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Drones Have Offered Last Line of Defense for a Strategic Ukrainian Town

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The commander stepped over boxes stacked full of plastic drones and opened the lid on a new delivery. Inside lay the light gray fins of a mini plane, the latest addition to his arsenal of crewless aerial vehicles for fighting the Russian Army.

The 33-year-old leader of what an internal report declared Ukrainian Army’s best-performing drone unit, Senior Lt. Yuriy Fedorenko — popularly known by his call sign, Achilles — has been the main constraint on the Russian attempt to seize the strategic town of Chasiv Yar on Ukraine’s teetering eastern front.

For months, his drone teams, part of the 92nd Assault Brigade, have been filling a gap for other units of the army that have struggled with a shortage of troops and ammunition. The teams work day and night attacking Russian armor, dropping explosives on Russian positions and using their drones to ferry supplies to Ukrainian soldiers along the front line.

For the Ukrainians, holding Chasiv Yar is critical. Set on a ridge, five miles west of the destroyed city of Bakhmut, the town commands the heights above a crescent of industrial cities and villages that are home to roughly 200,000 residents.

Chasiv Yar is the gateway to the last part of the Donetsk region that is still in Ukrainian hands. If Russian forces were to capture the town, they would have the whole of the larger eastern area known as the Donbas within their grasp, long a goal of President Vladimir V. Putin’s. The cities of Kostyantinivka, Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, just miles beyond Chasiv Yar, have come under increasingly heavy bombardment in recent months.

“Without us, the Russians would be in Kyiv region by now,” Achilles said in an interview in a secret base set back from the front line. An exaggeration, perhaps, he said. (Kyiv, the capital, is far to the west.) Yet, he insisted, “Without the drones, we would lose.”

Achilles showed reporters from The New York Times his workshops, proudly pointing out where engineers installed and updated software, and mechanics tested the machines and added components, readying the drones for battle.

But when he sat down to talk, Achilles, a trained martial arts fighter, expressed anger and disappointment at the broken promises of Western allies and the losses that, he said, Ukraine took as a result. A monthslong delay by the U.S. Congress in approving a supplemental aid package for Ukraine left its forces drastically short of artillery and air-defense weapons, he said.

“We have an absolutely absurd situation,” he said. “Imagine a boxing match where there are equal boxers but one of them can hit once while his opponent can hit 10 times.”

“It’s an absolute theater of the absurd,” he added. With no air-defense weapons, the Ukrainians were reduced to mounting machine guns on the back of pickup trucks to shoot at Russian Shahed drones, he said.

The fighting on the eastern front has never been more brutal, he said. Since a lack of artillery rounds was first felt in September, the Ukrainian Army has been steadily losing ground before a relentless and expanding Russian attack.

The Ukrainians managed to prevent a major Russian breakthrough over the winter, but at the end of February, the Russians began an all-out assault toward Chasiv Yar, Achilles said.

With his reconnaissance drones, he saw Russian soldiers massing. “I realized they were coming,” he said. But without enough artillery shells, the Ukrainians could not hit the Russian rear supply routes as they usually would to pre-empt an attack.

The Russian offensive followed a tactic that the Ukrainians saw in the cities of Bakhmut and then Avdiivka — using glide bombs, aerial bombs that can weigh up to one and a half tons and that can smash through concrete bunkers and multistory buildings — to inflict a devastating barrage on Ukrainian forward positions.

“They were going step by step, taking one position after the other,” Achilles said. “Where our lines were very strongly fortified, the Russians were using guided aviation bombs, just leveling these positions to the ground. This is how they approached close to Chasiv Yar.”

“This happened after our shortage of ammunition and our artillery had nothing to fire with,” he went on. Cannons were firing only two rounds a day when they should have been firing at least 30, he said.

He showed on a map on his cellphone where Russian bombs had demolished three lines of Ukrainian defenses, marching across the fields to reach the edge of the town.

No one could withstand such bombardment, and the Ukrainians troops took casualties and had to retreat, he said. With his drones, Achilles and his teams watched Russian infantry advance and take over the Ukrainian positions.

Two of his drone pilots, Sich, 24, and Shuryk, 26, who identified themselves only by their call signs in keeping with military protocol, said they watched the hard-won territorial gains they had fought for as infantry soldiers be overrun.

“It was sad,” said Sich, who won a medal for bravery when he took a group of Russian soldiers prisoner during the capture of the village of Klishchiivka. Life as frontline infantrymen was so tough, he and Shuryk transferred to Achilles’s drone battalion.

Now they use Ukrainian-made Vampire drones to hit Russian positions or to supply their fellow soldiers at the front.

“We deliver them supplies, ammunition, sleeping bags,” Sich said. “One of the problems is water.”

The extensive use of explosive drones by both Russian and Ukrainian Armies has made any movement near the front line so dangerous that crewless drones have been increasingly used to deliver supplies to the trenches.

One Ukrainian unit spent 21 days in the trenches, at what the Ukrainians call zero line, without a break, Shuryk said.

“It is very difficult on zero line because it is usually full of wreckage, broken trees and bomb debris,” said Shuryk. “We try and go in as low as possible and land the box precisely in the trench where the guys are sheltering so they don’t have to risk going out.”

In mid-April, according to Achilles, the Russians mounted another assault toward Chasiv Yar, with 30 tanks and armored vehicles.

Still short of artillery, the Ukrainian troops knocked out at least 22 of the Russian vehicles, he said, adding that most of the strikes were by his drone teams. He said they attacked with drones loaded with explosives, or with drones used to drop mines in the path of the Russian armor. Some were hit at close range by Ukrainian infantry using antitank weapons.

“All that we can do now, with the drones we have, is slow down their advance,” he said.

For the men in the trenches, the superior Russian firepower and numbers are crushing.

“It’s assaults, assaults, assaults, assaults,” said Rul, 38, command sergeant major of the 126th Territorial Defense Brigade, who recently deployed from southern Ukraine with a battalion to help defend Chasiv Yar. “We have a lot of wounded, and a lot of dead; it’s war,” he said. “But I just came from the headquarters of our battalion and our guys are heroes.”

The Russians had made three assaults just an hour earlier and his men repelled all three, killing seven Russians with only one wounded on the Ukrainian side, he said.

The Russians would probably succeed in capturing the outlying district of Novy Chasiv Yar over the next few weeks, Achilles predicted. But by then, he said he expected the new supplies from the aid package approved by Congress in April to have arrived, and with them, he added hopefully, the Ukrainian troops would be able to hold the town.

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.