One week into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia massed a 40-mile mechanised column in order to mount an overwhelming attack on Kyiv from the north.
But the convoy of armoured vehicles and supply trucks ground to a halt within days, and the offensive failed, in significant part because of a series of night ambushes carried out by a team of 30 Ukrainian special forces and drone operators on quad bikes, according to a Ukrainian commander.
The drone operators were drawn from an air reconnaissance unit, Aerorozvidka, which began eight years ago as a group of volunteer IT specialists and hobbyists designing their own machines and has evolved into an essential element in Ukraine’s successful David-and-Goliath resistance.
However, while Ukraine’s western backers have supplied thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment, Aerorozvidka has been forced to resort to crowdfunding and a network of personal contacts in order to keep going, by getting hold of components such as advanced modems and thermal imaging cameras, in the face of export controls that prohibit them being sent to Ukraine.
The unit’s commander, Lt Col Yaroslav Honchar, gave an account of the ambush near the town of Ivankiv that helped stop the vast, lumbering Russian offensive in its tracks. He said the Ukrainian fighters on quad bikes were able to approach the advancing Russian column at night by riding through the forest on either side of the road leading south towards Kyiv from the direction of Chernobyl.
The Ukrainian soldiers were equipped with night vision goggles, sniper rifles, remotely detonated mines, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras and others capable of dropping small 1.5kg bombs.
“This one little unit in the night destroyed two or three vehicles at the head of this convoy, and after that it was stuck. They stayed there two more nights, and [destroyed] many vehicles,” Honchar said.
The Russians broke the column into smaller units to try to make headway towards the Ukrainian capital, but the same assault team was able to mount an attack on its supply depot, he claimed, crippling the Russians’ capacity to advance.
“The first echelon of the Russian force was stuck without heat, without oil, without bombs and without gas. And it all happened because of the work of 30 people,” Honchar said.
The Aerorozvidka unit also claims to have helped defeat a Russian airborne attack on Hostomel airport, just north-west of Kyiv, in the first day of the war, using drones to locate, target and shell about 200 Russian paratroopers concealed at one end of the airfield.
“That contributed largely to the fact that they could not use this airfield for further development of their attack,” Lt Taras, one of Honchar’s aides, said.
Not all the details of these claims could be independently verified, but US defence officials have said that Ukrainian attacks contributed to the halting of the armoured column around Ivankiv. The huge amount of aerial combat footage published by the Ukrainians underlines the importance of drones to their resistance.
The unit was started by young university-educated Ukrainians who had been part of the 2014 Maidan uprising and volunteered to use their technical skills in the resistance against the first Russian invasion in Crimea and the Donbas region. Its founder, Volodymyr Kochetkov-Sukach, was an investment banker who was killed in action in 2015 in Donbas – a reminder of the high risks involved. The Russians can latch on to the drone’s electronic signature and quickly strike with mortars, so the Aerorozvidka teams have to launch and run.
Honchar is an ex-soldier turned IT marketing consultant, who returned to the army after the first Russian invasion. Taras was a management consultant, who specialised in fundraising for the unit and only joined full-time as a combatant in February.
In its early days, the unit used commercial surveillance drones, but its team of engineers, software designers and drone enthusiasts later developed their own designs.
They built a range of surveillance drones, as well as large 1.5-metre eight-rotor machines capable of dropping bombs and rocket-propelled anti-tank grenades, and created a system called Delta, a network of sensors along the frontlines that fed into a digital map so commanders could see enemy movements as they happened. It now uses the Starlink satellite system, supplied by Elon Musk, to feed live data to Ukrainian artillery units, allowing them to zero in on Russian targets.
The unit was disbanded in 2019 by the then defence minister, but it was hastily revived in October last year as the Russian invasion threat loomed.
The ability to maintain an aerial view of Russian movements has been critical to the success of Ukraine’s guerrilla-style tactics. But Aerorozvidka’s efforts to expand, and to replace lost equipment, have been hindered by a limited supply of drones and components, and efforts to secure them through defence ministry procurement have produced little, partly because they are a recent addition to the armed forces and still considered outsiders.
Furthermore, some of the advanced modems and thermal-imaging cameras made in the US and Canada are subject to export controls, so they have resorted to crowdfunding and asking a global network of friends and supporters to find them on eBay or other websites.
Marina Borozna, who was an economics student at university with Taras, is exploring ways of buying what the unit needs and finding routes to get the supplies across the border.
“I know there are people who want to help them fight, people who want to do a bit more than the humanitarian aid,” Borozna said. “If you want to address the root cause of this human suffering, you’ve got to defeat the Russian invasion. Aerorozvidka makes a huge difference and they need our support.”
Her partner, Klaus Hentrich, a molecular biologist in Cambridge, is also helping the effort, drawing on his experience as a conscript in the German army.
“I was in an artillery reconnaissance unit myself, so I immediately realised the outsized impact that Aerorozvidka has. They effectively give eyes to their artillery,” Hentrich said. “Where we can make a difference is to rally international support, be it financial contributions, help to get harder-to-find technical components or donations of common civilian drones.”
The unit is also looking at ways to overcome Russian jamming, part of the electronic warfare being waged in Ukraine in parallel to the bombs, shells and missiles. At present, Aerorozvidka typically waits for the Russians turn off their jamming equipment to launch their own drones, and then it sends up its machines at the same time. The unit then concentrates its firepower on the electronic warfare vehicles.
Honchar describes these technological battles, and Aerorozvidka’s way of fighting, as the future of warfare, in which swarms of small teams networked together by mutual trust and advanced communications can overwhelm a bigger and more heavily armed adversary.
“We are like a hive of bees,” he said. “One bee is nothing, but if you are faced with a thousand, it can defeat a big force. We are like bees, but we work at night.”