A 22-minute video shot by a surveillance drone over the Ukrainian town of Popasna has illustrated the stunning destruction being inflicted on settlements across the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
It’s also another insight into the importance of drones in modern warfare, as well as the Russian approach to combat and the last-ditch resistance of Ukrainian units.
The drone video shows that every property in the middle of the town is destroyed or damaged. Most appear to have been hit by Russian artillery or rocket fire.
“The Russians are not just destroying Popasna. They are removing it from the map of Luhansk region,” according to the head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration Serhiy Hayday.
The drone video was originally posted by a pro-Russian Telegram channel and appears to have been taken by a Russian military drone.
The drone appears to have been used to assist Russian infantry in hunting down the last Ukrainian defenders of the area. Ultimately, it hovers over the location where the Ukrainians are cornered and surrender.
CNN has geolocated and verified the authenticity of the video. It’s unclear exactly when the video was taken, but intense fighting has taken place in Popasna in recent days, as the Russian advance has clashed with Ukrainian defenses in the town.
The video begins with artillery strikes landing close to a trench just north of Popasna’s center. At least one Ukrainian soldier is seen leaving the trench and taking refuge in what appears to be a nearby shed.
At least four Russian soldiers move towards the shed. A number of explosions are seen, including two from grenades thrown by a Ukrainian soldier inside the shed.
The drone video shows a Russian soldier throwing at least four grenades into or near the shed in which Ukrainian forces are sheltering. It’s unclear whether any Ukrainian soldiers are killed or injured by the explosions.
A later segment shows a number of Ukrainian soldiers lying on their stomachs outside. Again the drone is employed to survey the immediate vicinity, apparently to look for any movement or additional Ukrainian soldiers.
Then, it shows at least six Ukrainian soldiers being escorted away, hands on their heads, and into Russian custody.
Some pro-Russian social media accounts say the Russian soldiers are actually private military contractors with the Wagner Group – a private military contractor with ties to the Kremlin that has sent operatives to Syria, Libya and several African countries – which has been involved in the Donbas conflict since 2014. CNN cannot verify that, but Western intelligence agencies have said that Russian forces are employing private contractors or mercenaries in the conflict.
The video also provides a glimpse into the Russian way of warfare, which holds that ground offensives should be preceded by massive “indirect fire” from artillery and rocket systems. Russian forces have a vast superiority over the Ukrainians in such systems, and Ukraine does not have enough air power to put a serious dent in them.
In addition, Russian combat helicopters have been geolocated in the area in the last few days.
As a recent study by the US defense think tank RAND noted, Russian battle groups are top-heavy with artillery. “The main effort of a major Russian offensive operation likely would have maneuver units supported by an equal or greater number of artillery units. They will use large quantities of cluster munitions and artillery-delivered mines,” the report predicted.
Some analysts believe Russia has more than 50 battalion tactical groups, each of which would have about 1,000 soldiers, in the arc from Popasna to Izium further north. It’s an enormous concentration of power.
Despite weeks of shelling and rocket attacks, Ukrainian forces have refused to cede ground to the Russians in several towns in Luhansk and Donetsk. Only when they have nothing left to defend do they make a tactical retreat to prevent being captured.
That’s what happened in the town of Kremmina in April.
“In Kremmina, we understood that if we just held on to the land, the boys would die, and there would be no harm to the enemy, so we regrouped and left,” Hayday said.
But for at least a handful of Ukrainian soldiers in Popasna, escape was no longer an option.