Ukrainian and Russian troops have been fighting for Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast for five months. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Bakhmut is the most important fortress in Donetsk for Ukraine. For Russia, capturing the city, which lies at the crossroads of several highways relevant to the defense of northern Ukraine, would be an important victory given the lack of success in the recent past.
The fact that Ukraine is able to hold the city of 74,000 is also due to Skala – a separate battalion of the Ukrainian army that has been stationed in Bakhmut since October and is responsible for air surveillance and assault attacks. The newspaper “Kyiv Independent” accompanied the unit on one of its missions and documented what was happening directly at the front.
30 meters separate a Russian and a Ukrainian attack team on a muddy field on the outskirts of Bakhmut. The drone pilot, codenamed “Rem”, can see this on the large screen of his handheld remote control. As his quadcopter drone hovers over the field, he sits in the hallway of an industrial building in Bachmut, piloting the high-end device known for its outstanding zoom capabilities. In coordination with other units, he and the senior officer “Duke” identify possible targets, together they correct artillery fire and support the units with their general air surveillance.
On his screen he now sees soldiers from the small Russian team shooting and throwing grenades before disappearing from the radar again. A little later, Rem then discovers an automatic grenade launcher position that typically gives the Russian soldiers cover when attacking: while the artillery fire roars, they can advance unnoticed in small groups and thus slowly but surely take Ukrainian positions.
The thing for Rem is clear: the grenade launcher position must be shelled. He then grabs the radio and announces which weapons are to be fired at the grenade launcher position with which ammunition: “Pions with clusters”.
To his great frustration, however, the Soviet-designed howitzer guns set their sights on a different target: a warehouse a kilometer away, where Russian soldiers had previously been spotted. The responsible artillery unit rejects his protests that he would rather shoot at the grenade launcher: The howitzers have already been adjusted. Rem gives the shot clearance resignedly. The fourth attempt is then a direct hit – the projectile lands directly at the door to the warehouse, through which Russian soldiers had previously come. No one can say how many of them were killed or injured by the shelling. It is highly probable that there were victims.
“Thanks for the fire,” says Rem, who was following the shelling on the screen, over the radio. Then he goes back to his original goal, grenade launcher creation. Now a new artillery team is ready to launch, this time firing a Krab, an armored artillery piece, at the drone pilot’s orders. The first attempt lands “not even close to where we intended to hit,” Rem nags. The grenade launcher position can then be destroyed with the third and final shot. “It was beautiful. That’s exactly what I wanted,” says the drone pilot with satisfaction.
“We sometimes see videos of Russian soldiers complaining about how easily and quickly Ukrainians can call in artillery shells,” senior officer Duke told the Kyiv Independent. After all, under ideal conditions, sometimes only five minutes would elapse between a drone pilot finding a target and the subsequent artillery fire. “It’s much more difficult for the average Russian soldier to do the same thing in the Russian chain of command,” Duke said.
Both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers modified and perfected the use of drones over the course of the war. In addition to aerial reconnaissance, they are now also used to drop bombs. A Ukrainian drone pilot who specializes in this type of brutal warfare goes by the code name “Contrabass”. He has been part of the battalion since May, when he was still stationed in Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast.
He knows how terrifying it is to watch the bombs being dropped on the drone remote control screen alone. Such a drone-guided attack is absolutely torture for the morale of the enemy soldiers, who have to watch the bombs slowly falling on themselves or other infantry groups. Often the soldiers hit, who can still move after such an attack, would flee and Contrabass reports that they leave the injured behind, most of whom die in the shelling that follows shortly thereafter. “In one area in Kharkiv Oblast we dropped so many bombs that the infantry and tanks seemed to refuse to fight.”
The use of drones is not always crowned with success. Sometimes the $2000 quadcopters would be shot down on the first flight. But the Ukrainians would accept this risk, says Contrabass. “One commander told me it’s a lot of money, but if you just hit one hit and dropped one bomb on those bastards – you saved lives.”
Hundreds of Russian soldiers are believed to have died in a New Year’s Himar missile attack on a military barracks. One who was there now tells why the recruits were all in the same place at 12:01 am.
The front line near the village of Bakhmut is currently the most hotly contested area in Ukraine. The true meaning of the city is revealed in Moscow, where it has been chosen as a testing ground by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group.