How Ukrainians, targeting by drone, attacked Russian artillery in Kherson

Carrying a Leleka-100 drone about to take off, a Ukrainian soldier nicknamed
Carrying a Leleka-100 drone about to take off, a Ukrainian soldier nicknamed “Viter” carefully navigates a field littered with Russian mines in Ukraine’s Kherson region on Thursday. (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post)

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The discovery was made by two Ukrainian soldiers who stared wide-eyed at their laptop screens set up in the trunk of their SUV. They sat on a makeshift bench, the large plastic case for their drone. What they saw was about 25 miles away, deep in Russian-held Ukrainian territory.

It was a Russian artillery battery positioned in a thin stretch of tree line. Drone operator Leonid Slobodian started counting out loud while zooming in and taking screenshots of the results. He saw at least five guns, trucks probably carrying ammunition in them, and counter-battery radar. The Ukrainian military calls this a “fat” target.

Beside him, Oleksandr Kapli fired off a voice message to members of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, who were also watching a live drone camera stream.

“We have to smash this from start to finish,” Kapli said into his cell phone.

Then the eloquent response: “Send all the footage and we’ll do it [mess] it on.”

Drone video obtained by the Washington Post shows Russian forces coming under fire from Ukrainian artillery on October 6, 2022. (Video: Courtesy of the “Falcon” unit of the Kryvyi Rih Territorial Defense Forces)

Russian forces in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region are attempting to hold the front line near the city of Dudkhany after a strategic retreat along the western bank of the Dnieper. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, is trying to regain more ground before reinforcements arrive from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization.

The “Falcon” unit of the Kryvyi Rih Territorial Defense Forces on Thursday gave Washington Post journalists a rare glimpse of a day of combat here through the lens of their Ukrainian-made Leleka-100 drone, which looks like a small, gray airplane. Moscow has more weapons than Kyiv, so by attacking “fat” targets — armored vehicles, ammunition reserves and artillery — like the one the Falcon unit identified Thursday, Ukraine can weaken its enemy and advance.

In the Kherson region, where the terrain is flat with vast fields, hiding this type of equipment from recon drones is a challenge for both sides – one that only gets bigger as the leaves fall and winter comes.

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On Thursday, the Falcon unit could see through the trees. It located the Russian artillery battery, helped the Ukrainian artillery aim at it, and then watched as parts of it were destroyed.

“Our job is to determine how many reserves are coming in, how strong these Russian fortifications are now, and track all military equipment,” Kapli said. “Then we pass it all on to the artillery, and they shell everything that is possible.”

Russian forces are now gathering 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 power station that controls a vital water supply to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

The artillery battery that the Falcon unit spotted was located near the neighboring village of Chervonyi Yar. A second drone flight confirmed the equipment was still there, and Slobodian shared more screenshots of the location and read out its coordinates.

Neither he nor Kapli nor most of the others in their unit had combat experience prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion. Before the war, Slobodian and Garry Wagner, who controls the drone with him, were cameramen for Ukrainian television stations.

After raising funds, Falcon commander Oleh Lyadenko purchased the Leleka drone in April, which can fly about 25 miles and stay aloft for two hours before needing a battery change. Sometimes the 128th Brigade will ask Falcon to check certain locations or follow a Russian tank column to see where they are going. In other cases, the drone operators make their own finds.

The recent Russian withdrawal has enabled the unit to advance into recently liberated villages and fly over areas previously out of range of their cameras.

On Thursday, they launched their drone from a trench line the Russians had been exploiting until this week. As the drone flew, some of the soldiers took cautious steps around the neighboring field and fired at unexploded mines.

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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 and returned 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 cases of pear juice, which the unit sips with a grin on their faces.

Using a Starlink satellite internet system, they worked from 8am until sunset. At around 2:45 p.m. they launched the drone for their penultimate flight of the day. Within minutes it spotted smoke on the horizon, near where the enemy artillery battery for the 128th Brigade was identified.

But as it got closer, Slobodian realized it was a neighboring tree line. There, too, the Russians had tried to hide their equipment, and another reconnaissance drone had spotted them. Ideally, Kapli said, that’s how it should work — one drone following the other so coverage 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 struck accurately as shells landed along the tree line. Soldiers crowded around the computer screen and cheered as they watched the explosions in real time.

“At least today we have something to be happy about,” Kapli said in a voice note to his comrades in the 128th Brigade.

“Grilled meat,” Slobodian said dryly as another explosion ripped across the screen.

Then a blow hit a Russian Ural truck, creating a huge mushroom cloud over the spot. It was filled with ammunition. The men watching the screen also broke out. Now the enemy had fewer shells to attack with – and fewer cannons to fire.

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“That was a nuclear explosion,” Kapli exclaimed, laughing. “We’ve been fighting for a while now, but I’ve never seen an explosion like this.”

Slobodian rubbed his hands. The “fat” position they discovered would be next. Smoke rose above the trees again. At least one of the Russian 152mm guns was damaged, they suspected. Their drone ran out of battery and had to turn back, but the day had been successful.

On Friday they had moved on to new targets and captured overhead video of a Russian tank burning on the edge of another field.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The newest: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed decrees annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine after staged referenda were 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 family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said on Friday that Ukraine was requesting “accelerated entry” into NATO in an apparent response to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin on September 21 declared a military mobilization to call up up to 300,000 reservists in a dramatic attempt to reverse setbacks in his war against Ukraine. The announcement prompted an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly conscript men, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the war began – here is some of their most impressive work.

How can you help: Here are ways people in the US can support the people of Ukraine, as well as what people around the world have donated.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive videos.

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