The Daily Telegraph

Drones see Kyiv flying high in battle for intelligen­ce

Reconnaiss­ance by techsavvy troops – including a poet and mother – offsets Russia’s size advantage

- By Campbell Macdiarmid in eastern Ukraine

When the downpour eased, Yara Chornohuz launched her drone over the eastern Ukrainian battlefiel­d and within seconds a miles-long stretch of the front line came into view.

The Ukrainian soldier peered at the controller screen as the buzzing quadcopter disappeare­d from earshot, inspecting a Russian-occupied village a mile away in the forest, looking for hidden military positions.

Before long, Ms Chornohuz – a striking figure whose khaki braided hair extensions matched her uniform – was pointing out smoke rising from Russian positions under Ukrainian shelling. “You can see how just a drone can change war,” she said over the distant thud of artillery. “In a past century, we’d have to go on foot and risk our lives for this informatio­n.”

Dramatic changes are under way in Ukraine’s military, which has had to adapt quickly to survive, allowing for new roles and ways of doing things. That a feminist poet and mother is serving as a combat medic and drone pilot in a front-line reconnaiss­ance unit is one example.

“On Feb 24, everything changed, everything became more democratic,” said Ms Chornohuz, who at 27 has fought for a decade for a democratic Ukraine with a European outlook.

Before she was a warrior, she was an activist. In 2013, when the Euromaidan protests broke out, she was a literature student in capital Kyiv who joined the revolution to oust Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-russian president.

A struggle for Ukraine’s future was under way, with the Kremlin backing pro-russian forces inside the country who opposed greater integratio­n with the West. Young activists like Ms Chornohuz threw themselves into promoting the Ukrainian language as a cornerston­e of a national identity free from Moscow’s influence. Reading the works of Ukrainian dissidents killed during the Great Terror of the 1930s, she “understood long before 2014 that Russia would attack us one day”.

Russia soon annexed Crimea and began backing separatist­s in the Donbas. In April 2014, Ukrainians began forming volunteer self-defence groups to defend against armed separatist­s. Ms Chornohuz wanted to join but instead became a mother. “I gave birth to her on the very same day the war officially started,” she said.

The 2014 battles with separatist­s in the Donbas region revealed a Ukrainian military depleted by corruption and with a Soviet command structure that was big on parades but little else. In short, it looked like a more poorly equipped version of the Russian army that invaded in February.

While volunteer groups like the Azov Regiment held the line, the government initiated a Nato-backed defence reform programme. With Western support, Kyiv invested in Nato compatible weapons and training, attempting in a short period to develop a military that allowed junior officers to display some initiative and to integrate the volunteer units that were providing fighters as well as logistics and supply lines.

In 2019 Ms Chornohuz joined one of these volunteer units, Hospitalle­rs Ukraine, as a paramedic. But when her partner was killed by a Russian sniper in 2020, she signed a military contract.

Initially she found it a challenge to overcome sexism. After serving under a commander who thought women shouldn’t be on the front line, she switched to a reconnaiss­ance unit. “My commander now, he’s not sexist,” she said. Those in her platoon “just perceive me as an ordinary military worker”.

Reporting restrictio­ns imposed by the Ukrainian military mean The Daily Telegraph is not identifyin­g her unit or where they are serving, but in the early days of the invasion, they fought around Mariupol. Amid the turmoil, her husband joined her unit from another and never left, becoming a formal member of it months later. (Her daughter has moved to the US with Ms Chornohuz’s ex-husband.)

In heavy fighting, the unit held off armoured Russian columns with British-made NLAW anti-tank weapons, but suffered heavy casualties, including the death of their commander and second in command. Five comrades went missing. “We don’t know if they are in Russian captivity or are dead.”

At the beginning of the invasion the company evacuated casualties in an armoured vehicle. Later they obtained an ambulance, soon destroyed. Now Ms Chornohuz drives a shrapnelbl­asted Mitsubishi named Gypsy King with no windows left save for a spiderwebb­ed windscreen.

Their most precious pieces of equipment are the drones: donated civilian models that can be used as artillery spotters or, when fitted with a 3D-printed weapon station, can drop grenades directly on targets. When informatio­n gathered during a flight is uploaded to a database, even more intelligen­ce can be gleaned.

Combined with strong front-line internet connection­s provided by donated Starlink systems, the Ukrainian military is moving towards a networkcen­tric style of warfare, in which units can integrate and communicat­e with each other – a potent force multiplier to overcome Russia’s size advantage.

While the Russians are also using drones, they are not as widespread or widely integrated, Ms Chornohuz said. “Why is the Russian army so big? Because they have no interactio­n between the units; they have no internet, no phones, they’re just thrown on the ground, they don’t know where they are, where the mines are, where the Ukrainians are. It’s a Soviet army.”

In downtime she tries to remember literature, reading poems by French surrealist Paul Eluard – himself a medic in the First World War – or writing poetry of her own. In one, “About the Truth”, she writes: “And you dream of a daughter who has been waiting forever for you to return from this war.”

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