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13 Jul 2024 17:24
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  •   Home > News > Entertainment

    Ukraine's 'Peaky Blinders' went from a ragtag team of volunteers to an elite unit of soldiers keeping Vladimir Putin's forces at bay

    Commander Anton is part of an elite squad of Ukrainian soldiers who call themselves the "Peaky Blinders" after the violent British television drama. Here's how they managed to stop Russia's advance after its surprise offensive in May.

    For Commander Anton, it's difficult to imagine returning to his quiet life before the war.

    The 33-year-old former builder is now a battle-hardened soldier who risks his life every day, just kilometres from the Russian border.

    He is part of an elite squad of soldiers who call themselves the "Peaky Blinders", after the violent British television drama.

    Most of them wear a camouflaged flat cap with the motto, "To Find and Destroy", embroidered into the back of their caps, a far cry from their past lives as ordinary, working men.

    "It all began as a joke but then we developed into a fully operational combat unit and started recruiting members," Commander Anton told the ABC.

    "Everyone here is a volunteer. We don't have any professional soldiers.

    "We have already demonstrated that we can effectively defend our land whether you are a builder, a farmer or a musician."

    Their operations are covert, so we are taken to a secret position just 3 kilometres from the Russian front line.

    As the unit passes through the village of Lyptsi, north of Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv, remnants of Russian attacks are everywhere.

    "We have now entered the zone where enemy FPV [front person view] drones operate," Commander Anton says as he approaches the front line in Ukraine's north-east.

    "At the moment the biggest danger in this war are FPV drones."

    The team have switched on their "electronic counter warfare" (ECW), which sends off a signal to confuse the guidance systems of incoming threats such as drones and missiles.

    But it's not guaranteed to work, and plenty still reach their targets.

    The territory in Ukraine's north has been under constant attack due to its proximity to the border since President Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion more than two years ago.

    Russian soldiers made it as far as Kharkiv in 2022 until Ukrainian troops successfully drove them back.

    But last month, Moscow staged a fresh incursion into the north and north-east, seizing the town of Vovchansk, which is roughly 5km from the Russian border.

    It also raised fears Kharkiv, which has long been considered a key target of the Kremlin, could fall.

    Ukrainians have so far managed to stave off Russia's advance but have paid a hefty price in the process.

    Three villages along the border, including Lyptsi, have been largely destroyed, so empty of life they have become mere ghost towns.

    The secret base of Ukraine's Peaky Blinders

    It's eerily quiet at the Peaky Blinders' secret base except for the boom of artillery and the whistling of glide bombs, which pass overhead before they crash into the earth.

    What's most unsettling though is the buzz of drones that frequent the skies above and the seconds of guesswork figuring out if it belongs to the Ukrainians or the Russians.

    The ABC team had only been there a few minutes before the first drone whizzed past, but it turned out to be Ukrainian.

    Minutes later we are rushed into the trench as a glide bomb whistles over.

    When the Ukrainians confirm the drone isn't theirs, everyone is told to freeze in position while it passes.

    This war has evolved into a game of cat and mouse, with both sides bedded down in their positions trying to draw the other out.

    The Peaky Blinders are part of a new high-tech unit in the Ukrainian army using cheap, mass-produced drones loaded with bombs.

    They drop bombs or use kamikaze drones which are flown directly into a target.

    The potent weapons can range in price from $600 to as much as $1,000 and the team lose on average between five and seven a day to the enemy.

    Two of the soldiers work in a reconnaissance team, sending up drones to find out where the enemy is, while the others rig up the attack drones with bombs.

    Once they've identified a target, they send in the explosives.

    "The drone is either blown up from remote control or on impact," Commander Anton says.

    He believes the turning point in this war can be credited purely to drones.

    "When the Americans failed to reach an agreement and did not supply us with weapons for several months, we survived solely because of the drones," he says.

    "I believe that drones will be one of the key factors for our victory."

    How this elite team prevented Russia's advance

    On May 10, Russia began an offensive across its border into the Kharkiv region and later claimed to have taken several villages in the region.

    It prompted the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes as the Ukrainian military scrambled to get enough resources into the area.

    The army has since been able to successfully hold the Russians at bay, with the help of the Peaky Blinders.

    But in the process, they have burnt through 200 drones.

    The weapons are easily destroyed by counterattacks or lost to the battlefield when the drones run out of battery before they can make their way back to base.

    If they're close enough, the soldiers risk their lives venturing out into no-man's-land to collect the precious weapons.

    Oleksandr, Commander Anton's younger brother, signed up to fight weeks after the war broke out and is now the commander of another Peaky Blinders unit further down the front line.

    He says the situation at the beginning of the war was "bleak" for poorly armed volunteers who had gathered on the front line in an effort to stop Russia's advance in 2022.

    "Imagine Kharkiv; a large group of well-prepared and equipped Russian soldiers was advancing and they were being confronted by [Ukrainian] civilians in sports attire with yellow armbands," he said.

    "Some had their own rifles, others had been provided with weapons. The scene was disheartening."

    Before Russia's invasion, Commander Oleksandr made a living off the land.

    Now he's dropping bombs.

    "Life was pure, unsullied and good," he says.

    "I cultivated and sold fruit which allowed me to live a comfortable and pleasant life centred around my passion for growing plants.

    "The worst part of the war was the moment I realised it had started. I woke up and understood that the fears we had read about had become a reality."

    Sitting in a bunker deep underground, he operates a drone with a remote control, searching for Russian soldiers on a small screen.

    The day we're there, he catches two off-guard who mistake his drone for one of their own.

    "[The drones] represent the latest advancement in technology," he said.

    "Let's consider what we're going up against: outdated machine guns from the Soviet era, designed 40 years ago for a different war.

    "They simply can't compete with the incredible engineering of modern drones, not to mention, drones are very cost-effective.

    "Drone operators … can remain in a protected location and conduct their missions from there."

    Drone warfare may have transformed the battlefield here, but the soldiers acknowledge they aren't enough to win the war.

    The push for more access to weapons

    America's $90 billion aid package has started to make its way to Ukrainian soldiers on the front line, allowing them to better protect their positions.

    President Joe Biden's decision to allow Ukrainian troops to fire US weapons into Russian territory in the north-east has also helped forces hold back the latest advance.

    But Commander Oleksandr said the rules need to be relaxed across the country.

    "We clearly lack weapons and equipment, as well as full Western support," he said.

    "As an example, in the Kharkiv region, the Russians advanced with no resistance. But when Western weapons arrived, everything changed, and the advance stopped in just one day.

    "With our access to weapons, planes, air defence and shells, we could quickly change the situation and gain an advantage on the battlefield."

    The Peaky Blinders are a strikingly optimistic bunch of young soldiers who bonded together to fight a common enemy.

    Commanders Anton and Oleksandr never imagined they'd be fighting side-by-side as commanders in a war against Russia.

    "On one hand, I find it comforting to have him by my side. But, on the other hand, I worry about him constantly," Commander Anton said.

    "However, if he was far away, it would likely be even more distressing."

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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