Tales of the resistance in the small garrison town of Vasylkiv have already taken on the air of legend. There are reports of Russian transport planes being shot down, paratroopers being chased into the woods, and even an unknown Ukrainian pilot nicknamed the Phantom of kyiv defending the skies.
Hyperbole aside, the residents of this quiet provincial town of tree-lined streets and low-rise buildings dating back to the Russian Empire managed to fight off Russian troops in the critical early days of the war, preventing forces Russians to capture strategic bases that could have allowed the national capital, kyiv, to be surrounded.
Vasylkiv, home to an aviation school that has trained generations of pilots, an anti-terror task force and an air defense command center that protects the capital and central Ukraine, became one of the first targets of a Russian attack in the early hours and days of the war. Cruise missiles slammed into the airbase, then Russian airborne forces attacked in a series of ground assaults.
They did not prevail. Accounts of residents, government officials, members of the armed forces and civilians who enlisted territorial defense units described how Ukraine repelled the Russian onslaught and helped prevent Russia’s broader objectives from take control of the country.
An airbase was among the first targets hit at 5 a.m. on February 24 in the first salvoes of the war. The strikes damaged buildings, equipment and air defense systems.
Russian airborne troops dropped into nearby villages and launched an assault, local officials and officers said. Russian soldiers attacked in an air raid, using it to their advantage as Ukrainian troops hid in bomb shelters.
“After the airstrikes, they tried to test the perimeter,” said an air force officer involved in the fighting, speaking on condition that he be identified only by his rank – a major – and his military code name, [email protected] “They tried to sneak inside and they succeeded.”
For security reasons, the officer did not specify exactly where the fighting was taking place, except to say the kyiv region.
During the fourth night of the war, the Russian attackers had regrouped and were better organized, said Air Force officer [email protected], a member of the rapid reaction unit involved in the the battle.
He said the Russians were equipped with assault rifles, silencers and night vision goggles, allowing them to attack in the dark.
“At 4 a.m. when the fighting started, our guard was shot silently, in the head, in total darkness,” he said.
A fierce firefight broke out when the Russians entered the compound, he said. The Ukrainians quickly lost six men killed, two of them wounded. But with accurate 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,” [email protected] said of the Russians. “If they had managed to throw grenades, it would be very sad,” suggesting the Ukrainians might have been overwhelmed.
The Russians seemed to have retreated, as there were signs that they were dragging their dead and wounded with them. “We saw the bloodstains but found no bodies,” [email protected] said. They even recovered their casings, he said.
He said he was the only Ukrainian with thermal imaging night vision and was able to shoot three of the attackers. He mourned his lost comrades, who he felt did not have the same advantage. “The hardest thing, as always, is losing your friends,” he said.
After this February 26 battle, the Ukrainians spotted scouts scouting around the perimeter of their bases, but the Russians made no further attacks. Then, about a week ago, they completely disappeared.