March 30, 2023

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In the Donbass, Ukrainian geeks’ tech guerilla fatigue

Flying or Landing Drones, Spying or Destruction: In the basement of a house near the frontline in the Ukrainian-controlled Donbass, a handful of geeks-turned-soldiers work in a “new generation” of guerrilla warfare.

Electronic components, laptops, documents are spread out on two tables in a dimly lit room… This is where these young Ukrainian workers, whose average age is no more than 25, work.

In another room, the house’s former laundry room, drones are repaired using spare parts taken from other planes damaged in the “war” against the Russians.

Outside, in the background, cannon fire from the near front.

In a shed at the bottom of the garden, a 19-year-old boy named “Varnak” converts grenades designed to be used to throw grenades into bombs that can be fired from drones.

Add paddles to them and change the burst pattern, he says with a laugh.

“In my unit I manage explosives (…) we work on grenades, we make homemade explosives,” said the young man who joined the unit after responding to a notification on Twitter.

On the small bombs, Varnak inscribed personalized messages for the Russian enemy: “Victory and Happy Birthday! Or “those who live without freedom have bad taste”.

In the house’s garage, a platform filled with electronics is mounted on four wheels: the team is putting the finishing touches on a kamikaze drone that can carry an anti-tank mine to destroy an enemy tank. or any other explosive.

In one corner of the room, a heavy machine gun robot waits to be turned into a firing station.

– “Volunteers” –

“Actor” (“Actor” in Ukrainian), 22, was a student at the Igor Sikorsky Technical University in Kiev when the Russian invasion began on February 24. Today, he’s in uniform and working on “robotics” to perfect a kamikaze drone.

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According to him, these technologies can make a difference in the conflict in Ukraine “because the current war (…) is a new generation war”.

“War is no longer being waged by armed men, but robotic vehicles, with a very high level of technology”, he assures.

“Why should one soldier shoot another when you have a robot that can deliver a ton of ammunition to an ammunition depot? “, he asks.

Their leader “Zmiy” (“snake” in Ukrainian) is the initiator of the group, according to him there are about forty men and women.

A veteran of the Donbas war since 2014, he forms the core of the group with his brothers in arms.

“Other people who are creating, inventing devices, join us via Twitter. They’re volunteers,” explains this bearded man with rimmed glasses, wearing an American flag-adorned baseball cap.

A short distance from their base and less than two kilometers from Russian lines, the “Miko” navigator and “11” pilot prepare a drone to bomb Russian positions.

Amid a series of artillery exchanges, the two men attached a bomb under the drone, an American-made model, commercially available for around 3,000 euros.

Guided by “Miko”, “11” observes the Russian positions on his screen. He then releases a vertical bomb and falls down, exploding in a cloud of smoke.

Immediately, the gunshots of the Russian soldiers rang out. They try to destroy the device flying at a height of about 300 meters with their assault rifle. But the plane returned to Ukraine without any damage.