Frontline Ukrainians: ‘We Need Drones and Freedom’

12 Jun 2024

With my soldiers from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade. On the far left is Dmytro Lysenko (Callsign Lys), and the unit commander, Norman, is holding the drone. From left to right, by their Ukrainian callsigns Lys, Melnyk, Norman, and Bukhar.

In March 2024, I returned to Ukraine, purchasing and delivering drones to soldiers on the frontlines and reporting on drone warfare. Unlike the late summer of 2023, when I still felt a sense of optimism from people amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive, I now saw the great pain and sorrow among many Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline.

Even if Ukraine were to prevail on the battlefield, would it be a true victory if the greatest Ukrainians who died fighting for a free Ukraine were no longer there to see it?

Many soldiers often spoke of the need to continue the fight to avenge their fallen brothers. Ukraine’s future liberation will have been paid with the greatest price: the blood of some of the bravest human beings I have ever met in my life.

Ever since the Western media hype surrounding Ukraine’s counteroffensive subsided after the summer of 2023, followed by US aid to Ukraine being stalled in Congress and then the fall of Avdiivka, I have personally seen interest wane from both the American public and the Ukrainian diaspora in the US.

Chatter about Ukraine on different volunteer channels to which I belong is getting rarer by the day. This is likely because the most committed volunteers work directly with units now, while others have simply lost interest.

When times are most difficult, we must be more vocal and work harder than ever. We cannot rest or let adverse circumstances dispirit us. The soldiers on the frontline have no choice but to fight, and they cannot rest, so people abroad who can make a difference must step up. What greater power and value can one achieve than supplying soldiers with life-saving equipment?

My close friends Alina Holovko and Oleksandr Dovhal and I – all three of whom also volunteered with me in Bakhmut while the city was under active Russian siege – continued our work of helping Ukrainian soldiers. Over the years since the full-scale invasion, we have delivered dozens of drones, generators, Starlinks, and medical supplies, among other critical needs.

Drones: Eyes in the Sky

When I go to Ukraine, upon arriving at the front, I always deliver personal gifts of drones to soldiers. At times, some friends will help purchase drones. Most recently, a close friend from South America bought a $2,000+ DJI Mavic 3 Pro drone, which I took with me.

As a South American who previously lived in Ukraine, where some of Russia’s early atrocities occurred at the start of the full-scale invasion, he is more patriotic about Ukraine than many Ukrainians I’ve met in the Ukrainian diaspora abroad.

With several pieces of luggage packed with drones, I made my way to Dnipro via train from Poland, changing trains three times over two days of travel.

I spent time with drone units on the frontline in both Donetsk Oblast and Zaporizhzhia Oblast. For each unit I visited, I delivered either a DJI Mavic 3 drone or a new attack drone. I later received a message from one soldier that their senior commander was “happy like a little boy” when he saw the new model of attack drone I had given them, as they previously only had older models.

The importance of individuals and volunteers sourcing drones for soldiers can’t be understated. A senior Ukrainian military official recently said that Ukraine was holding off Russian advances with “crowdfunded drones” that are primarily being sourced by volunteers and military units themselves.

Vasyl Shyshola, a commander in an aerial reconnaissance unit from the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, also pointed out that it is a necessity for units to have social media. Shyshola said, “If you want to source more drones from people on the internet, having a high-quality social media channel is vital.”

The more engaging content that soldiers can capture on the battlefield, such as first-person view (FPV) drones blowing up Russian positions or heavy armor, the more visibility it gets – and, ultimately, donations will flow to buy more drones.

Danilo Makarov, a drone pilot from the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, told me that you can no longer fight a battle without having a drone above. The drones that operate in the sky give commanders a complete battlefield view and can guide their men from an aerial perspective. Without a drone above to warn soldiers of enemy movements or to help guide an assault, the soldier is a “dead man walking.”

Kostyantyn Mynailenko, a commander of an aerial reconnaissance unit in the Liut (“Fury”) Brigade, said, “We are on the frontline 24/7, and we must have a permanent feed from the front streaming from our drones. The drone visuals must never end.”

Liut Brigade

The first drone unit that I spent time with was the Liut Brigade, an assault brigade of the National Police of Ukraine.

Following Russia’s first invasion in 2014, Ukraine transformed its loyal local police, militias, and volunteers from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) into special-purpose units, specializing in assault operations.

The majority of the men from Liut to whom I spoke were former police officers or police special forces. As Russia advanced into their home regions, they left the occupied territories to fight for Ukraine.

I had a chance to sit down with Kostyantyn Mynailenko for an interview at his unit’s base near the front in Donetsk Oblast. Kostyantyn had been fighting in the Ukrainian army for several years before the full-scale invasion. Originally from Sieverodonetsk, which is now occupied by Russia, he took his family at the start of the invasion and evacuated them to safety, but came right back to the fight.

“On the opening night of the invasion, we had some Russians roll into the city in heavy armor and we quickly were able to take them prisoners.”

Our interview was often interrupted due to a constant stream of phone calls, as emergencies required urgent response on the frontline. I tried asking a variety of questions to elicit any encouraging news from him.

The other men in the unit would occasionally add to the conversation, but their faces did not lie and the tone in their voices was all-permeating. It was visible that the war had taken a great toll on them.

Although the men of the Liut Brigade have lost many close friends and loved ones throughout the war, their sense of loss and outrage is not confined to their comrades. They speak of Russia’s brutal assault tactics, which require the Ukrainians to gun down waves of Russian soldiers that charge at their positions in meat-grinding warfare.

When asked about morale in the Ukrainian army, Kostyantyn looked up at me and said, with sadness in his voice, “We’ve lost many, many guys.” He said that he is not impacted by the news in the West or by what is going on with US aid. “I don’t follow the news closely; it doesn’t interest me that much. I am on the front, and I have my guys to be worried about every day. I am responsible for their lives.”

After spending time with the Liut Brigade and doing interviews on drone warfare, we took some photos with the Mavic 3 Pro drone that was gifted to the unit. Holding the drone in the photo is the unit commander Kostyantyn Mynailenko.

Since many of the soldiers are from Donbas, they still have relatives living in occupied territories and their identities need to be hidden. If the Russian authorities find out they are soldiers, their relatives in occupied territories can be persecuted.

“The West is worried about giving us more weapons because they think if they give us enough weapons to win that we will continue the fight onto Russian territory,” Kostyantyn said. “But why would we care for Russian land? We are only trying to free our own lands. To return what they took from us.”

On the procurement of drones, Kostyantyn said, “The Russians have many more drones than us. They have a stable supply chain sourced directly from China. We have to order our Chinese drones from Europe indirectly and then bring them to Ukraine.”

He also spoke of the need for some sort of victory to motivate the Ukrainian soldiers. But to make a breakthrough, he said, “We need more support, as they are just focused on defensive operations.”

His unit was also involved in the Kharkiv counteroffensive in 2022, but he mentioned how the Ukrainian army ran out of resources to keep the push going, that they had to stop at some point.

“We don’t have enough of everything, especially artillery. You feel it on the battlefield, at every moment, how we are outgunned,” emphasized Kostyantyn. When asked about negotiations with Russia, he replied, “What do we have to give them? What more can we give them after they have butchered so many of our people?”