In Ukraine, kamikaze drones have gradually overtaken artillery as the main threat to soldiers — on both sides of the frontline. Meanwhile, a bitter winter is taking over life in the trenches.
DONETSK — In the chilly pre-dawn hours, a mud-stained pickup truck drives along a potholed road in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk. Despite the darkness and the ice, the vehicle travels with its lights off, its interior illuminated only by the reddish glow of a lit cigarette.
Throughout the early morning last Monday, the cracking sound of artillery can be heard echoing intermittently in the distance, followed by the bright trail of a projectile soaring into the cloudy sky.
Inside the truck, four soldiers from the 28th brigade of the Ukrainian army have just left the relative comfort of a small country house to go to the frontline, towards Bakhmut. After a short journey through overgrown fields and devastated villages, the car stops at the edge of a forest.
Without wasting any time, the four soldiers grab their weapons and equipment and make their way under the snow-covered trees. One of them curses as he discovers the state of the trench that they were supposed to use as their shelter: the snow that has fallen over the last few days has melted, transforming the loose earth in the underwood into a thick layer of mud.
I'll clear the trench.
“You guys settle in, and I'll start to clear out the trench,” says Andrii, a veteran of the Donbas war, to one of his comrades.
After removing his bulletproof vest and helmet, the young man grabs a bucket and begins painstakingly draining the water. Meanwhile, another soldier enters one of the small cavities of the trench, sheltered from the mud.
Russian drone pilots learn to fly drones on simulators and to assemble drones in a facility.
Precise and lethal weapons
With slow, methodical movements, the soldier grabs an explosive shell that he attaches to a drone. For several months, Andrii and his fellow soldiers have used these makeshift weapons to bomb Russian vehicles, soldiers and positions in eastern Ukraine.
But, as Andrii explains, the advantage that Ukrainian drone operators had at the start of the invasion has gradually disappeared, as Russians too quickly learned how to leverage these unconventional, precise and ever lethal weapons.
“Their production capacities are much greater than ours. When we send one drone, they send ten,” the Ukrainian soldier says.
In recent months, drones have even replaced artillery as the main cause of death on the frontline. “Now, drones are responsible for the majority of losses, both on the Russian and Ukrainian side,” explained Evgenii, an officer of the 28th brigade, during an earlier conversation in a Donetsk cafe.
The Ukrainian army adapting its tactics
Lacking air defense systems to effectively cover the entire front, the Ukrainian army had to adapt its tactics in the face of this new threat. “As you can see, we have to move at night,” says Andrii.
Bohdan, a soldier with the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade “Edelweiss,” describes how he narrowly escaped a drone strike during a recent mission: “We had just entered a shelter when the device spotted us and its pilot tried to crash him inside. Fortunately, it missed us and exploded a few meters away.”
Cold drains the batteries.
If the two warring parties have adopted this new technology, Russian production capacities are much greater than those of Ukraine. After several unsuccessful attempts, Andrii and his group finally manage to pick up the signal from the drone installed outside the trench. The device flies away, whirring, before crashing out a few dozen meters away.
“Humidity interferes with the signal, and cold drains the battery,” Andrii explains.
It's 11p.m., their expedition is over. There is a long wait, down in the cold and mud of the trenches, before they can retreat back to camp under cover of darkness.