KYIV, Ukraine — As the Russian military moved into Kyiv in late February, Ukrainian defenses enlisted a drone pilot to locate a column of military vehicles approaching the capital from the west.
The civilian who took on the task sent his drone to a field near his house and found the Russian convoy. Ukrainian artillery destroyed it and the drone operator was quietly hailed as a hero.
He is also 15 years old.
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In an interview with Global News, Andrii Pokrasa acknowledged that he was the child who helped stop the Russian invasion of Kyiv.
The incident was confirmed by his parents, the head of the Ukrainian federation of drone owners and a commander of the unmanned reconnaissance section of the armed forces.
“He was the only one with experience with drones in this region,” explained the commander, Yurii Kasjanov. “He is a real hero, a hero of Ukraine.”
Pokrasa said the experience was “very, very scary” but he didn’t want Russian soldiers to invade his town.
He said the Civil Defense Forces turned to him because they needed the Russian column’s GPS coordinates so they could be targeted.
“They provided us with information about the approximate location of the Russian column. Our goal was to find the exact coordinates and provide the coordinates to the soldiers,” Pokrasa said.
“It was one of the biggest columns moving on the Zhytomyr road and we managed to find it because one of the trucks had its headlights on for a long time.”
His father relayed the details to a territorial defense unit using a social media app and the Russian invasion force was halted near Berezivka, about 40 kilometers west of Kyiv.
“I gave them the coordinates and photos, and after that they targeted the location,” the teenager said. “And I needed to coordinate more precisely where they should bomb with the artillery.”
Global News does not publish the name of the city of Pokrasa for security reasons.
Consumer drones have become a crucial tool in the war in Ukraine. Hundreds of civilian drone operators have documented everything from Russian troop movements to evidence of war crimes.
Their images are posted online or shared with Ukrainian authorities, leaving the Russian invasion force with nowhere to hide, all thanks to commercial technology that even children can use.
“This is a game-changer for warfare,” said Taras Troiak, a former drone dealer who heads the Federation of Drone Owners of Ukraine.
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Following the Feb. 24 invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin, Troyak created a Facebook group to encourage civilian drone operators to locate Russian forces near Kyiv and notify the military.
About 1,000 civilian operators have since joined the effort, and drones have arrived from supporters in Europe and North America, he said.
“If we didn’t have such operators and drones that can help the Ukrainian military, I think Kyiv might already be occupied by Russian forces,” Troiak said.
Youths were also involved, he added, recounting how Pokrasa detected a Russian column that had crossed the border from Belarus and was on the highway between Zhytomyr and Kyiv.
“This kid sent GPS coordinates and the Russians, after that, died,” he said in an interview at his office in Kyiv.
Despite his role fending off the invasion, Pokrasa looked like an otherwise typical teenager. There was a skateboard and a trampoline in his backyard, and a bike on the porch.
Afraid of heights, he saw a YouTube video of drone footage filmed over Kyiv and became addicted to watching the world from above, he said.
With the money he and his dad made buying and selling cryptocurrency, he bought his first mini drone last summer and started flying it every day, although once he got there. school started, he could not have spent so much time with.
When the Russians arrived, he initially stayed at home with his family. But a few days into the war, he was asked to help because he was the only person in the area with a working drone.
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Because his neighbors disapproved of his drone, fearing it would make targets of them, he took it to a nearby field with his father after dark. He finally spotted the moving headlights which revealed the Russian convoy.
“It was two kilometers from us,” he said.
He had mixed feelings about the Russian soldiers who were killed as a result.
“First of all, I was so happy, but it was also people there. They were occupiers, but they were people anyway,” he said.
Using a larger, longer-range drone provided by Ukrainian forces, Pokrasa continued to help spot Russian military movements.
“I tried to protect them as much as possible,” Kasjanov said of Pokrasa and his father. “I asked Andrii ‘Aren’t you scared?’ And he said, “Yes, I’m scared but I can’t help it.”
The commander said that many young people too young to join the armed forces had contributed, not only with drones, but also by relaying information gathered by monitoring Russian troops from their homes and vehicles.
“They feel free in a free country, that’s why they wanted to be part of it.” he said.
Pokrasa’s mother, Iryna, said she was worried when her husband started taking their son out at night to look for Russian soldiers “but they didn’t tell me much either.”
She eventually took him to Poland to complete ninth grade, although she said he wanted to stay in Ukraine and continue helping.
She said she was proud of her son, who she said was destined for a career as an entrepreneur but needed to devote more time to his studies.
Pokrasa said some of his friends were impressed and some weren’t when they heard how he took on one of the strongest armies in the world with his drone.
“It’s not really the strongest army,” he said.
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