February 21 2023
The pilot usually smears lip balm on the rotors of her drone before launch. If none is available, she uses bacon grease instead. Both methods prevent the drone from freezing in flight and plunging to the ground: lessons from the front, not found in any flight manual, that she has learnt in the extreme sub-zero temperatures of the winter war, where Leyla plies her trade hunting Russian troops. “I try not to think about the war’s bigger picture or end state,” she said, standing in her position on the upper floor of a shell-shredded house on the front in Luhansk oblast as artillery thumped across the vista of snow and wreckage, ruined houses, blast-tossed vehicles and icy craters. “Most days I just try to learn a little more about how to stay alive, how to survive and operate, and how better to spot Russians.”
I first saw the 33-year-old at work late last week when her drone transmitted footage on to a screen in an operations room belonging to a battalion of the Ukrainian 54th Brigade on the front, as Leyla piloted a small Mavic 3 drone above a house entered by Russian soldiers in a nearby village.
There was already a fight in the sky taking place. It was late afternoon and the temperature was minus 6C — warm by the standards of Donbas in February. Outside the ops room, a basement garage among abandoned buildings, a Ukrainian ZSU anti-aircraft system blasted fire skywards in an effort to shoot down a Russian Lancet kamikaze drone that was loitering above the position. Angry chatter on the Ukrainians’ radios announced that another suicide drone had destroyed a Ukrainian Kozak vehicle.
The backbeat of Ukraine’s war is one of escalating diplomatic polemic: President Biden’s visit to Kyiv, the promise of tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy weaponry, and talk of impending offensive or counter-offensive. But over the icy front lines of Donbas, amid the intense attritional conflict of day-to-day fighting, it is drones that at present decide the fate of combatants, calling in artillery or detonating directly among the soldiers on this battlefield of frozen desperation.
“F*** these Lancet drones,” cursed the battalion commander, Major Kyryllo Kyrylovych, 34, as he stared at his own glowing screens of drone footage in the gloomy room. “For the last three weeks they have been hitting us across this front every day. They like to strike our vehicles, but if they can’t find one of those they hit a position instead.”
As Kyrylovych lamented the Russian strike on the Kozak vehicle, on the right-hand screen in his operations room Leyla — operating several miles away, in a forward position near no man’s land — presented the chance for retribution as her Mavic 3 sent real-time footage of the five Russians entering a ruined house.
The Ukrainian officers craned forward, ordering Leyla to keep her drone position fixed as they watched the grey figures walk nonchalantly into the building. There was more chatter on the
radios as they called in a fire mission, and two rounds from a US M777 howitzer blasted into the house on target. The Russian soldiers’ fate was decided under a grey pall of smoke.
Leyla, from western Ukraine, was sangfroid about the strike when I met her the following morning. She was an IT specialist when the Russian invasion began a year ago. With a background knowledge of drones, she quit her job and volunteered to be a drone pilot on the front. It took ten attempts for her application to be accepted by a military system that favoured men. But the tenth time she was lucky, and in her seven months’ service with the 54th Brigade her drone work has cost many Russians their lives. “The weird thing about the Russians yesterday,” she said, “was that as soon as their building was hit — and no one walked out of it after those 777 rounds — I watched another patrol of Russians appear. They walked past the ruins totally unperturbed by the fate of their soldiers inside it. They didn’t even try to check on them.”
The lives of most western military drone operators are remarkable for their distance from the targets they hunt or kill with state-of-the-art technology, but Ukrainian drone pilots in frontline units live daily with close mortal threat.
Their tiny Mavic 3 drones, which are not military issue but financed and provided by Ukrainian civil society donors, are the workhorses of Ukrainian infantry battalions. They weigh less than a kilogram and their maximum round-trip range of nine miles and flight time in the winter cold of about half an hour mean that pilots trying to provide imagery of what goes on behind Russian lines have to be exposed themselves to artillery fire and targeting.
The drones are regularly shot down or felled by Russian electronic warfare devices. Kyrylovych told me that his unit lost on average three Mavic 3s a week.
Whenever the Russians find a felled Ukrainian drone they attempt to download its data to locate and strike the launch point. “So I never ever start the video feed until long after the drone is in the sky,” Leyla explained. “I have lost three drones, my first after just a week on operations, and if the Russians recover one to see where I have launched from they won’t waste any time trying to target me. We are high-value targets. A good drone pilot is a live one.”
Her position that day, one of several she uses along the front line, was rudimentary in the extreme. Hidden in one of the upper floors of a ruined building, she worked in daylight hours with a second pilot and a Ukrainian mortar officer. Boxes of Finnish and Ukrainian grenades, which they sometimes attach to the Mavics to drop on Russian soldiers, sat in open crates in one corner. The pilots launched the drone straight out of the ruined window and then, if the temperature became too extreme, escaped the wind chill by huddling with the control panel in a wardrobe with a viewpoint cut in it. Such was the cold that when I left a cup of steaming coffee on a table I returned 30 minutes later to find it frozen over.
There was an improvised hook made of bent wire hanging from a nail, which the team sometimes affixed to a drone on a rescue mission to recover a downed Mavic before the Russians could reach it and try to track them.
Once, the team told me, they had used the hook to drop a walkie-talkie on an isolated Russian position of Wagner convict troops to try to persuade the men to surrender. “But they wouldn’t,” Leyla said simply, “so we gave them some artillery fire instead.”
She did not discuss the horrors she had seen on her small control screen, though at another location near by I was shown drone footage shot in December by a Mavic guiding a Ukrainian tank from the same unit as it crushed a trench full of Wagner fighters. Nor did she mention the sensation of finding men to kill. But she did allow herself a laugh describing how she had buzzed a Russian soldier smoking marijuana on his position.
While the talk of coming Leopard tanks and armoured vehicles was of natural interest to her, it was newer, more lethal drones she said she really dreamt of. “Mostly the life here is about keeping my fingers warm enough to operate my drone so we can see the front and find the Russians,” she said. “But I do look forward to the day when I can launch a horde of attack drones upon them.”