Inside the 'f---ing drone team' the Russians are desperate to capture

·4-min read
Yevhen Pronin - Ukraine Athletics Federation acting president Yevhen Pronin: ‘I dropped bomb and two soldiers died’
Yevhen Pronin - Ukraine Athletics Federation acting president Yevhen Pronin: ‘I dropped bomb and two soldiers died’

Yevhen Pronin, the acting president of the Ukraine Athletics Federation, presses play on a video on his phone. “There are two Russian soldiers here,” he says, matter of fact. “So I drop the bomb here, like a basketball, as you see. The machine moves here and crushes them, so they died.”

Pronin, 31, is the youngest athletics federation president in the world. He is also a successful lawyer and, for the past few months, a soldier on the Ukrainian army’s front line fighting the Russian invasion.

This week, he will travel to Munich to watch his nation’s athletes – many of whom have fled their homes to escape the war – compete in the European Championships. Then, he will return to fight.

“When war started on Feb 24, I chose something that a lot of boys and men in Ukraine chose,” he said. “I signed a contract and became a soldier of the Ukrainian army. I had no experience, but I was ready mentally and emotionally.”

His girlfriend and sister lived in the car park under their building in Kyiv for a month before evacuating to Dresden and then Vienna. Pronin stayed behind, left his home and committed to fight.

Having flown drones in his spare time, he signed up to undertake reconnaissance missions and use military drones to drop bombs on enemy fighters.

Yevhen Pronin - Ukraine Athletics Federation acting president Yevhen Pronin: ‘I dropped bomb and two soldiers died’
Yevhen Pronin - Ukraine Athletics Federation acting president Yevhen Pronin: ‘I dropped bomb and two soldiers died’

Asked how he felt to be personally killing Russian soldiers, he replied: “I feel great because I am doing this for my country. If we do not kill them, they can kill our children, they can kill us. Of course, I’m not a killer in real life.

“We’ve had a lot of problems with Russia over maybe 200 to 300 years. For my generation, it is a chance. My parents are scared to do something because they grew up as part of the Soviet Union. But my generation are different. With the international sanctions, the work with the international community, it is the best time to do it. The time of this war is the best time for our generation.”

Alongside his fellow lawyer friends, Pronin forms part of a drone unit called the Tactical Busters, who upload videos of their kills on to Instagram. “It’s propaganda,” he said. “Most Ukrainian soldiers do it. It’s a new type of war. When we need some help from volunteers or international organisers, we send them videos.”

It is the same reason he is given clearance to leave the front line and speak to the media while attending the European Championships and last month’s World Championships. “They know it sends out a powerful message when I am here and our athletes are here,” he said.

Yevhen Pronin - Ukraine Athletics Federation acting president Yevhen Pronin: ‘I dropped bomb and two soldiers died’
Yevhen Pronin - Ukraine Athletics Federation acting president Yevhen Pronin: ‘I dropped bomb and two soldiers died’

A slimmed down Ukraine contingent won two high-jump medals at those World Championships, where Pronin says he was disappointed that Ukrainian legend and World Athletics vice-president Sergey Bubka chose not to meet the athletes. “I don’t understand Sergey,” Pronin said. “I respect him as a great sportsman, but I don’t respect him as an official now.”

Ukraine should also win a handful of medals this week, while Russia and Belarus have been banned from international athletics since March. Pronin insists the sanction should remain for a while yet.

“I think that Russians can come back into international sport, but not in this generation,” he said. “First of all, we must spend time after this war to be separated with Russia. It is like the same situation with Hitler’s Germany. Maybe one generation, maybe 30 years, will be the right time to compete without Russians.”

So important is Pronin’s role in the war that he knows there is a bounty on his head. Every day, Ukrainian security services intercept Russian phone calls discussing the “f---ing drone team”.

Pronin said: “They say to their soldiers if they can catch one of our group alive, they either give them some money or some days off.”

Nonetheless, he will come out into the open this week in Munich to fulfil duties in the other role of his dual life. Off comes the military uniform and on goes the suit befitting his presidential status. It seems like an astonishing existence, alternating between killer and dignitary. “Why?” he responded. “It’s normal.”