Sasha dangerously steps on the accelerator of the green camouflaged SUV he’s driving. His rifle — resting on the back seat — bounces up and down with the sharp turns that the vehicle is taking. Sasha is driving some of his companions to a crucial point at the front, where Ukraine is developing its counteroffensive to locate enemy targets, which they can then bomb with mortars or kamikaze drones.
The road isn’t really suitable for traveling at 90 miles per hour, but at the front, almost anything goes to avoid possible attacks. Some columns of smoke can be seen, rising from where projectiles hit. Despite the screech of the tires and the noise of the engine, detonations can clearly be heard. Off the shoulder of the road, armored vehicles try to remain out of sight under the trees.
A continuous roar welcomes visitors to Mala Tomachka, a small town in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. It overlooks Novopokrovka, where, according to the government in Kyiv, the Russians have recently been losing ground. It is there where some of the most intense clashes between the two armies have been taking place, in the midst of the counteroffensive that Ukraine launched a couple of weeks ago.
The destination towards which Sasha is roughly heading is a dilapidated house that serves as a base for him and his comrades. This group — known as the Thor unit, which operates under the umbrella of the National Police — is carrying out surveillance tasks, observing the Russians with the use of reconnaissance drones. This is an increasingly common way of fighting: from a distance, with technology as a weapon. Throughout the day, none of these men put their finger on the trigger of their gun. They also don’t approach the enemy trenches, although they can see them perfectly over their screens.
The coordinates obtained with the drones are used to program attacks on those specific points. Sasha — who was previously deployed to Kherson for eight months with this same team and participated in the city’s liberation last November — prefers not to offer strategic and tactical details about the counteroffensive. However, he acknowledges that things have been tough; they have suffered significant casualties.
Next to one of the walls of the house that serves as a makeshift barracks, 26-year-old August (none of the soldiers provide their surnames), launches a remote-controlled drone. Very shortly after, it’s already flying over an occupied zone. “They’re a couple of miles away,” one of the young men notes. August — who carries a small stuffed animal on his shoulder, which belonged to a friend who died in the battle of Mariupol — fixes his eyes on the screen in his hands, while using his fingers to control the drone and direct it towards the desired location. “I see you. I want to kill you,” he grumbles, without getting distracted when he observes a group of Russian soldiers walking along a road. “A perfect target,” he notes. The reconnaissance operation is followed live via telephone by a superior who is in the Orikhiv area, a few miles further back in the Ukrainian positions. He’s the one who ultimately decides what to do.
Like hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, August wasn’t in the military before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion was launched in February of last year. This young man, who hails from the Kyiv region, once earned his living as a financial auditor. And, until about a month ago, when he was trained as a drone operator, he worked as a combat medic along the Kyiv, Izium, Lyman and Vuhledar frontlines, something he continues to do now, but as a second occupation.
The members of the unit limit the amount of the time they spend out in the open, so as not to give the Russians any opportunities to discover their location. “Be careful — it’s very likely that the Russian artillery has located us and will fire,” August warns, after directing several round-trip drone flights. The launching of projectiles from the Russian side also forces them to remain under cover. The blows — which sometimes make the walls of the old house tremble — are incessant. Sometimes, the whistle that announces them leads everyone to immediately run to safety downstairs in the pantry, which now serves as a bomb shelter.
The location of enemy positions allows for the first kamikaze drone strikes to be made against a line of Russian trenches. Mikola — one of the members of the Thor unit — attaches the bomb, weighing less than two pounds, to the device, which is equipped with a camera that allows its mission to be monitored. Once it takes off, the flight can be observed at all times on-screen. When the ditch that the Russians have taken shelter in is only a short distance away, the image is lost. “No signal,” the screen reads. The Ukrainians cannot confirm if the device hit its target. The men don’t stop moving amid the network of cables, antennas, mobile phones and drones that have been donated to the war effort.
“In the Orikhiv area, separate National Guard units are conducting offensive assault operations. Despite the significant density of mine-barriers and heavy artillery fire, they have made some progress going deep, [about 2,000 to 5,000 feet] in the direction of Novopokrovka,” said Colonel Mikola Urshalovich on Thursday, June 15, in a statement made to the Ukrainian National News Agency. “Our troops are facing strong enemy resistance and superior numbers of [Russian] men and weapons,” acknowledged Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar. However, on her Telegram account, she added that the Ukrainian army is advancing “slowly but surely” and “inflicting significant losses.”
The Thor unit, however, has another problem. In just a few minutes, they’ve assembled a new kamikaze drone but, unlike the previous one, at the moment of takeoff, it doesn’t budge. They all stare at it, as if trying to make it shoot up with the force of their gaze. No one can approach the device as the attached explosive would go off. What was supposed to be a weapon against the enemy has become a threat to their own lives.
Mikola, 32, runs around, trying to come up with a solution. Even losing his left foot in July of last year (after stepping on a mine in Kherson) couldn’t prevent him from returning in November to fight alongside his fellow combatants. “I wanted to be with them again as soon as possible,” he says. For more than an hour, the men try everything to repair the damaged drone from a distance, while requesting help over the phone from specialists. They make long tongs with two iron bars and a pair of pliers. They also attach a rope to a wire hook. Finally, after more than an hour, they manage to separate the cable that activates the bomb and recover the drone. Everyone is unscathed.
Last week, in the area of Mala Tomachka and Novopokrovka, local Ukrainian army units lost several armored vehicles and tanks, which had been provided by Western allies to carry out the current military campaign. The images, published by Russian sources, were confirmed by military analysts. The extensive Russian defenses along hundreds of miles of front pose a challenge for the Ukrainian advance. The Zaporizhzhia region is key to the counteroffensive, as it hosts a large part of the land corridor that allows Moscow to connect the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula with its own territory, thus greatly facilitating the logistics of an invasion. On top of this, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe is in Zaporizhzhia. It’s currently occupied by Russian forces.
During their day-to-day lives, the members of the Thor unit don’t only act as part of a well-oiled war machine. The months of fighting and difficulties faced by these volunteers — who didn’t previously belong to the armed forces — have resulted in them forging a solid friendship.
Sasha, whose wife and two small children are living in Germany, says that, when they achieve victory, he will no longer dedicate himself to fighting professionally. Despite everything, he tries to go to the gym every day in the city of Zaporizhzhia, where several members of the unit have rented a house. He says that there are times when he has to move with up to 130 pounds loaded on his body. “In addition to physical stamina, sport gives me mental strength, discipline and even removes my fear,” he explains.
In the midst of war, with explosions in the background, the climate of camaraderie and humor allows for the release of tension. The men joke and even sing. In one of these relaxed moments, one of the soldiers lifts up the left leg of Mikola’s pants, where the prosthesis that allows him to walk appears. There, on the plastic, they have written in black marker: “Discount on pedicure.”
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