On the Ground

Putin’s forces killed his brother. He takes revenge using hundreds of suicide drones to blow Russian troops up

Askold Krushelnycky visits the concealed base of the ‘Barney Unit’ in eastern Ukraine. Created by Stepan Barna in the wake of the death on the front line of his older brother Oleh, its drone operators claim to have achieved more than 100 kills

Saturday 01 June 2024 17:40 BST
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Stepan Barna, left, with his brother Oleh, shortly before Oleh was killed in action in April 2023
Stepan Barna, left, with his brother Oleh, shortly before Oleh was killed in action in April 2023 (Barna family)

Many soldiers will insist that killing their enemies is not personal. But when Stepan Barna’s suicide drone unit takes Russian soldiers’ lives, he does not disguise his feeling that every killing is a very personal payback for the death of his brother last year.

Stepan and his older brother, Oleh, were both well-known Ukrainian politicians long before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Stepan had been the governor of the Ternopil region in the country’s west.

Oleh had been a member of the Ukrainian parliament. He gained notoriety in 2015 when he grabbed the then prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, whose politics he disagreed with, while Yatseniuk was addressing the parliament, and dragged him off the podium.

Both brothers joined the Ukrainian army days after the invasion started and took part in some of the war’s fiercest battles. Oleh was one day short of his 55th birthday when he was killed in action near the town of Vuhledar in the eastern region of Donetsk in April 2023.

Stepan says: “I realised a year ago that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were going to transform, enormously, the nature of this conflict, and that drone warfare was fast evolving into one of the dominant battlefield factors.”

Although the Ukrainian military, compensating for Russia’s overwhelming superiority in numbers of troops and weapons, had started experimenting with and utilising drones after Putin illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, many still regarded UAVs as almost toy-like and insignificant early on in this invasion.

Last year, Stepan experienced first-hand how devastating drones can be. He and a group of his comrades from the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, in which he serves as a senior sergeant, were defending a location near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.

Stepan, the unit’s founder, was the governor of the Ternopil region in the country’s west before the Russian invasion
Stepan, the unit’s founder, was the governor of the Ternopil region in the country’s west before the Russian invasion (Askold Krushelnycky)

Their position, fortified with trenches and bunkers, jutted out into Russian-occupied territory. The enemy surrounded them on three sides. “The skies were crowded with Russian drones ... attacking us. The area was mostly flat steppe with no trees or other cover, so vehicles coming to resupply us or evacuate our wounded were easy targets. We had to carry shells for our artillery on our shoulders over open ground. You can imagine what that felt like,” Stepan says.

He says that last December his battalion commander allowed him to start organising his own drone unit operating along their three-mile section of the brigade’s 20-mile front west of Bakhmut. Stepan was confident he could leverage the contacts he had made and those who had voted for him when he held political office to get funds and receive drones for the unit of 15 men he picked.

After a period of training in the mechanics and piloting of first-person view (FPV) drones – using goggles showing a pilot’s view of the drone’s video camera – the unit began working. It is called “Barney” – a play on the Barna name and that of a cartoon bear on wrappers of a favourite children’s chocolate bar.

Speaking from a concealed base behind the brigade’s lines, Stepan says: “Like everyone else here, I’m fighting for my country. But when you lose your brother in that fight, of course it affects you. This unit is a type of memorial to my brother. People contribute funds to us in the name of my brother. That includes my parents. But it’s not just for my brother.”

A drone operator in eastern Ukraine – early on in the Russian invasion, many still regarded the devices as almost toy-like
A drone operator in eastern Ukraine – early on in the Russian invasion, many still regarded the devices as almost toy-like (Reuters)

He is clear about the toll it takes. “We work 24/7, with around half of us at this base at any time, and groups of usually three in two forward positions.”

“We work very close to the enemy. At present we have two forward positions: one two-and-a-half kilometres from enemy lines, and the other one kilometre. So very close to the enemy, practically next to them,” Stepan adds.

It is at the forward positions that the unit’s men fly the FPV drones at targets that have been identified by reconnaissance. The operators can chase vehicles at 60mph and follow enemy soldiers into their trenches and bunkers.

While The Independent is visiting the base, one of the forward units reports that it has been spotted by what appears to be a Russian reconnaissance group consisting of seven men. The men at the base watch video monitors showing a feed from a reconnaissance drone flying high above the area – the Russians cautiously closing the approximately 700-metre distance to the three drone operators.

Rapid communications fly between the base and its commanders at brigade HQ to decide how to save the three men at the forward post from capture or death.

One of the Barney Unit’s members, with the call-sign “Simon”, says of the situation: “If our guys try to run they will be shot down or blown up by drones. Sending a vehicle to extract them is a dangerous option, because it’ll be an easy target – but we’ll take that risk if there’s no other way.”

The Russians reach about 300 metres from the drone operators before the decision is made to send Ukrainian fighters – likely snipers – towards the three trapped men. A firefight erupts and the Ukrainians shoot dead two of the Russians, while the others flee back towards their units.

Barney Unit monitors three comrades who are threatened by an approaching Russian reconnaissance group
Barney Unit monitors three comrades who are threatened by an approaching Russian reconnaissance group (Askold Krushelnycky)

Very quickly, everyone returns to their work. With relief obvious in his voice, Simon explains how the unit only uses “suicide drones” as “they don’t come back”.

He adds: “The Russians can track it as the drone returns, identify our positions and hit us. There are drones which drop their bombs and come back, but we don’t use them at all.”

The unit uses at least 400 drones per month, each costing around $450 (£350). The simple, light drones have a cross-shaped skeleton, with propellers at each of the four tips. They cost a fraction of the cost of an artillery shell or rocket, but can destroy a Russian armoured vehicle worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Parts for the drones come from Ukraine and elsewhere. But the biggest share of the thousands of drones used by Ukraine and Russia each week are purchased from China.

At the Barney Unit’s base, in the Siversk area of the Donetsk region, each drone is inspected and adjusted for a specific role. “Farmer” – whose call sign derives from his pre-war job as a turkey farmer – says: “When they come in, these birds [drones] are for civilian use, for pleasure maybe. But it’s not a fighting bird. We do everything to make sure it flies properly; that turns it into a fighting drone.”

Farmer, with soldering iron in hand, adapts the drone’s computer to recognise the signals from new components governing the detonation of the explosive. He says his unit tries to devise improvements to every part of the drones – from making them faster to enabling them to better elude Russian electronic jamming designed to down them.

He says the unit has to master the latest developments in technology, but also uses “primitive” techniques to manufacture explosives. Leading the way into a camouflaged outdoor area, Farmer shows one of his unit bashing away to break an explosive removed from a landmine into smaller pieces. Another one melts the shards atop a makeshift woodstove before pouring the liquid into moulds of different shapes.

He adds: “We have had to make do for the last six months with a lack of artillery and rocket shells. We have to do stuff like this – melting explosives to manufacture supplies for the unit. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ll have to fight the Russians with bows and arrows next.”

Soldiers from the unit, in the Siversk area of the Donetsk region, melt explosive gathered from a mine to form a drone bomb
Soldiers from the unit, in the Siversk area of the Donetsk region, melt explosive gathered from a mine to form a drone bomb (Askold Krushelnycky)

Many soldiers along the front line faced shortages of shells when fresh military aid from the US was held up in Congress. An aid bill was signed off in April, but supplies have only just begun to reach them.

Farmer says both Ukraine and Russia are racing to develop artificial intelligence systems to guide the flight of drones. “When that happens, the existing electronic countermeasures, which disrupt the signals between the FPV operator and the drone, will be redundant,” he adds. “It will take drones to another technological level and will change warfare for ever.”

Farmer's comrade, Winston (who chose the codename because Churchill is a hero of his), says the distance the drones travel and their speed depends on the weight of both the battery and the explosive device they carry. He adds: “Other factors are the temperature and wind speeds. If we aren’t flying far, then we put in a smaller battery, and the drone, with a 3kg bomb – the maximum weight of the bombs we use, can go several kilometres.”

“There are differences in [the] size of the batteries,” he adds. “We have some weighing 200g, others 500g. If we reduce the weight of the battery, we increase the weight of the bomb. The bigger the bomb, the larger the explosion. It’s simple maths.”

Unit member Simon says: “Before this, I was in the infantry for a year. It was close-up and terrifying, and you didn’t think about the fact you were shooting a person... you don’t usually get a chance to see who exactly you’ve shot, but you know it’s absolutely real.

“Here, it’s different: you don’t get the feeling that you’ve killed a human. You see the target, but when you hit there’s an explosion, and you lose the video, and you don’t see the instant of death. So it’s like a game.”

Stepan says their drones hit their targets more than 70 per cent of the time, adding: “We don’t know exactly how many Russians we have killed since we started – much more than 100. The biggest motivation for the unit is to defeat the Russians and get the b*****ds out of our territory.

“But I do believe that each time one of our drones hits the Russians it’s payback for them killing Oleh. So is revenge at work here? Yes, it is!”

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