A DRAMATIC week in Kyiv and Ukraine began with the whole country suffering under a barrage of Russian drone and missile attacks – but ended with cause for optimism on multiple fronts amid another round of humiliations for an increasingly beleaguered and panicky Russia.

The nightly grind of late-night air-raid sirens and frequent, largely foiled Russian attempts to attack the capital had come to a head last Sunday night, with the largest attack with Iran-supplied Shahed kamikaze drones of the war to date. At least 30 of the drones were shot down by the capital’s air defences that night.

With air-raid sirens sounding every night and attacks materialising more often than not, I had decided that sleeping in a room with windows in my central Kyiv apartment was no longer a good idea. I decamped to my windowless living room, occasionally taking illicit trips to my bedroom window to watch as air defence missiles were fired from the ground, searing the night sky in deep-orange arcs.

A few nights earlier, I had been sent scurrying from my bed by an unusually ear-splitting, window-rattling explosion in the early hours. Days later, the Pentagon confirmed that this had indeed been something out of the ordinary: the first confirmed shooting-down of a hypersonic Kinzhal missile by Kyiv’s new Patriot air defence system.

The National: People pass by a building damaged by a dronePeople pass by a building damaged by a drone (Image: AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)

Vladimir Putin had called the Khinzal “invincible” and the Russians still deny the missile could have been shot down by the Patriot system, which was donated to Ukraine in stages by the US, Netherlands and Germany over the past few months.

Nevertheless, the Patriot and its Ukrainian operators are currently the toast of Kyiv, and the system is odds-on to follow the Javelin, the HIMARS and the Russian warship onto T-shirts, cushions and mugs in the near future.

“I don’t love how the Russians are clearly testing the air-defence system here,” a friend said with studied understatement as we drank wine on a sunny cafe terrace, the siren wailing again and the voice of Mark Hamill instructing us to proceed to the nearest shelter, underlining the point with the words “don’t be careless, your overconfidence is your weakness”.

The Star Wars actor recently lent his voice to the widely used Air Alert app, and the reassurance of the all-clear is now rather delightfully heralded with the words “air alert over, may the force be with you” emanating from smartphones across the city.

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In Kyiv, these “tests” were all passed in the days and weeks just past, with the only injuries and significant damage coming as a result of falling debris from a downed Shahed last Sunday.

More effective air defence has given the city the precious gift of relatively calm, normal mornings, and has without question saved many lives. The Russians gave up on their nightly attacks early in the week – though in the early hours of yesterday morning, 21 more Shaheds were sent into Ukraine. By early afternoon yesterday, the Kyiv Independent was reporting that four had evaded air defences away from the capital, injuring 21 people in Khmelnytskyi, in western Ukraine, and three in the southern city of Mykolaiv.

It’s hard to overstate the sheer defiance of Kyiv’s residents in the face of the attacks of the past couple of weeks, and a tweet from Toma Istomina, the Kyiv Independent’s deputy chief editor, in the early hours of May 9, summed the mood up brilliantly: “So I’m hiding amid another air-raid alert – lost count of them in Kyiv over the past two weeks – and I can smell it. I can smell how fucking desperate and scared Russia is. But guess what losers, your chaotic attacks are not gonna change anything, the counter-offensive is coming.”

The mood in the city lightened further midweek as all of Ukraine seemed to laugh as one at the pitiful scenes at Russia’s “Victory Day” celebrations on Red Square on May 9. Putin, looking old, sick and preoccupied; the slightly younger – but even sicker-looking – Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko having to be escorted away before the end of the ceremony; the instantly famous solitary tank at an event that normally features dozens of them.

Had Ukraine been allowed to plan Moscow’s May 9 celebrations themselves it was hard to imagine what more they could have included to make Russia look bad.

The atmosphere in Kyiv continues to be one of strained normality with a hefty underlying tension about what is to come, and regular reminders that all is not, in fact, normal. The beautiful Taras Shevchenko Park beside the university of the same name is a picture of carefree late-spring enjoyment, the ice cream and coffee stands doing brisk business, the ergonomic-looking park benches full and happy dogs everywhere.

Reconstruction work on the childrens’ playpark and a new, dark square of tarmac at the intersection on the park’s north-western corner – both legacies of Russian missile strikes in October last year – are reminders of a different reality. Members of the military on leave stroll through the park near sunset, their partners holding them tight.

More than once I have got in touch with a friend here only to find out that they have gone off to fight since I last saw them. One who I got to know after watching him play a live set at an electronic music festival in 2017 got back to me immediately. “I’m currently being shelled in the south of Ukraine … there’s a slight chance I might end up in Kyiv soon but I’ve been holding my breath for that for six months, so unfortunately it’s not very likely that I’ll catch you”.

The National: A cloud of smoke rises as defences downed a droneA cloud of smoke rises as defences downed a drone (Image: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Another, my Uber driver on a visit to Bucha and Irpin last year who decided on the drive there to spend the next several hours showing me around both towns, free of charge, said he’d like to meet up but that he was “in the east now, I joined the army and sent my family to Europe”.

Another friend has been in a relationship with a member of the Ukrainian military for the past nine months. Up until now, the soldier’s work has kept him in Kyiv and other relatively safe places – but recently he received word that he would be joining a combat unit. He left Kyiv the following day for weapons training prior to joining the fight in an unknown location, presumably as part of the coming counter-offensive.

“Never get entangled with a soldier in a literal war is my new advice for sanity,” read a message she sent me on Friday morning. Her partner was in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a Russian strike on a military facility had coincided with him being out of phone contact for 12 hours.

Later it transpired that he was safe and well. “And this is just him in training,” she lamented over a glass of wine in the evening. “But this was a learning experience and I’ll be more prepared next time. If he was a drone operator or something I’d allow myself to be optimistic, but he’s in the infantry…” She paused. “I think it’s best if I just assume he’s gone, and then if anything better than that happens it will be a bonus. I think that’s how he sees it himself.”

On Thursday, the UK announced that it was sending Ukraine long-range Storm Shadow missiles, which are capable of hitting targets deep inside Russian-controlled territory.

These have been high on Ukraine’s wishlist since Russia moved weapons stores and troop concentrations back in response to Ukraine’s use of the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system, which wreaked havoc on them last year, and they could prove a vital tool as Ukraine tries to create the best conditions for its potentially decisive counter-offensive.

News also came this week of a Ukrainian advance in Bakhmut, the small city in the Donetsk region that has been the scene of hellish, attritional warfare all winter.

Throughout Kyiv and the country, minds are focused on the counter-offensive. This week Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said combat brigades were ready but that Ukraine needed more time to prepare for the offensive as certain weapons and equipment were arriving in “batches”.

Meanwhile, Russia has been scattering defensive preparations around occupied areas, as unsure as anyone of where Ukraine will strike first.

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“Their panic is visible and lies in the fact that they do not know where to expect the maximum force of the attack, and that is why they are spreading their efforts to both Zaporizhia and Kherson directions,” said Natalia Humeniuk, chief press officer of the security and defence forces in the south of Ukraine.

Everyone is simply waiting, and everyone knows that trying to predict when the counter-offensive will happen and what form it will take is pointless – only a handful of people in the world know that.

All that looks certain is that something, or perhaps more likely a series of things, is going to happen and that Russia’s panic is likely to be well-founded.