David Patrikarakos

June 28, 2024

Mail Online


The man cradles the 100kg bomb in paternal arms before laying it gently to rest on the back of the truck. It’s a small rocket that curves to a rounded snub. He loads it with C4 plastic explosive, poking the pink, Plasticine-like substance in with a strip of metal about eight inches long. Then in goes the fuse. Now the bomb is primed; in just hours it will obliterate its target.

I am in northeastern Ukraine doing what no journalist has ever done: embedding with a special forces unit during a mission of the highest national security — a strategic strike, hundreds of kilometres into Russia itself.

Ensconced in a field of thick grass and bluebells, the scene is incongruously tranquil. From beauty will come destruction. ‘You want to know how to hurt Russia? Strike them in their own land. Bring to them the terror they bring to the world,’ says Ivan, the commander of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) unit. ‘Russia can send conscripts endlessly to Ukraine. They are considered the lowest maggots in their country — totally expendable.’

David Patrikarakos is the first journalist to embed with a special forces unit during a deep strike into Russia. Ivan’s men have a specific job: to appear from nowhere to launch strikes against targets deep inside Russia, before vanishing again. ‘On social media you often see the results of a successful strike behind the lines. Many times, it’s us. Sometimes, nobody will know about it except the enemy,’ Ivan tells me. ‘But the enemy will know for sure.’

Moscow may send its human fodder to Ukraine, but it is back home far from the front in Russia that the armament factories lie and the drone workshops, and everything else that the country requires to keep its terror machine running with homicidal efficacy. It is all about interrupting the process of war, Ivan explains. The Ukrainians don’t have enough bombs to take out, say, a large armaments factory spread over several floors. But they can strike a smaller facility that supplies it with vital parts for Russia’s war. With Ukrainian weaponry so limited, accuracy — and creativity — are vital.

And they are successful. Over the last six months, Ivan’s team has inflicted $200 million worth of damage on the enemy. ‘Every operation takes days, sometimes weeks, of planning. Each target is unique; and we cannot afford any mistakes.’ It’s about finding the weak spot in the armaments production system; the parts of weapons that are irreplaceable or can only be replaced — and inadequately at that — with cheap Chinese tech. ‘The Russians still have huge problems. All their best stuff is based on technology from the 1980s,’ Ivan continues. ‘They use Iranian Shahed drones because they cannot manufacture Tomahawk missiles. We are outgunned and outnumbered, so we exploit any vulnerability they have.’

The need to strike directly at Putin’s war machine — instead of killing the endless supply of grunts he sends to Ukraine — is the reason that Kyiv is desperate for permission to use U.S.-supplied weapons inside Russia; and why more countries, including the UK, are, finally, giving Ukraine the green light to do so with the weapons they supply.

The 100kg payload which was loaded on the drone sent towards Russian targets I had been introduced to Ivan by Taras, a member of the unit and my friend, so that he could decide whether I could be trusted. I passed the test and two days later I am in a car with Ivan and two of his colleagues, Rodion and Valeriy. I am told merely that we are ‘driving north’. Sitting next to me, Valeriy explains a further benefit of the deep strikes: their psychological impact.

‘Imagine that you’re a Russian conscript guarding munitions deep inside Russia. You’ve never been to the front; every so often you grab your rifle and pretend to patrol, but you know there’s no serious threat. But then one night while you’re in your warm bed you hear a noise in the air and then your world suddenly explodes.’ He pauses and grins. ‘And at the moment we’re hundreds of miles away drinking a cup of coffee.’

As we approach the site where the drones will be launched, my phone is taken from me and put into an insulated bag that stops it sending or receiving any information. The soldiers all have secure phones. We weave through checkpoints overgrown with grass and enter a small, impoverished town with low-roofed buildings and cramped shops in variegated colours selling everything from phone cards to cheap shoes.

The ground becomes uneven. The scenery changes from concrete to shrub. We are getting close. Finally, several hours after we set out, we arrive at the mission location and park within a cluster of trees. We are now within range of deadly Russian glide bombs. Valeriy flips open his laptop to reveal a ‘live’ map. I see enemy planes patrolling the air. He is ‘assessing aerial threats’, specifically checking that there are no Russian drones coming towards us. We are now waiting for ‘the gadget’ — the drone — to arrive.

In the meantime, I am being devoured by mosquitos. They bite my neck, my arms and — confusingly since I’m wearing trousers — my legs. I swear and try to swat them away. I look at Valeriy standing stoically next to me. ‘Are you not being bitten?’ I ask. ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘I’m just not mentioning it.’

Then I am reminded — again — about what can and cannot be reported or filmed. ‘I’m sorry for all this,’ says Valeriy. But there’s no choice.’ It’s getting tense. Rodion pulls an automatic weapon from the car, slots in the clip and tests the sights. Finally, the ‘gadget’ arrives. It’s being pulled behind a vehicle in a large trailer. I walk over to inspect and find something I did not expect. The ‘gadget’ is in fact a small two-seater passenger plane about three metres long. Only something of this size can carry such a large payload.

The plane has been converted so it can fly remotely and is now being assembled. A wing lies on the ground. Several men stand around it, working on its body, screwing in parts and checking its electronics.

Next to a three-blade propeller on its nose sit two black triangular slits that look like eyes and, beneath, two rectangular ones resembling a nose and mouth. ‘It looks like a cat,’ says Ivan. ‘Yes, an angry cat,’ I reply.

A Russian tank is smashed to pieces during a Ukrainian drone strike.  Finally, I am told what the target is: a power facility for a weapons factory 200 miles away in Western Russia. In fact, the target is more specific than that. They would need ten bombs to destroy the factory and several for the power plant. They have only one bomb so it’s a single critical point of the power plant that must be struck. Take that out and the plant ceases to function. The chain of production is duly smashed.

The gadget is assembled. The men high-five each other and tell me it will take off under darkness.

The sun sets, a burning red lozenge disappearing into the horizon. ‘Beautiful Ukraine,’ I say to three soldiers standing near me. ‘Yes, but not beautiful time for Ukraine,’ they reply. ‘F*** Russia,’ is the general agreement. Night falls. The gadget is wheeled onto a concrete path that will serve as the runway. Men gather around to do final checks. All have red lights strapped to their foreheads.

These are harder to see from the air and will help avoid any unpleasant enemy attention. The 100kg payload we brought with us is wheeled onto the ‘runway’ and attached to the plane’s base.  We are almost ready to launch. I go into a mobile command unit where the UAV plane’s path is already mapped out. The men inside, I discover, were commercial air pilots in civilian life. Now that Ukraine is converting planes into UAVs it needs their skills to most effectively wage war.

One of them, Oleksandr, will control the plane remotely as it takes off, before it switches to autopilot. I go outside and watch the plane begin moving under Oleksandr’s guidance. It will take off around 200 metres away for security reasons. If it crashes, or is shot down, we don’t want to be anywhere near the bomb — its blast can be fatal up to 100 metres away. So once it’s in the air everyone gets in their vehicles and we drive away quickly.

A while later we arrive at a cafe. The mobile unit tracks the UAV — a dot moving steadily across an electronic screen. Finally, I eat: slices of ham and cheese in white bread. It’s basic but, right now, delicious. After several hours: success. The men are joyful. The UAV is returning on autopilot, to be landed safely by the operator. I am shown a video of a target being destroyed. I look at my cup of coffee and remember Valeriy’s words; and I smile.

The next morning the official Russian reaction comes on the Telegram messaging app, by way of an announcement from the region’s governor. ‘An attempt by the Kyiv regime to carry out a terrorist attack using a UAV was stopped,’ it reads.  ‘An aircraft-type unmanned aerial vehicle was destroyed by air defence forces of the Russian Ministry of Defence. There were no casualties or damage. Operational and emergency services are working on the spot.’

This is followed by an almost identical one from the Russian Ministry of Defence itself. ‘Russians, always f***ing lying,’ is Ivan’s simple response. Later I discuss the operation with

Taras.  ‘World War Three is no longer a fantasy, David,’ he says. ‘And we in Ukraine are like the great Wall in Game Of Thrones: the defence of the Western world.’

He continues: ‘Europe finally seems to understand the problem. But it doesn’t have enough  ammunition, or large enough armies. If Russia defeats us, Poland will fight but if it’s defeated, the last front is Britain. Germany has no army; France does but, David, you’ve been on the front: they don’t have the means to fight like that. There are no planes there. It’s all drones and artillery.’

War in the end is an economic battle. We are in an economic war with Russia and we are losing. Ammunition in Russia is ten times cheaper than in the West. This is why Ukraine needs to strike everything it can inside Russia — and why we cannot falter in our attempts to help it. I think back to something Ivan told me. ‘We have been fighting for the idea of a free world, not for two years but ten,’ he said. ‘We are sincerely grateful for all the help, but we are struggling. If we, with such small numbers, can fight Russia, then for sure you can. It’s time to be brave because there are tough times ahead.’

‘As your great wartime leader once said: We have nothing to offer but blood sweat and tears. Let’s remember his words — and do it together.’


David Patrikarakos is a British author, journalist and war correspondent, best known as the author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.  Patrikarakos started writing on foreign affairs, primarily on Iran, before branching out to cover the Middle East and post-Soviet states more generally, specialising in disinformation and then conflict. He has been a Contributing Editor at the Daily Beast and Contributing Writer at Politico Europe. Patrikarakos is currently the foreign correspondent for the online magazine UnHerd and writes for a variety of publications in the United Kingdom and United States.