November 24, 2023
There was a time when Maria Berlinska was simply Masha, a Kyiv university student studying for a master’s degree in Jewish history. Today she is known across Ukraine by a different name: the Drone Mother. Since 2014, when she dropped out to enlist with the Ukrainian army fighting in Donbas, she has sought to impress upon the country’s leaders the importance of nascent drone technology in the fight against Russia. For a long time the message fell on deaf ears, but Kyiv has begun to grasp it as both sides enter an arms race for a technology that could shape 21st-century warfare. “From the first trips I made to the front in September 2014 I realised that drones were the future,” said Berlinska, 35, who left the army in 2015 to found Victory Drones, an organisation that procures drones and trains soldiers to pilot them. Since the full-scale invasion last year, Victory Drones has trained 50,000 soldiers. “It is a question, as Shakespeare said, of whether to be or not to be,” she said. “The country that wins the drone war is the country that will win the war.”
Having initially been slow to invest, Kyiv said in July it would spend $1 billion on drones this year, ten times what it spent the year before.
Since then several homegrown drones have been created, including the recently unveiled Beaver, used for long-range kamikaze missions, and the Backfire, a shorter-range drone that is resistant to jamming technology.
Ukraine’s programme is, however, dwarfed by Russia’s, which benefits not only from billions of dollars more in investment but also has support from allies such as Iran, who provide it with Shahed kamikaze drones that now target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure every night. Ukraine’s allies have been reluctant to provide it with weapons that could strike targets in Russia. “The Russians are several steps ahead of us,” said Berlinska, from the offices of Victory Drone in Kyiv: a room filled with boxes of cheap, commercially available drones that will be repurposed for the battlefield with the addition of explosives. “We have many effective drones, our engineers create brilliant innovative developments. But it’s a matter of scaling up production. We need hundreds of thousands of drones a month, of various types and classes, but we are producing only about a tenth of what is needed at the front. Without constant state support it will be impossible to increase production to the level we need to be at.”
The importance of drones was reiterated on Wednesday by a Ministry of Defence briefing that highlighted their role in defending a bridgehead across the Dnipro river, one of the big military successes of recent weeks. “Ukraine has made particularly effective use of small attack uncrewed aerial vehicles,” the spokesman said.
Victory Drones, which is funded by Dignitas Fund, a Ukrainian non-profit group, estimates that every reconnaissance drone deployed saves the lives of a hundred soldiers.
As with so many others of her generation, war has taken Berlinska’s life down a path that she could not have foreseen when she was a student in the capital, writing articles for local newspapers and organising gigs for bands touring the country.
She was one of thousands of people who joined the Maidan protests of November 2013 in Kyiv. During the demonstrations that would ultimately lead to the ousting of the pro-Russia President Yanukovych, she helped to compile a database of people going through hospitals, built barricades, and delivered water and self-defence leaflets. She suffered an injury to one leg and now relies on a walking stick.
The following year, when Russia annexed Ukrainian territories, she dropped out of her studies and joined the army fighting in the Donbas, where she trained as one of the first drone pilots.
She later went back to complete her degree but around the same time founded the Air Intelligence Support Centre, a precursor to Victory Drones, and spent years travelling the world to highlight the value of investing in drones. “Governments around the world have been slow on the uptake, it isn’t just Ukraine,” she said. “But we are in the largest war of technology in history. We have to be prepared.”
Additional reporting by Viktoria Sybir
Tom Ball is northern correspondent for The Times, based in Manchester. He covers everything north of the Midlands and up to the borders, including local politics, crime and the environment, and he has also written undercover investigations. Before joining the paper in 2019 he lived in Russia.