While Ukraine downs most Russian drones, air defense gaps leave areas vulnerable

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian air defenses downed 32 of 35 Shahed exploding drones Russia launched early Tuesday, most of them in the Kyiv region, officials said, in a bombardment that exposed gaps in the country’s air protection after almost 16 months of war.

Russian forces mostly targeted the region around the Ukrainian capital in a nighttime drone attack lasting around three hours, officials said, with Ukrainian air defenses shooting down about two dozen.

The attack was part of a wider bombardment of Ukrainian regions that extended as far as the Lviv region in the west of the country, near Poland.

The Shahed drones made it all the way to Lviv because of the inability of air defense assets to cover such a broad area, Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said.

Air defense systems are mostly dedicated to protecting major cities, key infrastructure facilities, including nuclear power plants, and the front line, he said.

“There is a general lack of air defense assets to cover a country like Ukraine with a dome like Israel has,” he said, in a reference to Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system.

A man stands inside a crater next to destroyed trucks after Russian shelling in Rozumivka, near Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)

In the Lviv region, the Russian strike hit a critical infrastructure facility, starting a fire, according to Lviv Gov. Maksym Kozytskyi.

Russia also struck the southern Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine with ballistic missiles.

Ukraine’s air defenses have been reinforced with sophisticated weapons from its Western allies, increasing the success rate at knocking down incoming drones and missiles.

Previously, a winter bombardment by Russia damaged Ukraine’s power supply, though speedy repairs blunted that Kremlin effort.

The latest aerial assaults behind Ukraine’s front line coincided with the early stages of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, as it aims to dislodge the Kremlin’s forces from territory they’ve occupied since a full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The counteroffensive has come up against heavily mined terrain and reinforced defensive fortifications, according to Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.

A Ukrainian tank rides along the road towards position near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 17, 2023. (Libkos/AP)

Russia has also mustered a large number of reserves, Zaluzhnyi said in a post accompanying a video of him visiting front-line positions with other senior officers.

Heavy battles are taking place in eastern Ukraine, around Bakhmut, Lyman, Avdiivka and Marinka, the Ukrainian armed forces said. Russia shelled 15 cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region, wounding five civilians, including three in Chasiv Yar near Bakhmut, according to Ukraine’s presidential office.

Russia has relocated about 20,000 troops from the areas in the Kherson region after flooding from the recent Kakhovka Dam collapse made it impossible for Ukraine to conduct an offensive there, Ukrainian military analyst Roman Svitan said.

The flooding removed the need for the Kremlin’s forces to protect about 300 kilometers (180 miles) of the more than 1,000-kilometer (680-mile) front line, according to Svitan, and allowed Moscow to increase its military density in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions where intensive fighting is occurring.

Russia had the means, motive and opportunity to breach the dam earlier this month while under Russian control, according to information obtained by The Associated Press.

Svitan said the Zaporizhzhia region appears to be the focus of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, seeking to smash through Russia’s land corridor with the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

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