and low-rise buildings from the Russian Empire managed to repel Russian troops and prevent Russian forces from seizing strategic bases in the critical early days of the war, having allowed the capital of the Landes, Kyiv, is circled.
Vasylkiv — home to a flight school that has trained generations of pilots, a counter-terrorism task force, and an air defense command center protecting the capital and central Ukraine — became one of the prime targets of a Russian attack in the early hours and days of the 20th century war . Cruise missiles slammed into the airbase, and then Russian airborne troops attacked in a series of ground attacks.
They didn’t prevail. Accounts from residents, government officials, military personnel and civilians who have recruited Territorial Defense Forces describe how Ukraine repelled the Russian attack and helped thwart Russia’s broader goals of seizing control of the country.
An air base on the outskirts of Vasylkiv was among the first targets to be hit in the opening salvos of the war at 5 a.m. on the morning of February 24. The strikes damaged buildings, equipment and air defense systems.
Russian airborne troops were dropped in nearby villages and began an attack, local officials and officers said. The Russian soldiers attacked during an air raid and used this to their advantage as Ukrainian troops took cover in bomb shelters.
“After the airstrikes, they tried to test the perimeter,” said an Air Force officer involved in fighting at one of several military installations in the area, speaking on the condition that he be tested only by his rank — a major — and his Military codes could be identified Name, KR@M. “They tried to sneak in and they succeeded.”
For security reasons, the officer did not specify exactly where the fighting took place, except in the Kyiv region.
The Russian attackers were most likely dropped by helicopter into villages far from their target and advanced on foot, he and other officials said. They attacked two different military targets, and for four days Ukrainian forces repelled multiple attacks. Eventually, he said, the Russians managed to get into some terrain, but retreated after suffering casualties.
Officials said some of the Russian attackers were already in the city and had been living in dormitories for months. The city’s mayor, Natalia Balasynovych, said some even bought apartments in a new housing complex and took cover with their families.
The Ukrainian military claimed at the time that one of its fighter jets shot down a Russian transport plane that same night. There were also media reports that two military cargo planes en route to Vasylkiv were intercepted and shot down by Ukrainian air defenses.
But the debris from downed planes has proven elusive. Members of the Territorial Defense Units, many of them ex-military volunteers and local hunters, said they combed the forests and surrounding countryside but found no plane wreckage.
But the skies over Ukraine were packed with Russian helicopters during the first nights of the war, said Yuriy Ignat, a public relations officer at the Ukraine Air Force Command. “We don’t think they came in big planes, but there were many saboteur groups in many places.”
By the fourth night of the war, the Russian attackers had regrouped and were better organized, said Air Force officer KR@M, a member of the rapid response unit involved in the battle.
He said the Russians were armed with assault rifles, silencers and night vision goggles that enabled them to attack in the dark.
“At 4 a.m. when the fighting started, our guard was shot silently in the head in complete darkness,” he said.
When the Russians entered the premises, a fierce firefight broke out, he said. The Ukrainians quickly lost six dead and two wounded. But with precise fire and thrown grenades, he said, they managed to kill five of the attackers and wound a sixth, forcing the remaining Russians to retreat.
“We’re lucky they didn’t know how to throw grenades properly,” KR@M said of the Russians. “If they managed to throw grenades, that would be very sad,” suggesting the Ukrainians may have been overrun.
The Russians seemed to have had reinforcements, for there were signs that they were dragging their dead and wounded with them. “We saw the bloodstains but found no bodies,” KR@M said. They even recovered their shell casings, he said.
He said he was the only Ukrainian with thermal night vision goggles and was able to shoot three of the attackers. He mourned for his lost comrades, whom he said did not have the same benefit. “The hardest thing, as always, is losing your friends,” he said.
The attackers left a mark on the territory’s asphalt suggesting they were members of Alpha, Russia’s elite special forces, he said. He showed on his phone a photo of a chalked sign on the asphalt with the symbols “A” for Alpha and a “Z”, the letter used by the main Russian combat group fighting in Ukraine. The sign is two meters wide, he said, possibly intended to be visible from the air.
After this battle on February 26, the Ukrainians spotted reconnaissance squads around their bases, but the Russians made no further attacks. Then, about a week ago, they disappeared altogether.
Efforts were made within the bases to repair and reactivate some of Vasylkiv’s air defenses damaged in the first night.
The airstrikes were “very painful but not deadly,” said Konstantin, an air defense soldier who spoke on condition that only his first name be released, without mentioning his rank.
Buildings and equipment were damaged, but they managed to save a working system within days, Konstantin said. “If we have two destroyed cars, we can build one,” he said.
Nonetheless, Ukraine’s air defense equipment dates from the 1970s and 1980s and is far less sophisticated than the systems used by the Russians, he said. A single missile would appear on Ukrainian radar, but when they shot it down they would have found a second missile behind it that would hit the target.
Vasylkiv has been the target of repeated rocket and rocket attacks in the weeks since, as has the capital Kyiv, and Ukraine’s defenses have struggled to intercept them all, he said.
“It was like a heavy strike wave,” said Konstantin. “Our defenses couldn’t take them all down at once.”
In a long thread of messages On its Twitter account, the Ukrainian Air Force Command appealed to allies to supply Ukraine with Western aircraft and air defense systems, or at least the former Warsaw Pact countries to hand over old Soviet systems to Ukraine.
“To date, our allies have not responded to our call for air defense support (fighter jets and SAM),” it said. “We have not been given the tools we need to defend our skies and achieve victory.”
“It is important to say that with modern equipment we could stop all air strikes,” Konstantin said.