The Geeks of War: How Dzyga's Paw Innovated Ukraine's Drone Operations

5 Jul 2024

Volunteers have been the lifeline of various frontline units since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Former tech workers have led the charge in driving innovation for the Ukrainian army, leveraging the creativity and resourcefulness of the Ukrainian people to resist a larger power.

The Russo-Ukrainian war has underscored the vital role volunteers will play in future conflicts, such as a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and how ordinary people will eventually have a role to play in aiding the resistance.

Creating an Organization to Support the Army

Dmytro Zhluktenko, who is also known as Dimko, (a change he made to make it easier for foreigners to say his name) is a 25-year-old former software engineer who once worked on Airbus and Boeing products. Originally from Rivne, Ukraine, he lived a comfortable lifestyle in Ukraine prior to the full-scale invasion.

Everything changed as Russian tanks invaded Ukraine and Russian bombs were being dropped on Ukrainian cities across the country. Speaking to Frontsight Media, Zhluktenko said that he made the decision, driven by a deep sense of duty to his homeland and his loved ones, to join the resistance.

“I am just an ordinary Ukrainian trying to help his country. I was born in 1998 in a free and independent Ukraine,” Zhluktenko said. He spoke with great warmth about his upbringing and how much he enjoyed his life and work before the war, which seemed to allow him to daydream about what peace in Ukraine might look like again.

However, Zhluktenko said that early on, “My girlfriend and I agreed we would not abandon Ukraine, no matter what would come," Zhlutenko recalled from the early days of the war. He made a promise to commit one year of his life to working on his volunteer efforts.

When the invasion began, Zhluktenko's friends in the army started reaching out for basic necessities, he said. This prompted him to act. Before the war, Zhluktenko enthusiastically shared his dreams of opening a cycling shop, but those plans were quickly set aside when the full-scale invasion began.

On March 11, 2022, he posted on X: “I hope one day I’d be able to come back to Twitter and start telling you peaceful stories about Ukraine and tech. But for now, it’s only war on my mind, and there is nothing except Russia's surrender can help it.”

He began using his own money to buy equipment for his friends and began tweeting about his efforts. His background in IT and connections within the industry from his prior life as a software engineer proved invaluable.

Donations began pouring in from people he knew online and from complete strangers around the world. Realizing the potential impact he could make, Zhluktenko was eager to scale his efforts to help the Ukrainian army in any way he could. From here on out, the fund Dzyga’s Paw was established.

Zhluktenko’s Tech Background Pays Off

Zhluktenko treated the initiative like an IT project, applying metrics, building a website, and creating a transparency system that tracked every donation and expense.

Initially a one-man show, Zhluktenko had established a team to scale their work because he could no longer handle all the work by himself. To accomplish more, he needed a core team to help with all the work. However, demand for supplies quickly outpaced what the fund could provide. “We had to prioritize all incoming requests,” he said.

“Once a week, we held a scrum-like meeting to prioritize requests and determine our investments,” noted Zhluktenko. This Agile approach, a methodology focused on iterative development and continuous feedback, was borrowed from his software engineering days. Scrum, a framework within Agile, facilitated this by structuring the work into sprint-like tasks and weekly stand-up meetings. This ensured they could respond quickly to the needs of the units they supported.

According to Zhluktenko, the high level of transparency was crucial, especially given the widespread narrative of corruption in Ukraine, as it showed every detail of how donations were used.

“It was a competitive advantage as it won the hearts and minds of people, especially amidst the narrative that Ukraine is corrupt. The more transparency that we showed, the more excitement we got from donors,” Zhluktenko explained.

A supporter of the fund, Karla Wagner from the Netherlands, explained to Frontsight:

“I discovered Dzyga's Paw on doing an exhaustive web search to find an interesting charity that aligned with who I am. I decided to start donating to the fund because of Dzyga's thoroughly modern transparency and effectiveness, the fact that they wouldn't shy from military (more than humanitarian) assistance, where many others do.”

Thomas Blikshavn, also a supporter from Norway, said, “Donating started when I had done enough research to realize Dimko was actually doing a very diligent job in showing people that donations were indeed translated into actual support on the ground. I was impressed that he went to such lengths to demonstrate accountability and being so transparent about everything he was doing with other people's money.”

Blikshavn pointed out that “a major talking point for the enemy is corruption in Ukraine.” However, he highlighted that the team at Dzyga's Paw “represents a new generation of Ukrainians, fostering values like honesty, commitment, pride in national identity.” He continued, "The resolve shared by the supporters of Dzyga's Paw and Ukraine is unwavering. We will keep supporting you until victory is achieved. We’re not going anywhere. United, we will win."

Zhluktenko’s efforts quickly grew into a multi-million-dollar charity, which has had a profound impact on the battlefield, not only from a supply chain perspective. “Each and every expense done as a foundation was automated,” he said. Despite Russia’s invasion, which has been going on for several years now, they have not seen a decline in donations, consistently raising $100,000 a month.

The fund focused on tech equipment, as Zhluktenko aimed to ensure that Ukraine gained an advantage over Russian forces through superior

technology, “giving Ukrainian forces a technological edge."

The main thrust of the fund was to utilize commercial technology, like drones and Starlinks, to supply units at scale that desperately needed

help. Danilo Makarov, a drone pilot from the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, previously told Frontsight contributor David Kirichenko that “you can no longer fight a battle without having a drone above.”

The importance of volunteers delivering drones to frontline units cannot be overstated. “The only thing preventing Russia’s breakthrough on all fronts is FPV (first-person) drones, 90 percent of which are being provided by volunteers or military divisions themselves,” said a top Ukrainian military commander, Lt Col Pavlo Kurylenko in an interview with The Telegraph.

One soldier from the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade also said that it would’ve been impossible to fight back against Russia without such a strong volunteer force backing the Ukrainian army.

Ukrainian Units Benefiting

Speaking with Frontsight, Dan, whose call sign is “Kovbassa,” is a commander of an aerial reconnaissance unit in the 47th Mechanized Brigade currently fighting on the Pokrovsk-Avdiivka axis. He said 90% of civilian tech supplies given to his unit during the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia Oblast came from volunteer organizations such as Dzyga's Paw.

These supplies included FPV drones, power banks, Starlinks, and reconnaissance drones. “Dzyga's Paw has been working with us since our unit was first formed. Their support was vital to get us going,” said Dan. “They are the most trusted fund I know,” he pointed out. Vlad Sokolov, an emergency response officer for the State Emergency Office of Ukraine, told Frontsight that at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zhluktenko quickly helped his unit procure critical supplies needed early on.

Zhluktenko said that in total, Dzyga's Paw has worked with over 100 Ukrainian units since the start of the full-scale invasion.

Many of the drones delivered by Ukrainian volunteers like Zhluktenko, including the Chinese Mavic 3 Pro models, are heavily relied upon by

Ukrainian units for reconnaissance. The Ukrainian army also depends on Starlinks for frontline communication. The extensive use of civilian technology by the Ukrainian army enables volunteers to procure these items, playing an important role in the wartime supply chain.

Dimko posing for a photo with Starlinks

Dependence on Cheap Drones

In a prior Frontsight interview, Norman, a drone unit commander from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade pointed out that things were disorganized and soldiers could deploy drones wherever they were. The Ukrainian units still have a heavy reliance on the same Chinese drones used at the start of the war such as the DJI Mavic model.

Kostyantyn Mynailenko, a commander of an aerial reconnaissance unit in the Liut Brigade, said, “The Russians have many more drones than us. They have a stable supply chain sourced directly from China. We have to order our Chinese drones from Europe indirectly and then bring them to Ukraine.” This has been an issue for Ukraine as much of the world’s global electronics supply chains flow directly from China.

According to the Washington Post, the use of "cheap drones" enabled Ukrainian soldiers to achieve a tactical advantage on the battlefield, despite the Russians having superior numbers and more extensive weaponry. But to achieve that advantage on the battlefield, Ukraine has been heavily dependent on much of the work that volunteers do to manage supply chains for drones since the start of the full-scale invasion.

Ukrainian soldiers with a drone above

Leading Innovation On The Battlefield

By the spring of 2022, Zhluktenko and his team were among the first to start driving tech innovation on the frontlines.

“At first, we were weird geeks who delivered drones and Starlinks to the frontline,” said Zhluktenko with a beaming smile. But they heard chatter from soldiers around the different struggles they were having with drones and getting data transmitted back to command centers.

“We heard soldiers saying they needed to do reconnaissance on sections of forest where there is limited visibility, and the soldiers wanted to make sure they minimize losses doing this work,” he pointed out.

Zhluktenko spoke with friends on the front, asked them what their workflow was, and started to piece together a solution. He identified improvements that were needed and how they could be done. To improve communication with command posts from drones, he helped operationalize live streams by connecting them to Google Meet, streaming directly to the command center using the internet provided by Starlink.

“We were streaming through Google Meet, as we would connect the tablet to the drone. It was crappy quality, but it was enough at that time to get the job done,” Zhluktenko highlighted. “We were the early adopters of this process,” he said.

Looking Ahead

Having left his mark on the war effort as a volunteer, Zhluktenko has signed a contract with the Ukrainian Armed Forces and will be joining the battle on the frontline. He is currently in Kyiv undergoing training as a drone pilot and will soon be deployed. He has also recently gotten married.

Dimko and his wife at their wedding

Shortly before their wedding, Zhluktenko’s wife Ira posted on X: “I am going to marry soon. I can’t invite some of my friends to my wedding because they chose to fight for our independence, for the freedom of every Ukrainian citizen, me in particular. And they were killed by Russians.”

As our interview concluded, a deep sense of duty was evident in Zhluktenko's tone as he spoke about his imminent departure for the front. He shared his wish to have a proper honeymoon with his wife, dreaming of traveling abroad to a beautiful destination. Instead of donning a wedding suit, he is preparing to wear a military uniform, ready to join his fellow countrymen on the frontline in the fight for his country’s freedom.