KYIV, Ukraine — A hail of shrapnel from kamikaze drones ripped through the tent where off-duty Ukrainian border guards were sleeping near a crossing with Belarus, three hours north of Ukraine’s capital.
Viktor Derevyanko woke to scalding pain, his body burning. Blood spilled from his hand as he tried to wipe his face. A piece of metal had traveled through his arm and stomach and into the muscle around his heart.
“I couldn’t get my bearings,” said Derevyanko, the deputy head of the unit. “Only on the third explosion did I manage to fall out of bed and try to find at least someplace to hide, because the explosions weren’t ending.”
It was around 4:15 a.m. on Feb. 24.
Hours earlier, Derevyanko and the other Ukrainian guards had been joking dismissively about President Biden yet again warning of a Russian invasion. Now they were its first target.
Within minutes, Russian missiles began soaring out of their launchers. They pounded Ukrainian air defenses, radar batteries, ammunition depots, airfields and bases, filling the early morning with the sounds of war.
At almost the same time, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky woke to the ringing of his cellphone. In recent days, he had experienced a rush of relief every time he opened his eyes to the morning light, realizing that the arrival of a new day meant Russia hadn’t invaded. This time, it was still dark. Ukraine’s border guard chief was on the line and told him that his units were battling Russians across three of the country’s northeastern regions.
This wasn’t the limited invasion, isolated to the country’s east, that many top Ukrainian officials had been expecting.
Monastyrsky hung up and dialed President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“It has started,” Monastyrsky told the Ukrainian leader.
“What exactly?” Zelensky asked.
“Judging by the fact that there are attacks underway at different places all at once, this is it,” he said, telling Zelensky that it looked like a full-scale invasion bearing down on Kyiv.
“In the first minutes, they delivered terrible blows to our air defense, terrible blows to our troops in general. … There were 20-meter craters, the likes of which no one has seen in their lifetimes,” Monastyrsky later recalled.
The question everyone faced at that moment, Monastyrsky said, was: “How far can the enemy go with that enormous fist?”
If the Russians could seize the seat of power in Ukraine, or at least cause the government to flee in panic, the defense of the country would quickly unravel. Moscow could install a puppet government.
That was the Kremlin’s plan.
Instead, what transpired in and around Kyiv in the ensuing 36 days would represent the biggest foreign blunder in the 22-year rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His assault on the city instantly reordered the security architecture of Europe against Moscow and isolated his nation to a degree unseen since the Cold War. To the surprise of the world, the offensive against the Ukrainian capital would end in a humiliating retreat, which would expose deep systemic problems in a Russian military he had spent billions to rebuild.
Despite the flaws that would emerge in Russia’s war planning, the outcome of the battle for Kyiv was far from predetermined. This account of how Ukrainian forces defended, and saved, their capital is based on interviews with more than 100 people — from Zelensky and his advisers, to Ukrainian military commanders, to volunteer militiamen, as well as senior U.S. and European political and military officials.
A reconstruction of events shows that even as Ukraine’s political leadership had downplayed the likelihood of a full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian military had taken critical steps to withstand Russia’s initial assault. Commanders had moved personnel and equipment off bases, despite in many cases their own doubts about what was to come.
Ukrainian forces lacked sufficient weaponry, ammunition and communications equipment. But what they did possess was a profound will to fight — one that would extend beyond Ukrainian soldiers to ordinary civilians and, most important, to the president himself.
The defenders would also take advantage of terrain around the capital — dense forests, narrow roads, winding rivers — that favored their guerrilla tactics, as well as weather short of freezing that thawed the land and bogged down Russian vehicles. In particular, the Irpin River, a waterway that marked the line of defense on Kyiv’s western edge, would help protect the capital when Ukrainian forces released dammed water to flood its banks.
Those fighting to save Kyiv also benefited greatly from key miscalculations by the Kremlin, which set in motion a plan to invade Kyiv based on poor assumptions about the mettle of the Ukrainian military, the durability of the Zelensky government and the determination of the Ukrainian people to resist. In the end, the Russians wouldn’t take any territory inside Kyiv’s city limits, instead remaining stuck for weeks on the capital’s periphery before their retreat.
The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment.
As the war began, Putin was some 475 miles away in Moscow. Seated at a wooden desk in a black suit and maroon tie, he appeared on television to announce what he called a “special operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. Moscow had been left with “no other opportunity to protect Russia other than the one we will be forced to use today,” Putin said.