- Drones have been present in the war in Ukraine on a scale and in ways not previously seen in conflict before.
- Both Ukraine and Russia publish extensive drone footage, sometimes first-person views of graphic attacks.
- The videos feed a larger information war, as both sides lean into the propaganda.
A Ukrainian drone flying high above a snowy white landscape spotted a group of Russian troops walking along a tree line somewhere near war-torn Avdiivka. The small, bomb-laden aircraft targeted one soldier, dropping an explosive a few feet away from him. The other Russians made a run for it, hoping to find cover among the trees, but there was no escaping.
In the aftermath, the video surfaced online, where anyone can see the effects of the fighting. The horrors of war are on full display, but the significance may at times be more elusive and at others exaggerated.
So it goes in the ongoing drone war — no soldier or vehicle is safe from these weapons. And nearly two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion, the world is, more often than not, watching the war through drone footage posted regularly by both sides. The videos feed larger narratives and are another way Ukraine and Russia can influence public opinion.
“This is part of the propaganda and information war in which each side is trying to diminish their adversary’s will to fight,” Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, told Business Insider.
The footage can, accurate or not, paint a picture of the conflict, and as Ukraine seeks to impress its Western allies and partners in order to keep receiving military aid, something not guaranteed, appearance and influence can mean everything.
Drone videos, often in the first-person view, are spread widely across both Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels. They’re then often circulated among open-source information accounts that document various aspects of the war. They flood various social media platforms, like X.
The videos vary, but they all show drones flying across scarred battlefields, locating targets, and attempting to destroy them in one way or another.
Some drones drop deadly payloads onto their enemies, while others explode on impact, flying directly into tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks, among other targets. Some videos show drone-on-drone warfare, deadly attacks on operators, or, like the footage described earlier, attacks on individual soldiers caught out in the open.
The footage being released by both sides is selective and, inherently, biased, “picked to show the attacks that are successful and that support the overall narrative that they’re trying to put out there to the public, whether domestic or international,” Pettyjohn said.
War watchers are not necessarily seeing all the malfunctions, malpractices, and mistakes. The drone videos that appear on open-source information channels or are shared by Ukraine and Russia are only a fraction of the operations happening on a daily basis. War experts have previously told Business Insider that many drone attacks likely end in failure for one reason or another.
The war in Ukraine has been shaped by the constant threat of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as troops on both sides lean into their lethal and strategic potentials. The scale is unlike any conflict before, partially because both combatants are relying on them so extensively — and also due to the variety being used.
Both Ukraine and Russia have military-grade drones, such as the Ukrainian-made R18 octocopter and Russia’s Iranian-made Shaheds and homemade variants, but they’re also heavily leaning into commercial drone use.
These UAVs, like Chinese DJI Mavics, are cheap and easy to put together. Some are higher-quality racing drones, while others are the kind of simple quadcopters used by filmmakers, photographers, and amateur drone operators. But in the war, Russian and Ukrainian troops can pretty easily McGuyver those UAVs, loading them with bombs and other explosives.
Sometimes multiple drones are needed to knock out a tank or armored fighting vehicle. In other cases, though, one drone is enough. Operators can use them to hunt down targets, chasing troops or vehicles relentlessly. It’s a terrifying reality of the war, and one that’s been well documented.
While FPV drones and loitering munitions make the front lines a nightmare, Russia is also attempting to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses with incessant attacks involving military-grade technology.
In the beginning of the war, Russia was using its cruise and ballistic missiles to attack Ukraine cities. As their stockpile diminished, Pettyjohn said, they started coming up with “novel approaches,” eventually turning to one-way attack drones like Iranian Shahed-136 drones or Russian-made variants.
These types of UAVs have swarmed Ukrainian cities regularly; those that get through strike both civilian infrastructure and military targets. In one recent attack on Odesa, Russia sent 44 drones. Ukraine said it shot down 34, but those that got through struck energy facilities, leaving about 1.5 million Ukrainians without power for days.
Ukraine has used drones to strike targets behind enemy lines too. It has used UAVs to terrorize Russia, with the country’s defense ministry saying a recent attack included over 20 drones operating across a variety of cities and territories including Moscow. Ukraine has struck military airfields with drones, destroying Russian aircraft, like its strategic bombers.
Similar to the way Russia uses them, drones can be a stopgap, keeping Ukraine from wasting precious long-range weapons when it doesn’t have to.
Much of the drone footage out of the war in Ukraine has, however, been from front-line FPV drones. Operators who fly FPV drones wear goggles to see from the drone’s perspective. Controls in hand, it’s almost like any video game; hand-eye coordination becomes essential, and the experience is both visceral and intimidating. It’s as if the viewer is both operator and the drone.
Seeing combat through that perspective can skew and influence opinion.
The successful Ukrainian FPV drone videos shared on an almost daily basis by open-source intelligence channels often highlight Russian incompetence and Ukrainian savvy. Russian videos, on the other hand, demonstrate a major military power punishing a weaker force, reinforcing the narrative that the Ukrainians cannot hold out indefinitely.
On both sides, drone footage, particularly FPV videos, seek to persuade. “We’re not seeing the FPV drones that fizzle out before they hit the target because of jamming,” Pettyjohn told Business Insider. “Or the ones that go off course and hit a tree next to a tank or personnel carrier.” It’s all part of an information pipeline.
And just because another reconnaissance drone picks up video footage of a successful hit or major explosion doesn’t mean the target has been destroyed. There’s little way to confirm such details, selective editing can make getting an accurate picture difficult, and the videos frequently end before the outcome of the unmanned attack is clear.
That’s not to say though that there isn’t some really impressive flying going on, and that drone operators are exacting an asymmetric toll.
Flying FPV drones requires a significant amount of skill, often more so than operating other types of UAVs or loitering munitions.
“They’re performing some really amazing maneuvers,” Pettyjohn said. “They’re attempting to use them to take out well defended and more expensive systems” like tanks, flying around the armor to find a vulnerable point where the payload will do maximum damage.
Ukrainian FPV pilots have shown themselves to be particular adept at that, flying exploding drones into small open hatches in Russian vehicles or striking ammunition to cause a catastrophic detonation. The Russian operators are not amateurs, though, and have also hit Ukrainian forces.
If a strike is successful, the cost-benefit ratio is huge — operators are trading cheap drones sometimes worth only a few hundred dollars for costly tanks or armored vehicle potentially worth millions.
And because they’re typically far removed from the fight, the operator is typically unharmed, too. If a drone goes down, the pilot can just send another one out.
But just because the operator isn’t right on the front line and not in as much danger as they might be on foot or near the attack, doesn’t meant they’re not vulnerable to counterattack, Pettyjohn said. Both sides have targeted each others’ operators, using artillery or even other drones.
Losing pilots to counterattacks deals an especially heavy blow.
As long as the drones are flying though, the world will continue to get a continuous stream of footage in the war.
“There’s just so much more of it, and it’s certainly shaping perceptions of the conflict,” Pettyjohn said, adding that the footage can give viewers “a picture of a particular tactical engagement” that “may or may not be representative of what’s going more broadly in the course of the battle.”
“It’s certainly cherry-picked footage that’s placed online for a reason,” she said. It’s a good lesson for anyone tracking the war online: watch with care.