The pine forests near the city of Kreminna have become one of the hottest combat zones in the war in eastern Ukraine. Almost every weapon seems to be at work here, artillery, howitzers, tanks and mortars. But perhaps the most important is the smallest: The reconnaissance drone.
Ukrainian and Russian forces have been fighting here for nearly two months. If the Ukrainians can break through Russian lines and reach Kreminna, they can disrupt Russian supply routes.
But it’s a much tougher proposition than it was at the end of last year. Russia’s defensive lines have been reinforced with heavy weapons and long-range artillery.
A year ago, one of the Ukrainian drone operators, who gave his name only as Ruslan, was a snowboard and kayak instructor. Now he’s watching the movement of Russian armor along the forest tracks, expertly skimming his drone across the treetops.
Arriving at a foxhole, the drone operators’ vehicles are carefully maneuvered under tree cover. The Russians have reconnaissance drones too, and Ukrainian drone operators are regarded as high-value targets.
Their job is to provide real-time intelligence on Russian positions and movements, and also to help Ukrainian artillery fix targets.
A few miles away, the battalion Ruslan is a part of, Dnipro-1, has its own drone workshop, where NATO-issue grenades are carefully sawn in half to be reconstituted as small, free-fall munitions. Under a table sits a slab of C-4 plastic explosive. It’s a painstaking and demanding process, churning out one handmade munition every 20 minutes.
Some of the unit’s drone munitions are essentially fragment grenades dropped on infantry – and especially fighters from the Russian private military contractor Wagner fighters around Bakhmut. Heavier versions can damage or disable a tank.
The commander of Dnipro-1’s drone unit goes by the name of Graf. He says that drones have become “one of the most important elements of this war – both for us and the enemy. Nothing can be executed without drones.”
And that makes his men targets.
“At the moment the drone operator is one of the most dangerous jobs. The enemy knows we are the eyes of our army. As soon as they locate a drone operator, they use all kinds of weaponry: barrel artillery, MLRS, tanks,” Graf says.
“We have a high rate of casualties among the pilots, the enemy is always looking for us,” he says.
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