Ukraine hails new war hero after anti-aircraft unit downs missile with machine gun

A Ukrainian soldier – protecting a power station that supplies Kyiv – used the limited means at his disposal to shoot down one of the Kremlin’s devastating projectiles

Russian offensive in Ukraine
Members of the 96th anti-aircraft missile brigade display part of the Russian rocket taken down by small arms fire from the makeshift position on the right.Luis de Vega

Nearly 10 months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, people are in need of heroes to keep their morale up. After the “Ghost of Kyiv” captured the public imagination early in the war, another one has recently emerged.

At a military checkpoint on a road that leads to the outskirts of Kyiv, a 25-year-old man in uniform is the center of attention. Nicknamed “Kipish” – a Ukrainian moniker that means “restless” – he proudly poses for the camera alongside his fellow soldiers. In his hand, he holds one of the fins of a Russian missile that he claims to have shot down with a submachine gun.

On the morning of Friday, December 16, Russian forces launched 76 missiles at Kyiv and the surrounding area – one of the fiercest bombardments that the invaders have yet deployed. According to Ukrainian authorities, 60 of these projectiles were shot down.

It was after 9am when the first missile was heard, says Evgeni, 50, the section commander. When the sirens sounded, the unit set up defensive positions. However, apart from their guns, they had no armored vehicles or heavy weapons. A single machine gun was the best tool available – it was set up on a rectangular wooden board, supported by some barrels. A very makeshift position, which makes the rest of the story even more surprising.

Kipish – whose real name is not being disclosed for security reasons – was born in Kyiv. His only military experience has taken place over the past 10 months. Following the invasion, he enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces and was deployed to the outskirts of the capital.

He felt a sense of calm when his superiors gave him the order to pull the machine gun’s trigger, when a second missile was soaring overhead.

“I started shooting with tracer bullets… after two seconds, it fell,” he acknowledged after the incident. When asked if he felt anything, he answers with one word: “Fear.” He thought that, given the short distance between the gun and the missile, he was going to be hit by the explosion. But he got away without a scratch. “We are alive,” he said.

 On the right, Vira, 39, stands alongside the remains of the missile that was shot down on the outskirts of Kyiv on Friday, December 16.
On the right, Vira, 39, stands alongside the remains of the missile that was shot down on the outskirts of Kyiv on Friday, December 16.Luis de Vega

A couple of hours later, a bomb squad swarmed around the remains of the missile, which was split in two, lying in some bushes in a snowy field, just a few hundred feet away from the local power plant. A 39-year-old soldier named Vira – which means “faith” in Ukrainian – recounted how she squatted next to the wreckage, trying to read the numbering that had been deliberately erased from the fuselage, to make it more difficult to trace the missile’s origin.

Despite the proximity of the plant, the mist and sleet were so thick that you could barely see the smoke. Kipish and his fellow troops are on duty at a checkpoint located next to the populous neighborhood of Troieshchina, on the left bank of the frozen Dnieper River. Everything points to the fact that the missile’s target was the power plant.

But is it really possible to shoot down a cruise missile with a machine gun? The soldiers don’t pretend that this was anything other than a miracle. In fact, they feel a certain obligation to accompany their story with evidence. They guide reporters to the exact point where the remnants of the missile fell.

“This is a one-in-a-million event,” says Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana, a Spanish analyst specializing in military affairs. But when he sees the photographs of the downed missile – left practically intact – he does not consider the feat to be unreasonable. He explains that the impact of a 7.62-millimeter round can leave “a hole the size of a finger.” It is not, therefore, necessary to cause major damage – a little bit can do the trick. In addition, he adds, these particular missiles “fly low and are relatively slow. It’s possible to hit them with a machine gun… if you’re lucky.”

After the attacks on Friday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that Russian forces “still have enough missiles for several such heavy strikes. We have enough determination and self-belief to return our own after these blows.” He went on to congratulate his soldiers, especially “the fighters of the 96th anti-aircraft missile brigade, which protect Kyiv region.”

Kipish does not consider himself to be special. “My family gives me the strength to fight,” he said, referring to his mother, brothers and sisters. He also has a girlfriend – although he admits that he hasn’t been able to tell her anything yet.

“The best reward will be that all of this ends,” he sighs. Evgeni, the commander, emphasizes that his solder – who is a skillful shooter – is, even if he will not admit it, “a hero.”

The units protecting the power plant admit that they have more morale than they have weapons and ammunition. Most joined the battle against Russia with little previous military experience. This is the case of Basil, 22, originally from Avdiivka, in the eastern region of Donetsk. There, he played for a local youth soccer team, Shakhtar, before settling in Kyiv to work as a laborer. Next to him stands an army veteran, although before the invasion he hadn’t seen military service for many years and was working as a train driver.

Gera – one of the unit’s senior members – appreciates all the help that his country is receiving from overseas. He assures the press that they never switch off, because the danger is ever-present. Proof of this, he says, is that the bombing on Friday morning did not catch them off-guard. But he stresses, over and over again, that Ukrainian forces need more weapons: machine guns like the one that Kipish fired are not enough. “Weapons... and tobacco,” he adds with a smile.

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