It was a Russian artillery battery positioned in a thin slice of tree line. Drone operator Leonid Slobodian began counting out loud as he zoomed in and took screenshots of the results. He saw at least five guns, trucks that probably carried ammunition inside, and a counter-battery radar. It was what the Ukrainian army calls a “fat” target.
Next to him, Oleksandr Kapli sent a voice message to members of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade who were also watching a live broadcast from the drone camera.
“We have to break this back and forth,” Kapli said into his phone.
Then the swearing reply: “Send all the pictures and we [mess] it’s rising.
Russian forces in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine attempt to hold the front line near the town of Dudchany after a strategic retreat along the west bank of the Dnieper. The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, is trying to regain even more ground before the arrival of reinforcements from the mobilization of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The “Falcon” unit of the Kryvyi Rih Territorial Defense Forces on Thursday gave Washington Post reporters a rare look at a day of battle here through the lens of their Ukrainian-made Leleka-100 drone, which looks like to a small gray plane. Moscow has more weapons than Kyiv, so strikes on “big” targets – armored vehicles, ammunition reserves and artillery – like the one the Falcon unit identified on Thursday is Ukraine’s way of weakening its enemy and to advance.
In the Kherson region, where the terrain is flat with large fields, hiding this type of equipment from reconnaissance drones is a challenge for each side – a challenge that will only increase as the leaves fall and the weather increases. winter is coming.
On Thursday, the Falcon unit was able to see through the trees. He located the Russian artillery battery, helped Ukraine’s own artillery target it, and then saw parts of it being destroyed.
“Our task is to determine the number of reserves that are coming in, the current strength of these Russian fortifications and to track all the military equipment,” Kapli said. “Then we pass it all on to the artillery forces, and they bomb everything possible.”
Russian forces are now massing near the town of Mylove, Kapli said, to defend their stronghold in the occupied town of Nova Kakhovka on the opposite bank of the river. There, Moscow has seized a hydroelectric plant that controls a vital water supply for Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
The artillery battery spotted by the Falcon unit was near the nearby village of Chervonyi Yar. A second drone flight confirmed the equipment was still in place, and Slobodian passed on more screenshots of the site, reading its coordinates.
Neither he, nor Kapli, nor most of the other members of their unit had combat experience prior to the full-scale invasion of Russia. Slobodian and Garry Wagner, who operates the drone with him, were cameramen for Ukrainian television stations before the war.
After collecting donations, Falcon commander Oleh Lyadenko bought the Leleka drone in April, which can fly about 25 miles and stay in the air for two hours before needing to change batteries. Sometimes the 128th Brigade asks Falcon to check certain places, or follow a column of Russian tanks to see where they are going. Other times, drone operators make their own finds.
The recent Russian retreat allowed the unit to advance into recently liberated villages and fly over territory previously beyond their camera range.
On Thursday, they launched their drone from a trench line the Russians had been using until this week. As the drone flew, some of the soldiers took cautious steps around the nearby field, firing at still unexploded mines.
During one of the Leleka’s flights, they noticed on the screen a second, longer line of trenches nearby. Two of the soldiers went to explore it, returning with souvenirs – baseball caps with patches of the Russian flag and a “Z”, the symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The retreating Russians left behind crates of pear juice, which the unit drank with smirks on their faces.
With the help of a Starlink satellite internet system, they worked from 8 am until sunset. At around 2:45 p.m., they launched the drone for its penultimate flight of the day. Within minutes, he spotted smoke on the horizon, near where they identified the enemy 128th Brigade artillery battery.
But as he got closer, Slobodian realized it was a nearby line of trees. The Russians had also tried to hide their equipment there and another reconnaissance drone had spotted it. Ideally, that’s how it should work, Kapli said — one drone after another so cover is never lost and more targets are marked. As long as something was burning, everyone in the unit was happy.
Falcon’s job now was to keep his camera trained on the area and confirm that the US-supplied artillery was hitting accurately as the shells landed along the treeline. Soldiers crowded around the computer screen and cheered as they watched the explosions in real time.
“At least we have something to be happy about today,” Kapli said in a voice note to his comrade from the 128th Brigade.
“Grilled meat,” Slobodian deadpanned as another explosion played across the screen.
Then a strike hit a Russian truck from the Urals, creating a huge mushroom cloud over the place. It had been filled with ammunition. The men staring at the screen also burst out. Now the enemy had fewer shells to attack – and fewer guns to fire them.
“It was a nuclear explosion,” exclaimed Kapli between two laughs. “We’ve been fighting for a while now, but an explosion like that, I haven’t seen one.”
Slobodian rubbed his hands. The “fat” position they discovered would be as follows. Smoke rose above the trees again. At least one of the Russian 152mm guns was damaged, they suspected. Their drone had run out of battery and had to turn around, but the day had been successful.
By Friday they had moved on to new targets, recording aerial video of a burning Russian tank on the side of a different field.
War in Ukraine: what you need to know
The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed decrees to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following referendums held that have been widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The answer: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions against Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and their family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said on Friday that Ukraine was seeking an “accelerated ascent” into NATO, in apparent response to annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on September 21 to call up up to 300,000 reservists in a dramatic attempt to reverse the setbacks of his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of over 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and further protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive that forced a large Russian retreat into the northeast Kharkiv region in early September as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.
Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.
How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.
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