In March 2024, I returned to Ukraine, purchasing and delivering drones to soldiers on the front lines and reporting on drone warfare.

Unlike the late summer of 2023 when I still felt a sense of optimism from people amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive, I now saw the great pain and sorrow among many Ukrainian soldiers on the front line.

Even if Ukraine were to prevail on the battlefield, would it be a true victory if the greatest Ukrainians who died fighting for a free Ukraine are no longer there to see it? Many soldiers often spoke of the need to continue the fight to avenge their fallen brothers. Ukraine’s future liberation will have been paid with the greatest price there is to pay: by the blood of some of the bravest human beings I have ever met in my life.

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Ever since the Western media hype surrounding Ukraine’s counteroffensive subsided after the summer of 2023, followed by US aid to Ukraine being stalled in Congress and then the fall of Avdiivka, I have personally seen interest wane from both the American public and Ukrainian diaspora in the US. Chatter about Ukraine on different volunteer channels to which I belong is getting rarer by the day. This is likely because the most committed volunteers work directly with units now, while others have simply lost interest.

When times are most difficult, we must be more vocal and work harder than ever. We cannot rest or let adverse circumstances dispirit us; the soldiers on the front line have no choice but to fight and they cannot rest, so people abroad who can make a difference must step up. There is no greater gift than being able to supply soldiers with life-saving equipment.

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What greater power and value can one achieve than saving a human life?

Together with my close friends Alina Holovko and Oleksandr Dovhal – both of whom also volunteered with me in Bakhmut while the city was under active Russian siege – we continued our work of helping Ukrainian soldiers. Over the years since the full-scale invasion, we have delivered dozens of drones, generators, Starlinks, and medical supplies, among other critical needs.

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A senior Ukrainian military official said that Ukraine was holding off Russian advances with “crowdfunded drones” primarily sourced by volunteers and military units themselves.

Drones: eyes in the sky

As I always do when I go to Ukraine, I deliver personal gifts of drones to soldiers when I arrive at the front. At times, some friends will help purchase drones, and most recently, a close friend from South America bought a DJI Mavic 3 Pro drone that I took with me, which itself costs over $2,000. As a South American who previously lived in Ukraine, where some of Russia’s early atrocities occurred at the start of the full-scale invasion, he is more patriotic about Ukraine than many Ukrainians I’ve met in the Ukrainian diaspora abroad.

With several pieces of luggage packed with drones, I made my way to Dnipro via train from Poland, changing trains three times over two days of travel.

I spent time with drone units on the front line in both Donetsk Oblast and Zaporizhzhia Oblast. For each unit I visited, I delivered either a DJI Mavic 3 drone or a new attack drone.

I later received a message from one soldier that their senior commander was “happy like a little boy” when he saw the new model of attack drone I had given them, as they previously only had older models. The importance of individuals and volunteers sourcing drones for soldiers can’t be understated. A senior Ukrainian military official recently said that Ukraine was holding off Russian advances with “crowdfunded drones” that are primarily being sourced by volunteers and military units themselves.

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Vasyl Shyshola, a commander in an aerial reconnaissance unit from the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, also pointed out that it is a necessity for units to have social media. Shyshola said: “If you want to source more drones from people on the internet, having a high-quality social media channel is vital.”

The more engaging content that soldiers can capture on the battlefield, such as first-person view (FPV) drones blowing up Russian positions or heavy armor, the more visibility it gets, and ultimately, donations will flow to buy more drones.

Danilo Makarov, a drone pilot from the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, told me that you can no longer fight a battle without having a drone above.

The drones that operate in the sky give commanders a complete battlefield view and can guide their men from an aerial perspective.

Without a drone above to warn soldiers of enemy movements or to help guide an assault, the soldier is a “dead man walking.” Kostyantyn Mynailenko, a commander of an aerial reconnaissance unit in the Liut (“Fury”) Brigade, said, “We are on the front line 24/7, and we must have a permanent feed from the front streaming from our drones. The drone visuals must never end.”

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Delivering attack drones to the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. On the far right is the unit commander, Oleksiy Tymofeev. Photo published with his permission, as his identity has previously been revealed.

 Liut Brigade

The first drone unit that I spent time with was the Liut Brigade, an assault brigade of the National Police of Ukraine. Following Russia’s first invasion in 2014, Ukraine transformed its loyal local police, militias, and volunteers from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) into special-purpose units, specializing in assault operations.

The majority of the men from Liut to whom I spoke were former police officers or police special forces. As Russia advanced into their home regions, they left the occupied territories to fight for Ukraine.

I had the chance to sit down with Kostyantyn Mynailenko for an interview at his unit’s base near the front in Donetsk Oblast. Kostyantyn had been fighting in the Ukrainian army for several years before the full-scale invasion. Originally from Sieverodonetsk, which is now occupied by Russia, he took his family at the start of the invasion and evacuated them to safety, but came right back to the fight. “On the opening night of the invasion, we had some Russians roll into the city in heavy armor and we quickly were able to take them prisoners.”

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Our interview was often interrupted due to a constant stream of phone calls, as there were emergencies that required an urgent response on the front line. I tried asking a variety of questions to elicit any encouraging news from him. The other men in the unit would occasionally add to the conversation, but their faces did not lie, and the tone in their voices was all-permeating. It was visible that the war had taken a great toll on them.

Not only have the men of the Liut Brigade lost many close friends and loved ones throughout the war, but they speak of Russia’s brutal assault tactics, where they must help gun down waves of Russian soldiers that charge at their positions in meat-grinding warfare.

When asked about morale in the Ukrainian army, Kostyantyn looked up at me and said, with sadness in his voice: “We’ve lost many, many guys.” He said that he is not impacted by the news in the West, nor by what is going on with US aid. “I don’t follow the news closely; it doesn’t interest me that much. I’m on the front, and I have my guys to be worried about every day. I’m responsible for their lives.”

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After spending time with the Liut Brigade and doing interviews on drone warfare, we took some photos with the Mavic 3 Pro drone that was gifted to the unit. Holding the drone in the photo is the unit commander Kostyantyn Mynailenko. Since many of the soldiers are from Donbas, they still have relatives living in occupied territories and their identities need to be hidden. If the Russian authorities find out they are soldiers, their relatives in occupied territories can be persecuted.

He noted: “The west is worried about giving us more weapons because they think if they give us enough weapons to win that we will continue the fight onto Russian territory. But why would we care for Russian land? We are only trying to free our own lands. To return what they took from us.”

On the procurement of drones, Kostyantyn said: “The Russians have many more drones than us. They have a stable supply chain sourced directly from China. We have to order our Chinese drones from Europe indirectly and then bring them to Ukraine.”

He also spoke of the need for some sort of victory to motivate the Ukrainian soldiers. But to make a breakthrough “we need more support as they are just focused on defensive operations,” he said.

His unit was also involved in the Kharkiv counteroffensive in 2022, but he mentioned how the Ukrainian army ran out of resources to keep the push going, that they had to stop at some point. “We don’t have enough of everything, especially artillery.

You feel it on the battlefield, at every moment, how we are outgunned,” emphasized Kostyantyn. When asked about negotiations with Russia, he replied: “What do we have to give them? What more can we give them after they have butchered so many of our people?”

His spirit was crushed… He seemed resigned to his fate, aware that his end might be near, yet compelled to endure the agony of losing his comrades first… and still fighting.

109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade

I last visited my friends in the 109th Brigade in the late summer of 2023, when their unit was stationed close to Bakhmut. Norman, a unit commander, told me that a few weeks after I left, their base was struck by the Russians, and they had to evacuate from Bakhmut. Their unit had most recently been fighting close to the Avdiivka front.

As in my prior visit, the soldiers took me out to the field and deployed a new drone they had received from the Ukrainian government, the Backfire K1. At one point in the distance, there was an explosion, and the shockwave roared past us – I couldn’t imagine being on the zero-line, where soldiers are receiving the brute force of those bombs falling on them.

Soldiers from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade prepared the radio-controlled car to drive it into a Russian trench later in the day after packing it with explosives.

The soldiers from the 109th also showed me a little radio-controlled car they were testing. They were in the process of making sure all its functions worked, as they were preparing to stuff it with explosives and drive it into a Russian trench to detonate.

I also conducted drone warfare interviews with several soldiers from the unit. On this visit, Norman was acting differently. In all prior interactions that I’d had with Norman, he was amiable and cheerful. He has a very gentle and soft nature, and in a prior life, you would never have assumed Norman would become a soldier. When I last saw Norman in late 2023, he was still happy and cheerful. But this time around, he was different. Norman was colder, and in our interview, he was soft-spoken and seemed a bit distracted.

After my return from Ukraine, it all hit me. I now realize that his spirit was crushed. What I had interpreted as coldness from Norman was his response to the repeated trauma of watching his men fall and the toll that has taken over time. He seemed resigned to his fate, aware that his end might be near, yet compelled to endure the agony of losing his comrades first. Norman knows his time is coming, yet he is still there and is still fighting.

Our physiological instinct is to live; our soul’s instinct is to love. When we have to fight to defend ourselves and our loved ones, we will, but we can only take so much. The loss and sorrow that Norman and many other soldiers feel is overwhelming.

 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade and 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade

Following my time in Donetsk Oblast, I also spent time with units from the 108th Brigade and 128th Brigade in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. One day, with soldiers from the 108th Brigade, we went near the “gray” zone on the front. This area is contested and experiences shelling daily. Due to it being a cloudy day with extensive rain (which provided cover from drones and allowed safer movement), the soldiers wanted to show me what the Russians had done to villages in the area. We drove through entire villages that were destroyed by Russian artillery and rocket fire. There were no signs of human life anywhere; nearly every house we passed had visible signs of being shelled, and craters were all around.

A quick photo with Ukrainian soldiers of a Russian rocket (in the photo is the tail section of a rocket motor from a Grad rocket system) that failed to detonate in a destroyed village near Robotyne, Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

What I witnessed showed me what awaits the rest of Ukraine if Russia continues its advance: only death and destruction. The same destruction that I witnessed with my own eyes in Bakhmut in 2022, when the Russians were relentlessly shelling the city, killing and destroying everything in their path. Russia wants to kill and enslave the Ukrainian people, as has been the goal of its leadership for hundreds of years.

When I went to visit a drone unit from the 128th Brigade, I had the opportunity to interview Vasyl Shyshola for over two hours on drone warfare. After the interview, and while still at the base, I had the chance to speak with over a dozen Ukrainian soldiers from the drone unit. Men from what seemed like every single Ukrainian oblast were represented in the room. One gentleman from Khmelnytsky Oblast in his mid-50s was eager to learn and joined the drone unit to fight. It was a sight to behold, to be sitting down with all these men, talking about life and politics in an unlikely setting, but with a common goal of preserving their country and our freedom.

Crowdsourcing a war supply chain

While in Ukraine, I wanted to find new ways to help Ukrainian soldiers. One method I thought of was to auction off Ukrainian flags signed by members of different units on the front line. I bought six flags and a few markers, and with each front line unit that I visited, I had soldiers sign the flags. Once I returned to the United States, I sold each flag for $500, collecting $3,000. With a local contact that sources drones from Poland, I sent the funds to my friend Alina, who bought attack drones and delivered them to units that storm Russian trenches. Despite the success of the initiative, I wanted a more stable method of sourcing supplies for soldiers.

A short while later, my late friend Dmytro Lysenko, a drone pilot with the 109th Separate Territorial Defense, sent me videos from the front line where he showed how they were setting up and would be using the Mavic drone that I gifted them. He followed up with a picture with my name written on a bomb that they were attaching to a drone as a way to thank me for my help. Then an idea came to mind. I told Dmytro that we could create a campaign selling signatures on bombs to raise funds to buy supplies for the 109th.

The campaign kicked off with me posting on X and reaching out to friends to see if they were interested in donating in exchange for having soldiers autograph bombs. The idea quickly attracted attention, and soon I was busy collecting funds. I forwarded the names and messages to Dmytro, who handled the personalization of the bombs. He would then photograph the signed bombs and send the images back to me. Occasionally, he also shared videos of the bombs being mounted on drones, just before they were deployed on missions.

“For our ancestors and for the freedom of my people” – David Kirichenko. The signature and verse that Dmytro had written on an explosive that would be attached to the Baba Yaga drone. From there, I got the idea to start the “signatures on bombs” campaign to raise funds for the 109th Brigade to buy them vital supplies.

I told Dmytro to make a wish list of all the items they urgently needed. He texted me a list of the items, and I told him we would buy everything. In a matter of weeks, we were able to buy them everything they asked for. I felt like I was making a difference and having an impact. Dmytro and I talked every day, and he always expressed immense gratitude for my help. Like the others in the unit, Dmytro was a simple family man who loved his wife and young daughter. He had no desire to ever fight, but he took up arms to defend his native Donetsk Oblast when the Russians invaded.

One day, I received the dreaded message I always feared from Norman, the unit leader: “Dmytro has passed.” How can this be? I thought. I had just spoken with Dmytro earlier that day. The news left a deep void in my heart. “By the time help arrived to evacuate him, he had already died,” said Norman. The Russian strike had claimed several lives at their position, and another friend was now critically injured in the hospital, battling for his life. Norman, who was close by, had witnessed the demise of his friends firsthand.

I’ve worked with many soldiers and units over the years in Ukraine. Even in Bakhmut, I would be in contact with them, and then one day, they would stop replying. With Dmytro, I knew his fate through Norman. Dmytro was very excited to be featured in an interview for a drone report I was publishing, but he died before I could publish it.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also commented on Dmytro’s death:

“Dmytro was a person whom many people associated with the future of Donetsk Oblast, its rebuilding and development. A person who is the symbol of a new generation of young residents of Donetsk Oblast: patriotic, courageous, intelligent, open to the world… A fervent patriot and resolute warrior, who proved his faith in the sacred ideas of building Ukrainian statehood with blood, sweat, and ultimately, his life. He categorically did not tolerate injustice and fought for the truth with all his might, both in civilian life and on the front lines.”

Reflection

The toll for so much of Ukraine is too high to bear. Some of the greatest Ukrainians will have died before they could see a free and liberated Ukraine. It is up to us now to honor their memory and continue the fight. As one soldier told me: “We must continue the fight, for we will have our revenge on the Russians.” He also lamented that the bravest of the Ukrainians have died and that many have survived because they are cowards who ran away from the fight. That is a very painful thought for the soldiers. But they will continue on no matter what because they must avenge their fallen.

A military cemetery for the fallen soldiers in Dnipro. Every day they dig more and more graves for all the incoming soldiers. There are also many crosses marked as the “Unknown Soldier” as they were unable to identify them, presumably due to the conditions their bodies were in after battle.

In 1622, Kasiian Sakovych, a professor at the Kyiv Brotherhood School, wrote about the Cossacks. “He wrote of Cossacks fighting for ‘Golden Liberty’ to have the same rights and liberties that the rest of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth nobility enjoyed. ‘Yet it cannot be given to everyone, only to those who defend the fatherland and the lord. Knights win it by their valor in wars: not with money but with blood do they purchase it’” (Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, pp. 82-83). All the current soldiers who are fighting, and those who have perished or will perish, have purchased the freedom and rights of the Ukrainian people with their blood.

The 19th-century Ukrainian poet and freedom fighter Taras Shevchenko believed freedom was the most important value and should unite all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Like our Cossack ancestors before us, freedom has been our calling throughout the centuries. Now is our chance to secure it once and for all.

There is no true victory for Ukraine after such loss and destruction, but a battlefield victory is the minimum that Ukraine should achieve for its great sacrifices to protect humanity. For my fallen friends, we shall tell their wives and children that they were heroes – and the best sort of heroes because they didn’t have superpowers. They were just regular people who, when faced with terror, chaos, and evil, stood up to do their part and gave everything to protect their families and their country. To their commanders, I say they were my brothers. Those 400-year-old words still ring true: “For he that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” To their commanders and to Norman: they led these men fiercely and with honor. And their deaths will not be in vain.

How you can help: If you want to support Ukrainian defenders with protective gear and life-saving equipment, please continue donating to Dzyga’s Paw.

Republished with the author’s permission. See the original here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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