(Bakhmut, special envoys). Tactic did not choose that to be his combat name. Like everyone in his group, the commander put it on. His real name he prefers to reserve it. In fact, much of what we see during the process of this note should be omitted for safety. We can say that the base of operations of the exploration squad of the brigade 28 is somewhere in the Donbas, very close to Bakhmut. It is an ancient complex full of incredible details that cannot be shared, a single bit of information could reveal its location and it would be an immediate target for the Russians. It is that there not only live and plan the operations the members of the exploration group, but also keep a huge arsenal.
“Don’t even think about filming these maps or showing references. Otherwise, in a few weeks you are going to be resting in South America and a missile is going to fall on us,” he says. Volodimir Kurt, the section commander. Then he looks at Tactic and says something in Ukrainian that we don’t quite understand, but Tactic smiles and gives a thumbs up. The commander has just agreed to let us accompany them on the mission. From then on they all get serious and start going over the plan once more.
The room’s walls are covered with large-scale maps showing different battlefields all around. Bakhmut and Kramatorsk. One centimeter equals two meters on the map you are analyzing. Kurt points to a spot and Tactic looks closer. He turns and says something to Zahar, who listens to everything in silence. Tactic is 23 years old and Zahar is 45. They are the two pilots of drones most experienced in the squad and they almost always work together. Their missions are reconnaissance or support: in the first they explore a territory with drones to find out what is on the way to the Russian positions. In support missions they raise two drones, one follows the combat vehicle that will make the attack and the other monitors the target. When the armored vehicle fires, with the second drone it can notify if it hit the target or not, and give coordinates to correct the shot. These types of maneuvers are the most dangerous because fire usually responds to enemy fire. In military terms it is called exploration in strength: Shoot at a target to find out what kind of weapons the opponent has in that position, which is discovered in a purely analogical way: the answer is expected to find out what they are attacking with.
The point that Kurt marks for Tactic is only a few meters from ground zero, the line of fire of the Russian side. They have been exploring the area for some time and discovered a possible artillery post behind some bushes. Kurt plans to destroy it and for that he prepared this mission for days.
Tactic and Zahar listen to the instructions and nod. Tactic earned his nickname because he likes to wear a lot of tactical gadgets on his vest: helmet hooks, flashlights, knives, compasses, and all sorts of patches. His favorite is one that replicates the logo of a famous mountain clothing brand but with the name changed: “donbasonia”.
“A group of soldiers make them and they sell them on Instagram,” he tells us. He wants to show us but our phones have no signal, the 4G all around the base. For the soldiers, the internet connection is through a Starlink antenna, the satellite Wi-Fi company in Elon Muskwhich donated several receivers to Ukraine at the beginning of the invasion.
About thirty people live in this strange complex. Most are Ukrainian but there are also some volunteers from other countries: a former South African policeman, a Finnish soldier, three English doctors. They all came to the country to join the Ukrainian defense and today they are part of Kurt’s brigade.
The wait before leaving is long. A lot of war is about waiting, until the right time comes and then it’s about running. Suddenly, the commander and his drone pilots leave the room towards the arsenal and tell us that we cannot follow them. It’s time to clean your weapons and have one last private conversation. When they go out, their mood is different, everything that was relaxed becomes thick. It’s not that anything happened, it’s simply the imminence of danger.
They leave the base almost at a trot and get into their vehicles. We follow them. The first stop will be in a suburban neighborhood where they have hidden an infantry fighting vehicle type BMP1, an armored vehicle used to transport troops and weapons, and to carry out cannon attacks. It basically looks like a tank. The ones used by Kurt’s brigade are Soviet from the 70s, their mechanics are simple and when they fail, they are easy to fix.
We followed them to the armored car hideout and left our car there. We get into Tactic’s truck and continue the mission with them. Kurt will go ahead in the tank until it’s time to split up to go attack. The shot will be made three kilometers away from the Russian lines. Three kilometers in these battles is nothing: while the Russian and Ukrainian trenches at ground zero may be 200-300 meters apart, artillery guns can fire up to 20 kilometers, extending the danger for kilometers .
Once in his tank, Kurt’s face lights up and Tactic and Zahar get excited. We all go out together but at one point on the way the armored vehicle stops and Kurt orders Tactic to go ahead and explore the situation. We continue our way through abandoned towns towards the front. The outbursts of the mortars They accompany the entire journey, sounding louder as we go deeper into the mountain.
“Don’t worry, they’re our shots,” Zahar says at one point. We ask him if an attack from them is usually followed by a response from the Russians. He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “That’s how it is.” A few seconds later he adds: “But it depends on the day.” When he finishes this one, we’ll know that the Russians bombed 20 different settlements in the area all day long.
Tactic advances on dirt and ice roads until he suddenly stops. He and Zahar put on their helmets. From there, everything can turn into hostile terrain from one second to the next. He starts the vehicle again and they no longer speak or smoke or smile. The truck takes curves and countercurves, we pass several churches, some destroyed. Every so often another vehicle appears, all military. Finally, after about thirty minutes, they turn behind some bushes and we stop. They rush downstairs and contact Kurt via radio, but no one responds. They try again and again, with no luck. They tell us to go up fast and we back down. “We lost signal, we are incommunicadosays Tactic. Accelerate to full speed the same way we came. To the right you can see a hill painted white, we know that the Russians are on the other side but we can’t see them because of the slope. A few meters further Tactic tries to communicate again and finally recovers Kurt’s voice. They have a brief conversation and Tactic drives the truck behind a building that looks like a barn. He parks and gives us the order to get off.
Zahar opens the trunk and removes the box from the drone, while Tactic walks the area for safety. He finally takes the drone in his hands and puts it on the mud. A second later the device moves away from us towards the sky. That sound so common in modern life, in a context like this, can mean death: the Russians use many kamikaze drones or Iranian bomber drones to carry out attacks, so being discovered by one is terrifying.
The drone’s camera quickly reveals what they were looking for. They record everything and in real time they inform Kurt of what they see. A few minutes later they receive the order to withdraw to meet the tank. We get back in the van and off we go. We drove a few miles on the way back and ran into Kurt. He is more smiling than before, taken by the adrenalin. He chats with his team and gives them new orders. We return to the vehicle, once again. Near us nothing can be heard, there is an abysmal silence, far away everything can be heard. We don’t know which is worse, having a clear vision of the danger or not having the slightest idea where it might come from. Without information there is no survival, therein lies the importance of scouting squads: they are the ones who go before anyone else to unknown terrain to make it their own.
The orders are to return to the enemy area. Kurt is going to advance just three kilometers from the Russian lines. He will be totally exposed, and his only chance to get out of the mission unscathed is to move fast, not give the Russian artillery time to see him, calibrate, and attack.
A few kilometers further, behind the hill, Tactic and Zahar pick up two drones and do their part. They also expose themselves in each mission: on the enemy side there are also reconnaissance and exploration patrols. “It is our job. We are prepared for whatever happens to us,” says Tactic. Like everyone around here, he has already seen many comrades die.
-It does not scare you?
Tactic makes a face, it seems like a silly question. His drone is positioned on the aim they are about to attack. Zahar records Kurt’s tank. The commander positions himself, makes the first Shooting and it fails. “Lower, lower, straighter,” Tactic says over the radio, giving coordinate specifications we don’t quite understand. Kurt reloads and calibrates. He corrects the shot and the tank shoot again. We hear the bang loud and clear, but can’t tell which direction it’s coming from. The drone shows the image of the smoke in the indicated place: the target was destroyed. They tell him over the radio and Kurt says something that sounds like a celebration, but he immediately begins the evacuation. Tactic and Zahar do the same, but their departure is slower because they have to recover the drones. Kurt leaves the area at forty kilometers per hour. A few minutes later we are behind him with Tactic and Zahar, not showing any euphoria, still in their pure concentration.
Only twenty minutes later we will see them smile again. And they will pose for the photos and show the videos of the mission to their colleagues at the base, who, when they see them enter, smile with all their faces and give each one a hug. Same with Kurt, everyone hugs him, celebrating that they’re back. There were times when they couldn’t.
During dinner they will talk about those few minutes of mission, which could have been worth a lifetime. The next day they will have another one, and another one, until they achieve the only goal they talk about: “destroy the enemy”.
Nobody gives much information about what the objective was. Kurt says that he’s not good for his record, but that he’ll tell the story of his record another day, for another note, but he promises he’ll tell it.
The target was destroyed. Before leaving the base they confirm that it was only armament. We thank you and say that it is a relief to know. They look at us strangely.
– A relief for what? -they say.
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