Ukraine: Drones hidden in the woods are crucial to the eastern battle

Near Kreminna, Ukraine

The pine forests near the city of Kreminna have become one of the hottest war zones in the world. war in eastern Ukraine. Almost every weapon seems to work here, cannons, howitzers, tank and mortars. But perhaps the most important is the smallest: Reconnaissance Drones.

Ukrainian and Russian forces have been fighting here for almost two months. If the Ukrainians were able to break through the Russian lines and reach the Kreminna, they could disrupt Russian supply routes.

But it’s a much tougher proposition than it was late last year. The Russian defenses were fortified with heavy weapons and long-range artillery.

CNN accompanied two Ukrainian drone pilots from the Dnipro-1 battalion deep into the woods to see how they operate. Journey along soft sands amid sparse pine trees, through an eerie landscape dotted with streams and marshes.

A year ago, one of the drone operators, who gave his name only as Ruslan, was a skiing and kayaking instructor. Now he was tracking the movements of the Russian armor along the forest trail, expertly maneuvering his drone through the treetops.

Reaching a personal pit, the drone operator’s vehicles were carefully maneuvered under the trees. The Russians also have reconnaissance drones, and Ukrainian drone operators are considered high-value targets.

Ruslan points east and north: the Russians are 7 kilometers (4 mi) away in one direction and 3 kilometers in the other.

A Mavic-3 drone — the pack horse of Ukrainian reconnaissance, even if it weighs less than a kilogram and measures just 35 centimeters (14 inches) in length — soared from a nearby clearing. . It can stay aloft for about 45 minutes and travel up to 30 kilometers in total, providing high-definition video to the operator.

Their job is to provide real-time intelligence on Russian positions and movements, and to help Ukrainian artillery locate their targets. Nestled among the trees were 120mm and 82mm artillery turrets, and somewhere nearby was a huge 155mm Krab howitzer, one of about 50 donated by Poland. Ukrainians like the Krab for its accuracy and power, but it requires maintenance.

“It’s an all-day firefight,” Ruslan said.

Camouflage is hung from ropes in a dilapidated building in the village of Zarichne, eastern Ukraine.

He’s not exaggerating. There were a few moments of silence during CNN hour for Ruslan and his co-workers. Shells fired from a nearby Ukrainian plantation created a shrill roar. The sound of Russian shelling echoed in the distance.

“Last month, there were more and more Russian troops here,” Ruslan said. “The overall flow is static but the positions are always changing. Sometimes the Russians go (forward) and sometimes our troops go.”

That means gunfights in the jungle. But it also means that Ukraine is using its shells quickly. Trucks rumbled through the nearby village of Yampil with fresh supplies, but Ruslan said Ukraine needed more shells here.

In the nearby village of Zarichne, just outside the edge of the forest, Russian artillery targeted a rickety bridge every day. Not many villages are left standing: The people who remain here are mainly the elderly and the poor. They can’t or won’t leave.

The shelling caused severe damage to the village of Zarichne, near Kreminna.

One of them – a 69-year-old named Valentina – told CNN that the Russians have always surrounded the village.

“It’s dangerous but what can we do? We endure. Sometimes we run away. But it’s so cold in the basement now, you could freeze to death there,” she said.

“Look at my window, there’s no glass left. We only use wood and plastic to cover them. And it’s cold.”

She looked down the street thoughtfully, as if recalling better times.

Valentina’s daughter is in Dnipro, central Ukraine, but she won’t leave home for her mother. After all, she planted potatoes. “I won’t abandon them,” she said with a weary smile.

Zarichne – like large swathes of the region – was occupied by the Russians for much of last year before being liberated by Ukrainian forces in the fall. But liberation comes only in name. The mountainside and the forest outside echoed the impact of rockets and shells. Ukrainian units were dug among nearby pine trees and sand, where unexploded ordnance was scattered across the forest floor.

A woman rides her bicycle through a devastated village in Zarichne, eastern Ukraine.

A few miles away, the Dnipro-1 battalion has its own drone factory, where NATO-issued grenades are carefully split in half to recreate small, free-falling projectiles do. Under the table was a sheet of C-4 plastic explosives. It was a difficult and demanding process that produced a manual ammunition every 20 minutes.

Some of the unit’s drone munitions are essentially fragmentation grenades dropped on infantry – and specifically fighter jets from the Russian private military contractor Wagner fighter jets around Bakhmut. The heavier versions can damage or disable the tank.

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

And that makes her man a target. “At the moment, piloting drones is one of the most dangerous jobs. The enemy knows that we are the eyes and ears of our troops. As soon as the drone operator is identified, they use all sorts of weapons: howitzers, MLRSs, tanks,” Graf said.

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

Not a single Ukrainian soldier on this front has the illusion that this conflict will be won anytime soon. Across the eastern Donbas region, brutal, attrition battles are raging: Pros and cons are measured in hundreds of meters.

Graf repeated what every Ukrainian soldier seemed to say. “Now we are receiving tanks – so we need more tanks. And we need aviation and long-range missiles. We must destroy the enemy approaching Ukraine. That’s the only way to win.”

And for his unit, Graf dreams of acquiring an American Predator attack drone. That is not considered in Washington, DC.

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

“Damn Russians to someone else’s land!” she speaks. “I represent Ukraine, I was born here, my ancestors are from here, I have always supported Ukraine and always will be.”


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