On a rooftop in Kyiv, shortly after midnight, volunteer soldiers gather around a twin Maxim machine gun. The weapon dates from the Second World War, but now it’s used to deal with a modern threat: the armed, flying drones Russia is using to sow chaos in parts of Ukraine that, like Kyiv, are well behind the front lines of the fighting in the east.
Dogs barking in the distance and the soldiers’ chatter are the only sounds on this quiet night. An overnight curfew in Kyiv has silenced all of the busy streets below, but this unit knows the calm can be shattered in seconds.
The volunteers guard the sky day and night, even though lately the Ukrainian army’s air defences have kept Russian attacks mostly at bay. “There is no guarantee, 100 per cent, that it won’t happen,” says Oleksandr, a 51-year-old former lawyer who is now a company commander for the unit.
The Globe is identifying members of the unit by their first names only, for security reasons.
This group is part of the Voluntary Formation of the Territorial Community, a volunteer division of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense that was formed after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. The Kyiv unit, with about 400 members, is called “Mriya,” which means “dream.” (The name comes from the Antonov An-225 Mriya, a Ukrainian-built cargo plane, one of the largest in the world, which was a symbol of national pride before it was destroyed in the fighting in February, 2022.)
The drones that threaten Kyiv are largely Iranian-made Shahed drones, also known as “kamikaze” drones because they are destroyed when their explosive payloads detonate. On one night last month, Russia targeted Kyiv and the surrounding region with 33 of the flying devices. Ukraine’s air force has said the country’s military destroyed 26 of them. Russia, in turn, has said that its air defences have shot down Ukrainian drones over its territory.
Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force, told the country’s national media that officials are expecting a significant increase in Russian drone attacks against Ukraine this winter. He said about 1,000 Shahed drones were used in six months last winter.
On this night, there are six men on the rooftop, including a hairdresser, a cook and a real-estate agent. Some men in the unit have previous military experience. There are also two women who volunteer with the group, though they aren’t present at the moment: one who joined with her boyfriend, and another who joined on her own.
The men are excited because they just got their hands on a new weapon to accompany the Maxim: an automatic machine gun developed in the former Czechoslovakia. They also have automatic Kalashnikovs. They have shot down two drones since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, both in December, 2022.
As volunteers, the men don’t receive salaries and aren’t considered to be performing military service. About 220 Mriya members have left to join the military.
Oleksandr leads the way into a small, warm room on the rooftop where members of the unit can rest when the skies are quiet. There’s tea and coffee, a sofa that can fit two people, a single mattress on a wooden frame and some other soft cushions. The number of people on duty changes with the level of danger. There are usually more of them on the rooftop at night than during the day.
The men on tonight’s shift began at 9 p.m. and will remain until 9 a.m. In the early hours, only one person needs to be fully alert at a time. If anyone learns that drones are on the way, they wake the others and everyone heads to combat positions on the roof.
From the time a drone alarm is raised, the unit may have only a few minutes to prepare. There are many residential buildings nearby, so the volunteers are limited in where they can fire. If a drone passes by, they could have only seconds to shoot it down.
Two of the unit’s members, David, a 25-year-old hairdresser, and Vyacheslav, a 45-year-old real-estate manager, demonstrate the process of shooting down a drone.
One person uses a thermal scope, which helps them spot the heat from a drone’s engine. That person points a green laser at the drone to make it stand out against the sky while a machine gun operator fires.
If the drone attack is an especially large one, the unit might also use its automatic Kalashnikovs.
Standing outside in the cool air, the men reflect on what it’s like doing this work together.
“It’s kind of romantic. Moon, stars and a bunch of machine guns,” David jokes.
But later, Oleksandr uses the same description. “It’s romantic,” he says.
The group’s morale depends on how they spend their time, he explains. “I even allow people to go to the roof in boxers to sunbathe,” he says. “Humour improves the conditions for people here, and we try to make a friendly atmosphere.”
Around 1:45 a.m., Oleksandr boils water for instant coffee and tea and considers another perk of the job.
“The views are great. You can see how the drones fly and how air defence destroys them. It’s unforgettable,” he says.” You can see how rockets are being destroyed. It’s beautiful.”
Around three in the morning, Oleksandr and Vyacheslav shake hands and say goodbye to their comrades. They’re off to another rooftop to check on colleagues before their shift is up.
With reports from Reuters and Kateryna Hatsenko.