The images a reconnaissance drone sent back to Ukrainian forces provided a vivid portrait of the Russian side of the war zone.
Damaged houses gave way to cratered fields on Ukraine’s southern steppe. There was burned-out armor in a scorched forest. A jagged Russian trench along a tree line had been blasted by American-supplied cluster munitions barely a week earlier, according to Lt. Ashot Arutiunian, the commander of the unit that recorded the images.
He pointed to holes in the roofs of several large agricultural buildings in a village and said they had most likely been hit by the American-made HIMARS rocket system; it is known for its accuracy, and there was no damage to surrounding buildings or to a nearby church.
This was on a recent morning, with Ukrainian artillery firing relentlessly, the deep rumbling explosions of the impact resonating in the distance. Mixed in were the louder explosions of Russian shells landing on Ukrainian positions.
But Lieutenant Arutiunian was focused on the skies above. Drones have become a mainstay used by both Russian and Ukrainian forces, reconnoitering the battlefield and directing fire against enemy targets.
Lieutenant Arutiunian, who uses the military call sign Doc — a reference to the doctorate in data mining he holds from Kyiv Polytechnic — commands four teams in the unmanned aerial vehicle service of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, operating on the southern front. They deploy a variety of propeller-driven drones and planes to track Russian forces for the Ukrainian military and are constantly adjusting tactics and equipment to evade Russian interceptors.
This week, one of the units allowed a team of New York Times journalists to accompany it on a mission close to the front line as it sent a drone into Russian-occupied territory to surveil the battlefront. A condition was that the unit’s precise location could not be reported.
Amid a background of artillery fire, the team got to work under cover of a small copse of trees, unpacking equipment and setting up four antennas; those were needed to work round the threats of both Russian and Ukrainian electronic jammers that can swiftly end the flight of a drone.
The fixed wing craft the unit’s members were using was equipped with two cameras and an independent global positioning system as backup, to give the pilot several options to bring it home should one or more of the systems fail.
“In this reconnaissance mission we are investigating the terrain,” Lieutenant Arutiunian said. Later, back at base, they would examine the video footage on a big monitor to try to spot Russian military, he said: “We are looking for soldiers, warehouses, gasoline depots, whatever.”
Occasionally, as they worked, a faint humming sound made them pull back under the trees, wary of Russian drones. Just as they go hunting for targets, Ukrainian drone teams have become targets themselves.
Lieutenant Arutiunian’s other teams were out searching for Russian artillery and electronic warfare systems, and in real time they were directing and correcting Ukrainian artillery onto targets.
Ukrainian volunteers, many of them entrepreneurs and computer and technology professionals, were quick to exploit the use of cheap, commercial drones in the first months of the war. This gave the Ukrainian Army an advantage over Russian forces, which struggled with poor communications during the battle for Kyiv in March last year.
But Russia has always had a sophisticated electronic warfare capability, military analysts say, and it has since deployed its own drones, both reconnaissance drones that can spot a unit on the ground and direct artillery or mortar fire in its direction, and so-called kamikaze or attack drones, which are loaded with explosives and can find and hit a target immediately.
On our outing, as the early morning haze dissipated, one of the team threw the drone into the air. It dipped and then soared, buzzing loudly, and soon was gone. The pilot directed the craft from a small hand-held control panel, while two other members of the team monitored the flight separately on a laptop and a tablet.
Ukrainians have frequently brought down their own drones, mistaking them for enemy aircraft. So Lieutenant Arutiunian was in touch with the Ukrainian military to ensure safe passage for the drone — and that other Ukrainian drones did not interfere — but also clearing a way for his drone to cross the front line through Ukrainian electronic defenses.
The Russian interference was visible on the small monitor as the drone crossed the front line, but it managed to fly on, deep into Russian-occupied territory. The GPS system stopped working, and the feed to the laptop dropped. The drone was two kilometers (a little more than a mile) off target, the lieutenant said. “Russian electronic warfare,” he muttered.
But the pilot kept the drone flying for 30 minutes, passing over villages and empty fields before circling over battle scenes — the destroyed armor in the charred woodland and the trench that ran along a battered tree line — and landed it safely.
Back at their base, members of the team sat together on a bed watching the video footage on a large monitor. There was a new civilian car parked in the yard of a house that had not been there before and could indicate the presence of Russian military, said the pilot, who uses the call sign Hacker. He paused the video several times, examining new shapes, trying to work out if Russian equipment was concealed under foliage or camouflage netting.
Much of the damage on the Russian side has been caused by Ukrainian shelling during its two-month-long counteroffensive, Lieutenant Arutiunian said.
And the circular craters that were visible signaled the use of American-provided cluster bombs, he added.
The heaviest fighting of Ukraine’s counteroffensive is focused on two axes along the southern front, where Ukrainian forces are trying to break through Russian defenses. As Ukrainian artillery has reached deep behind Russian lines to disrupt supply lines and knock out critical weapons systems, they have also started using cluster munitions to wear down Russian resistance in tree lines and trenches.
The Russians have been using cluster munitions from the first day of the war, Lieutenant Arutiunian said, adding, “We started last week.”
His team had filmed a cluster bomb strike on a tree line in the area a week earlier, he said. “It’s a really effective instrument,” he said, but added that Russian troops had quickly adapted and taken measures to take cover to survive the strikes.
His team members scoured the battle fields and tree lines for signs of life of Russian troops. They pointed out the difference between old tracks and new ones made by vehicles through the fields.
This was an area that the Russians had abandoned after recent fighting, said a soldier using the call sign Gremlin, 23, who was a software developer before the war. She was comparing the new footage with an earlier satellite map of the area. “The Russians come back to positions they have left,” she said.
In the end, the team found nothing, the commander said. “It was a failed mission,” he said, shrugging. But that was good news, too, he added: “There were no Russians.”
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.