Hiding in the woods, Ukrainian drone operators are crucial to the battle in the east
Near Kreminna, Ukraine (CNN) — The pine forests near the city of Kreminna have become one of the hottest combat zones of the war in eastern Ukraine. Almost every weapon seems to be working 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 almost two months. If the Ukrainians can break through the Russian lines and reach Kreminna, they can disrupt Russian supply routes.
But it’s a much tougher proposition than it was late last year. Russia’s defensive lines have been 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 journey took place on soft sand roads amid a thin canopy of pine trees, through a hair-raising landscape dotted with streams and swamps.
A year ago, one of the drone operators, who gave his name only as Ruslan, was a drone instructor. snowboarding and kayaking. He is now watching the movement of Russian armor along the forest paths, expertly gliding through the treetops with his drone.
Upon reaching a trench, the drone operators’ vehicles are carefully maneuvered under the cover of trees. The Russians also have reconnaissance drones, and Ukrainian drone operators are considered high-value targets.
Ruslan points to the east and north: the Russians were 7 kilometers away in one direction and 3 kilometers in the other.
A Mavic-3 drone, the workhorse of Ukrainian reconnaissance, even if it weighs less than a kilogram and has a wingspan of just 35 centimeters, whizzes up from a nearby clearing. It can stay airborne for about 45 minutes and travel up to 30 kilometers in total, transmitting high-definition video to operators.
Their job is to provide real-time intelligence on Russian positions and movements, and also help Ukrainian artillery to lock down targets. Hidden in the woods are 120mm and 82mm artillery emplacements, and somewhere nearby a massive 155mm Krab howitzer, one of 50 donated by Poland. Ukrainians like the Krab for its accuracy and power, but it is difficult to maintain.
“This is artillery battle all day,” says Ruslan.
You are not exaggerating. There are few moments of silence during the hour that CNN is with Ruslan and his colleague. Artillery shells fired from a nearby Ukrainian emplacement make a deafening roar. The crack of Russian shelling echoes in the distance.
“The last month, the Russian Army is here more and more,” says Ruslan. “The general line is static, but all the time the positions change. Sometimes the Russians go [adelante] and sometimes ours”.
That means gunfights in the thick of the woods. But it also means that Ukraine is rapidly running out of artillery ammunition. Trucks rumble into the nearby town of Yampil with fresh 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 town is left standing: those who remain here are mainly the elderly and the destitute. They either can’t or don’t want to leave.
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One of them, a 69-year-old woman who calls herself Valentina, tells CNN that the Russians bomb the village all the time.
“It is 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 in there, ”she says.
“Look at my windows, there is no glass left. Just wood and plastic that we use to cover them. And it’s cold”.
He looks down the street wistfully, as if remembering better days.
Valentina’s daughter is away in Dnipro, in central Ukraine, but the woman does not want to leave her home to join her daughter. After all, she has planted potatoes. “I won’t abandon them,” she says with a tired smile.
Zarichne, like much of this region, was occupied by the Russians for much of last year before being liberated by Ukrainian forces in the fall. But the deliverance came in name only. The hillsides and forests beyond echo the impact of rockets and shells. Ukrainian units are entrenched among the pine trees and nearby sand, where unexploded ordnance litters the forest floor.
A few kilometers away, the Dnipro-1 battalion has its own drone workshop, where NATO grenades are carefully cut in half to reconstitute them into small free-fall munitions. Under a table lies a slab of C-4 plastic explosive. It is a laborious and demanding process, which produces a handmade ammunition every 20 minutes.
Some of the unit’s drone ammunition is essentially fragmentation grenades dropped on infantry, and especially the fighters of the mercenary Russian private military contractor Wagner around Bakhmut. The heavier versions can damage or disable a tank.
The commander of the Dnipro-1 drone unit is called Graf. He says that drones have become “one of the most important elements of this war, both for us and for the enemy. Nothing can be executed without drones”.
And that makes your men targets. “Right now, the drone operator is one of the most dangerous jobs. The enemy knows that we are the eyes of our army. As soon as they locate a drone operator, they use all kinds of weaponry: cannon artillery, MLRS, tanks,” says Graf.
“We have a high casualty rate among the pilots, the enemy is always looking for us.” Graff says.
No Ukrainian soldier on this front is under the illusion that this conflict will be won soon. Across the eastern Donbas region, brutal and attritional battles are taking place: gains and losses are measured in hundreds of meters.
Graf echoes what every Ukrainian soldier seems to say. “Now we are receiving tanks, so we need more tanks. And we need aviation and long-range missiles. We have to destroy the enemy on his approach to the Ukraine. That’s the only way to win.”
And for his unit, Graf dreams of getting US Predator attack drones. That is not under consideration in Washington.
Meanwhile, Ruslan and his colleagues hold the line, and in Zarichne, Valentina prays for them.
“Damn those Russians who come to a foreign land!” she says. “I stand for Ukraine, I was born here, my ancestors are from here, I have always been pro-Ukrainian and always will be.”