Ukraine: Drone operators hidden in the forest are crucial for the Battle of the East

Near Kreminna, Ukraine

The pine forests near the city of Kreminna became one of the hottest combat zones in the war in eastern Ukraine. Almost all weapons seem 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 the 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 were reinforced with heavy weapons and long-range artillery.

CNN accompanied two Ukrainian drone operators from the Dnipro-1 Battalion deep into the forest to see how they operate. The trip was on soft sand tracks amid a thin canopy of pine trees, through an eerie landscape dotted with streams and bogs.

A year ago, one of the drone operators, who only gave his name as Ruslan, was a snowboard and kayak instructor. Now he observes the movement of Russian armor along the forest tracks, deftly flying over the treetops with his drone.

Arrived at a foxhole, the vehicles of the drone operators are carefully maneuvered under the cover of the trees. The Russians also have reconnaissance drones, and Ukrainian drone operators are considered high-value targets.

Ruslan points east and north: the Russians were 7 kilometers (4 miles) in one direction and 3 kilometers in the other.

A Mavic-3 drone – the workhorse of Ukrainian reconnaissance, even though it weighs less than a kilogram and has a wingspan of just 35 centimeters (14 inches) – soars with a roar from a nearby clearing. It can stay in the air for about 45 minutes and travel up to 30 kilometers in total, returning high definition video to operators.

Their job is to provide real-time intelligence on Russian positions and movements, as well as to help Ukrainian artillery fix targets. Hidden in the woods are 120mm and 82mm artillery mounts, and somewhere nearby a massive 155mm Krab howitzer, one of about 50 donated by Poland. Ukrainians love the Krabe for its precision and power, but it is demanding to maintain.

“It’s an all-day artillery battle,” Ruslan says.

He is not exaggerating. There are a few moments of silence during the hour that CNN is with Ruslan and his colleague. Artillery shells launched from a nearby Ukrainian emplacement make a deafening roar. The mass of Russian bombing echoes in the distance.

“Last month, the Russian army is more and more present”, explains Ruslan. “The overall line is static but all the time the positions change. Sometimes the Russians go (forward) and sometimes our army goes.

This means exchanges of fire in the heart of the forest. But it also means that Ukraine is quickly going through its artillery munitions. Trucks are driving through the nearby village of Yampil with supplies, but Ruslan says Ukraine needs a lot more artillery ammunition here.

In the nearby village of Zarichne, just beyond the edge of the forest, Russian artillery targets a rickety bridge every day. Not much of the village remains standing: those who remain here are mostly elderly and destitute. They cannot or do not want to leave.

The shelling severely damaged the village of Zarichne, near Kreminna.

One of them – a 69-year-old woman who calls herself Valentina – tells CNN that the Russians bombard the village all the time.

“It’s dangerous but what can we do? We endure. Sometimes we hide. But now it’s too cold in the basement, you can freeze to death there,” she says.

“Look at my windows, there is no more glass. Just wood and plastic we used to cover them. And it is cold.

She looks down the street wistfully, as if remembering better times.

Valentina’s daughter is far away in Dnipro, central Ukraine, but she won’t leave her home to join her. After all, she planted potatoes. “I won’t abandon them,” she said with a tired smile.

Zarichne – like large swaths of this region – was occupied by the Russians for much of the last year before being liberated by Ukrainian forces in the fall. But liberation only came in name. The slopes and forests beyond echo with the impact of rockets and shells. Ukrainian units are entrenched among nearby pines and sand, where unexploded ordnance litters the forest floor.

A woman rides a bicycle in the devastated village of Zarichne in eastern Ukraine.

A few kilometers away, the Dnipro-1 battalion has its own drone workshop, where NATO grenades are carefully sawn in half to be reconstituted into small free-fall munitions. Under a table is a plate of C-4 plastic explosive. It’s a painstaking and demanding process, producing one piece of homemade ammunition every 20 minutes.

Some of the unit’s drone munitions are essentially fragmentation grenades dropped on infantry – and in particular Russian private military contractor Wagner fighters around Bakhmut. Heavier versions can damage or disable a tank.

The commander of the drone unit of Dnipro-1 is called Graf. He says drones have become “one of the most important elements of this war – both for us and for the enemy. Nothing can be run without drones.

And that makes his men targets. “Currently, the drone operator is one of the most dangerous professions. The enemy knows that we are the eyes of our army. As soon as they locate a drone operator, they use all kinds of weapons: artillery cannon, MLRS, tanks,” says Graf.

“We have a high casualty rate among the pilots, the enemy is still looking for us.” said Graf.

No Ukrainian soldier on this front has the illusion that this conflict will soon be won. Throughout the eastern region of Donbass, brutal and attritional battles are taking place: gains and losses are measured in hundreds of meters.

Graf echoes what every Ukrainian soldier says seems to be saying. “Now we are getting tanks – so we need more tanks. And we need long-range aviation and missiles. We need to destroy the enemy as they approach Ukraine. This is the only way to win.”

And for his unit, Graf dreams of acquiring US Predator attack drones. It’s not under consideration in Washington, DC.

In the meantime, Ruslan and his colleagues hold the line – and in Zarichne, Valentina prays for them.

“Cursed be those Russians who come to other people’s land!” she says. “I represent Ukraine, I was born here, my ancestors are from here, I have always been pro-Ukraine and I always will be.”


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