January 30, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

Shelling has caused serious damage in the village of Zarichne, near Kreminna.
Shelling has caused serious damage in the village of Zarichne, near Kreminna. (Matthias Somm/CNN)

The pine forests near the city of Kreminna have become one of the hottest combat zones in the war in eastern Ukraine. Almost every weapon seems to be at work here, artillery, howitzers, tanks and mortars. But perhaps the most important is the smallest: the reconnaissance drone.

Ukrainian and Russian troops have been fighting here for almost two months. If the Ukrainians can break through Russian lines and reach the Kreminna, they can disrupt Russian supply routes.

But it is a much more difficult proposal than at the end of last year. Russia’s defense lines have been reinforced with heavy weapons and long-range artillery.

A year ago, one of the Ukrainian drone operators, calling only his name Ruslan, was a snowboarding and kayaking instructor. Now he watches the movement of Russian armor along the forest paths, skilfully skimming the treetops with his drone.

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

Their job is to provide real-time information on Russian positions and movements, as well as help Ukrainian artillery pinpoint targets.

A few miles away, the Ruslan battalion, to which Dnipro-1 belongs, has its own drone workshop, where NATO hand grenades are carefully sawn in half to be reconstituted into small, free-fall munitions. Under a table lies a piece of C-4 plastic explosive. It’s a painstaking and demanding process, with one handmade ammo being produced every 20 minutes.

Some of the unit’s drone munitions are essentially fragment grenades thrown at infantry – and especially Russian private military contractor Wagner fighter fighters around Bakhmut. Heavier versions can damage or disable a tank.

The commander of the Dnipro-1 drone unit 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 done without drones.”

And that makes his men targets.

“Right now, the drone operator is one of the most dangerous professions. The enemy knows we are the eyes of our army. Once they find a drone operator, they use all kinds of weapons: barrel artillery, MLRS, tanks,” says Graf.
“We have a high casualty rate among the pilots, the enemy is always looking for us,” he says.

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