KYIV, Ukraine — As the Russian army made its move on Kyiv in late February, the Ukrainian defences enlisted a drone pilot to pinpoint a column of military vehicles approaching the capital from the west.
The civilian who took on the task sent his drone up in a field near his house and found the Russian convoy. Ukrainian artillery destroyed it and the drone operator was quietly saluted as a hero.
He’s also 15.
In an interview with Global News, Andrii Pokrasa acknowledged he was the kid who helped stop the Russian invasion of Kyiv.
The incident was confirmed by his parents, the head of the Ukrainian drone owners federation and a commander in the armed forces unmanned reconnaissance section.
“He was the only one who was experienced with drones in that region,” explained the commander, Yurii Kasjanov. “He’s a real hero, a hero of Ukraine.”
Pokrasa said the experience was “very, very scary” but he didn’t want the Russian soldiers to overrun his town.
He said the civil defence forces turned to him because they needed the GPS coordinates of the Russian column so it could be targeted.
“They provided us information where approximately the Russian column could be. Our goal was to find the exact coordinates and provide the coordinates to the soldiers,” Pokrasa said.
“It was one of the biggest columns that was moving on the Zhytomyr road and we managed to find it because one of the trucks turned on its lights for a long time.”
His father passed the details over to a territorial defence unit using a social media app and the Russian invasion force was stopped near Berezivka, about 40 kilometres 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 specifically where they should shell with artillery.”
Global News is not publishing the name of Pokrasa’s town for security reasons.
Consumer drones have become a crucial tool in the Ukraine war. Hundreds of civilian drone operators have been documenting 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 nowhere to hide, all because of commercial technology that even kids can operate.
“It’s a game-changer for the war,” said Taras Troiak, a former drone retailer who heads the Federation of Drone Owners of Ukraine.
Following the Feb. 24 invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin, Troiak started a Facebook group to encourage civilian drone operators to locate Russian forces near Kyiv and inform the military.
About 1,000 civilian operators have since joined the effort, and drones have been arriving from supporters in Europe and North America, he said.
“If we didn’t have such operators and drones who can help the Ukrainian army, I think Kyiv already could be occupied by Russian forces,” said Troiak.
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 Russians, after this, became dead,” he said during an interview at his office in Kyiv.
Despite his role repelling the invasion, Pokrasa seemed like an otherwise typical teen. There was a skateboard and trampoline in his yard, and a bike on the front porch.
Afraid of heights, he saw a YouTube video of drone footage filmed over Kyiv and became hooked on looking at the world from above, he said.
Using money he and his father made buying and selling crypto-currency, he bought his first mini-drone last summer and began flying it every day, although once school began he wasn’t able to spend as much time with it.
When the Russians came, he initially stayed home with his family. But a few days into the war he was asked to help because he was the only person in the region with a working drone.
Because his neighbors frowned on his drone, fearing it would make them targets, he took it to a nearby field with his father after dark. He eventually spotted the moving headlights that gave away the Russian convoy.
“It was two kilometres 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 also it was people there. They were occupiers but anyway they were people,” he said.
Using a bigger drone with a longer range supplied by the 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 ‘Are you not afraid?’ And he replied ‘Yes I am scared but I can’t do it any other way.’”
The commander said many youths too young to join the armed forces had been contributing, not only with drones but also by relaying information collected by watching Russian troops from their homes and vehicles.
“They feel themselves free people in a free land so that’s why they wanted to be part of it.” he said.
Pokrasa’s mother Iryna said she was worried when her husband began taking their son out at night to look for Russian soldiers “but they also didn’t tell me a lot of things.”
She eventually took him to Poland to finish the grade nine school year, although she said he wanted to stay in Ukraine and keep helping.
She said she was proud of her son, whom she felt was destined for a career as an entrepreneur but needed to spend more time on his studies.
Pokrasa said some of his friends were impressed and others weren’t when they heard about how he had taken on one of the world’s strongest armies with his drone.
“They’re not really the strongest army,” he said.