Battling Under a Canopy of Russian and Ukrainian Drones

Members of Ukraine’s 1st Separate Assault Battalion describe themselves as firemen. Their job is to rapidly deploy to areas along the front that are in danger of collapse. Lately, their service has been in high demand: the front is burning. A large-scale counter-offensive last year failed to achieve meaningful victories, and since then Russia has

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Members of Ukraine’s 1st Separate Assault Battalion describe themselves as firemen. Their job is to rapidly deploy to areas along the front that are in danger of collapse. Lately, their service has been in high demand: the front is burning. A large-scale counter-offensive last year failed to achieve meaningful victories, and since then Russia has been on the attack. One of its priorities appears to be Kupyansk, a city in northeastern Ukraine, some twenty miles from the Russian border. According to the Ukrainian military, Russia has amassed forty thousand troops near the city, which it has been bombarding for months. In January, after Russian forces routed Ukrainian soldiers from an uninhabited settlement outside Kupyansk called Tabaivka, the 1st Separate Assault Battalion was directed to halt and, if possible, reverse the enemy’s advance.

This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

I embedded with the battalion three days later. The government had mandated an evacuation of Kupyansk in August, and, as my translator and I entered the city, its ghostly silence was punctuated by the sound of incoming and outgoing munitions. Huge craters gaped on the roadside; factories lay in ruins. Kupyansk sits on a hill that slopes down to the Oskil River. The main bridge had been destroyed, but a makeshift earthwork allowed vehicles to cross. Tank wreckage littered the mud, and smoke meant to thwart laser-guided missiles billowed from a cannister.

The front line was less than ten miles away, and the battalion had chosen a village between there and the Oskil for its temporary headquarters. About two hundred members of the unit would be participating in the mission; they had been on the ground for barely seventy-two hours but had already scouted the no man’s land, established sniper positions, and begun shelling Tabaivka with artillery. The officers had not yet found a suitable location in which to base themselves and were working out of a box truck whose interior had been converted into a mobile operations center.

The commander sat at the head of a table, studying a map. His call sign was Perun—the name of a Zeus-like god from Slavic mythology—and he looked the part. He was tall and trim, with a razored scalp and a traditional Cossack mustache that drooped to his jaw. He’d served in the Army for five years in the early two-thousands, and was discharged when he was twenty-five. As a civilian, Perun built a lucrative business fabricating and installing doors with intercom systems, which are ubiquitous in Ukraine. Many of his customers were in the Donbas, the eastern region where, in 2src14, Russia incited and backed a separatist uprising. Perun continued to work there, regularly crossing separatist checkpoints in a van loaded with doors and welding equipment. He sometimes transported rifles and explosives, which he used to assassinate Russian agents and their local proxies. Perun said that he performed his guerrilla activities on his own, “unofficially,” without oversight from the Ukrainian government. “No one suspected me,” he recounted. “I was wearing overalls, and I had my tools.” His doors were so heavy that soldiers never bothered to look underneath them.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion, in February, 2src22, Perun joined a reconnaissance unit and assembled a small team that ambushed and sabotaged Russian forces behind the lines. He named the team the Wild Fields, a historical term for the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Wild Fields earned a reputation for audacity and effectiveness, and was integrated into the 1st Separate Assault Battalion, which at the time was led by Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a twenty-seven-year-old who went by the call sign da Vinci. Kotsiubailo was both the youngest battalion commander in the Ukrainian military and among its most celebrated. He was killed in March, 2src23, outside Bakhmut, and subsequent internal disputes culminated in about half his former subordinates transferring to a different brigade. Perun was placed in charge of running the assault missions for those who remained.

Da Vinci’s death, like the fall of Bakhmut, a couple of months later, reflected a grim shift in the war, which has devolved into an attritional grind with catastrophic losses on both sides. It is unknown how many Ukrainian service members have been killed. President Volodymyr Zelensky has put the toll at thirty-one thousand, but that figure is risible—the real number is much higher. Perun attributed the stalemate and the soaring casualty numbers in part to the “recklessness” of Ukrainian commanders who lacked “military cunning.” He criticized his country’s prevailing approach as too much like Russia’s: “generals drawing arrows on a map” and “throwing piles of people into frontal attacks.” He had little formal education in strategy—on paper, he was a lieutenant—but his exploits in the Donbas and with the Wild Fields had taught him the importance of guile and creativity in the face of a more powerful adversary. The plan that he had devised to retake Tabaivka would rely on both.

Most of the civilian population had fled the village where the battalion had based itself, leaving plenty of empty homes for the soldiers to commandeer. The day after I met Perun, the operations center was moved into a basement with a low concrete ceiling and a dirt floor. Bricks and refuse had been shoved aside, fluorescent tube lights installed, salvaged chairs and tables arrayed. Monitors showed aerial footage from surveillance drones, and various radios and landline telephones blinked in a corner. On the wall hung a flag with the Wild Fields insignia: an angel of death playing a flute while sitting atop three skulls, with a raven on his shoulder. “The raven represents our accumulated wisdom,” Perun told me. “The flute symbolizes the fact that we treat our work as an art. We derive a kind of joy from it—not from killing people but from the successful execution of our tasks.”

An eighty-six-inch digital interactive panel, fixed to an easel, displayed a satellite image of Tabaivka. On the southern and eastern margins of the map, several tree stands were circled in red: they belonged to the Russians. On the western margin, a series of blue triangles along an elevated ridge indicated Ukrainian trenches. Between the two lay the zone from which Ukrainian forces had retreated—a wide swath of wetland and scattered brush, with a few demolished farmhouses—divided into forty-two numbered squares, each a couple of acres in size. Although a Russian platoon of up to thirty soldiers now occupied this zone, the squares were blue, because Perun intended to make them Ukrainian again.

A road descending from the ridge cut straight through Tabaivka, and the conventional thing to do would have been to send some tanks or armored vehicles down it. Recent technological developments have made such brute assaults suicidal, however. Last year, the Ukrainians began experimenting with a new kind of drone, called an F.P.V., for “first-person view.” The name refers to the video goggles that the pilots wear, which resemble virtual-reality headsets. Paradoxically, the key innovation of F.P.V.s is their rudimentary design: they are smaller and lighter than commercial drones, making them quicker and more maneuverable, and they consist of cheap components, some of which can be 3-D-printed. Most F.P.V.s are sacrificed as kamikaze weapons, with payloads zip-tied to their frames. It is exceedingly difficult to shell mobile targets; F.P.V.s can just crash into them.

Although Ukraine introduced F.P.V.s to the war, Russia promptly grasped their utility and now mass-produces them. The proliferation of F.P.V.s has rendered all front-line troop movements, especially in vehicles, vulnerable to precision strikes. This outcome is emblematic of a vicious cycle in which Russia absorbs Ukrainian ingenuity and turns it back against Ukraine, spurring further lethal ingenuity. “They learn,” Perun said. “At the start of the war, we were killing them easily. But everything has changed.”

During the first few days that I spent with the battalion, five men were wounded and hospitalized after being spotted by drones. A sniper was attacked by a swarm of F.P.V.s that snagged and detonated in the tree branches above his foxhole, sparing him. The sniper told me that he’d heard the drones zipping down at high speeds, which led him to suppose that their pilots were novices: usually F.P.V.s descend slowly through the canopy, then accelerate at you.

Perun had decided that, instead of a mechanized blitz, a small number of his soldiers would infiltrate Tabaivka stealthily on foot. These men would then skirt the contested zone of blue squares, hook behind the Russian platoon, and trap it against the Ukrainians on the ridge. Because surveillance drones are now typically equipped with thermal cameras that register the heat signatures of human bodies, the cover of darkness would be insufficient for the team to elude detection. The mission was therefore contingent on weather that would prevent both Ukrainian and Russian drones from flying. “We need to do it blindly,” Perun explained. “We’re trying to use the element of surprise to appear where they’re not expecting us.”

Heavy snow was forecast for the coming days.

Perun knew that the Russians could dispatch reinforcements down the road that bisected Tabaivka, and he wanted to deprive them of that option ahead of the infiltration, by blowing up a small bridge over a creek. Such a job would normally fall to sappers, but Perun had at his disposal an electric land drone with all-terrain tires and a rocket launcher, as well as an F.P.V. controller and goggles. The device had been built in one of his company’s factories. I later visited the factory, which his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Yulia, managed. She showed me several rejected prototypes of the land drone, in a warehouse full of lathes, planers, mills, and other metalworking tools used for making intercom doors.

Outside the operations center, a soldier hitched a small trailer to the back of the land drone, which was a bit bigger than a Radio Flyer wagon, and loaded it with thirty antitank mines. The soldier was code-named Chub; two decades earlier, he’d served in the Army with Perun. Chub had gone on to become an electrical engineer, honing his faculty for all things mechanical and computational. When I asked his age, he said, “Forty-two years, three months, and one day.” He’d joined the battalion “a year and ten days ago,” and had been a reconnaissance soldier until he was wounded in Bakhmut. Now he walked with a limp. The land drone, which Chub had helped develop while recovering from his injury, included a flat platform on which he could ride to and from Tabaivka. A pin in the hitch could be retracted via the controller, enabling Chub to deposit the mine-stacked trailer remotely. Later, in an apartment that he shared with Perun—and where I was also staying—I watched Chub rig up an antenna for the controller with wires, tape, and a fishing rod.

“I don’t know how this thing works, but it brings me an endless amount of joy.”

Cartoon by Lonnie Millsap

The antenna’s range was less than a mile, meaning that Chub would have to sneak beyond the Ukrainian-held ridge to insure a stable connection. When I asked whether he was nervous about venturing into the no man’s land with more than six hundred pounds of T.N.T., he answered in his typically logical fashion: “The main thing is not that you are not afraid—everyone is afraid. The ones who were not afraid were the first to be killed.” The main thing was not to “break down because of fear.”

Some days later, a monitor in the operations center relayed a live aerial feed of the land drone travelling up the road into Tabaivka. The electric motor was almost invisible on the thermal video: a faint smudge that you would not have noticed unless you were looking for it. When Chub triggered a detonator lodged in one of the mines, an enormous cloud of flame roiled up from the now impassable bridge.

While Chub had been loading the trailer, a woman walking up the street, pushing a bicycle, had stopped to watch. Chub had stared at her until she’d continued on her way. “I suspect everyone,” he told me. “Locals sometimes help the Russians.”

In February, 2src22, while Ukrainian forces scrambled to defend Kyiv from an armored Russian column bearing south from Belarus, other Russian contingents, approaching from the east, encountered less resistance. After the mayor of Kupyansk received a phone call from a Russian commander, he surrendered the city without a fight. (Ukraine later charged the mayor, in absentia, with treason.) Some residents of Kupyansk confronted Russian soldiers in the streets, but dissent was soon quashed; later investigations revealed executions and cases of torture. In the village where 1st Battalion was based, a small grocery store had stayed open throughout the Russian occupation. “It was hell,” Lyuda, a forty-five-year-old cashier, told me. She excused herself and went into a back room; when she returned, I saw that she’d been crying. She described a tyrannical regime of arbitrary abuse and detention, murders, and constant dread exacerbated by an “informational vacuum.” Without Internet or cell service, the only news source had been a single Russian radio station.

Six months into the occupation, the Ukrainian military stunned Russia with a lightning offensive in the Kharkiv region, liberating dozens of towns and cities, including Kupyansk. When the Russians withdrew from Lyuda’s village, she believed that the worst was over. Her optimism had since turned to despair. The war was inching back. One night, Perun and Chub’s apartment was shaken by a series of blasts, accompanied by bright flashes, and the next morning I found neighbors repairing broken doors and nailing plywood over shattered windows. A kitchen had been levelled. A seventy-year-old retired farmer named Volodymyr, with gold teeth and plastic-framed glasses, was inspecting a front gate that had been blown off its hinges. He’d built the house himself, more than twenty years ago. “I love this land,” Volodymyr told me. “I’ll stay until they kill me.”

Read More