People’s war: Ukraine, Russia crowd-funding gear for troops

John Leicester
Associated Press

Kyiv, Ukraine – In one of the combat zones against Russia, the supply chief for a Ukrainian fighting brigade places his online order for war supplies – a long list ranging from drones, trucks and thermal sights to batteries, generators and tape. They are needed, he writes, to equip two new battalions and “combat against armed aggression.”

In a makeshift supply depot in the capital, Kyiv, crowd-funders start busying themselves with his request. Their bustle will get the equipment to the 72nd Brigade within days, all paid for with public donations. In their ramshackle office, a poster with the Vietnam-era peace slogan exhorts: “Drop acid, Not bombs.”

A volunteer prepares boxes of goods to be delivered to soldiers fighting on the eastern and southern fronts, dispatched from an NGO storage center in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, June 13, 2022. In the war in Ukraine, troops on both sides are getting supplies from crowd-funders.

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With attritional combat devouring soldiers and resources, Ukraine is waging a people’s war, fought away from front lines by self-starting networks of donors and volunteers. Tech-savvy systems they’ve thrown together convert millions of dollars in donations into swift Amazon-like deliveries of war gear direct to the battlefields. They’re helping keep Ukraine in the fight at a critical juncture of the Russian invasion, as its better-supplied aggressor applies tremendous, grinding pressure on battlefields to the east and south.

Civilian volunteering is also boosting morale, providing tangible proof to Ukrainians that they’re together in their battle for survival, even if they don’t have guns in their hands. From grandmothers cutting old clothes into strips to make camouflage netting to the bereaved girlfriend of a slain soldier who walked into the supply depot after his burial saying she wanted to help, most everyone seems to be doing their bit, big and small or by direct debit.

A volunteer puts water to a van motor before heading to delivered goods to soldiers fighting on the eastern and southern fronts, dispatched from an NGO storage center in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, June 13, 2022. In the war in Ukraine, troops on both sides are getting supplies from crowd-funders.

Civilian assistance for the military effort has been a feature of Ukrainian resistance from Day 1 of the Feb. 24 invasion, as ordinary folk dropped everything to help and raided their bank accounts to equip hastily assembled new units. From modest beginnings, including telephone hotlines for donations that were immediately overwhelmed with calls, crowd-funding initiatives have matured into well-oiled machines. They have online payment systems and slick websites explaining their needs, and volunteers applying their expertise in civilian fields – logistics, technology, purchasing, electronics – to help get supplies into troops’ hands.

Five months into the invasion, creative fund-raising is also keeping money flowing in – belying the notion that Ukrainians are losing interest and feeling less imperiled in the uneasy peace that has returned to Kyiv and other cities since badly mauled Russian forces withdrew from the north in April, refocusing on capturing Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

An appeal last week by Ukrainian television personality and politician Serhiy Prytula for $15 million in donations to buy three Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drones went viral. He subsequently announced that he’d surged past the target, raising $20 million – enough for four Bayraktars – in under three days.

His foundation is one of the biggest crowd-funding initiatives. Among other, more unusual ones are women and men who send erotic photos of themselves as a reward to donors who can prove, with a receipt, that they gave to a war-support fund. “Teronlyfans” says its aim “is to incentivize donations for the needs of Ukraine and thereby bring our victory closer.” The volunteers say they’ve helped raise $750,000 by baring all.

“We make sure that the photos are not pornographic. This is beautiful, aesthetic erotica,” said Nastya Kuchmenko, one of the group’s co-founders. “It’s not about objectifying the body, it’s about the freedom to use your body as you want.”

“People want to be useful,” she said.

On the opposing side, some Russians, including soldiers’ mothers, also are getting supplies to troops. But the Russian effort isn’t as organized, massive and spontaneous, in part because the Kremlin is downplaying the scale, reach and cost of its invasion, insisting that it’s a mere “military operation.”

The United People’s Front, a Kremlin-created effort to foster public support for the government, launched a crowd-funding campaign in early June, under the slogan “All for Victory!”

“The guys on the front line who are dying for the right to be Russians, who are fighting for our common freedom, will greatly appreciate any help you can offer,” Mikhail Kuznetsov, a United People’s Front executive, said of the drive for front-line gear and medicines. “They will win in any case, but they will win faster and with smaller casualties if we help them.”

On the Ukrainian side, victory is the goal, too.

The foundation run by Prytula, the TV personality, prioritizes its aid for units in combat hot spots. Unit commanders list their needs and locations on an online form.

That’s how “Tokha” – the nom de guerre of the quartermaster for the 72nd Brigade – submitted his order. Gear on his wish-list hinted at the ferocity of the fighting around his location in the east, with requests for 100 periscopes for peering from trenches, a dozen tablets pre-loaded with software to correct artillery fire, and even wire – presumably for use as tripwires. Bigger-ticket items included six vans and pick-up trucks.

Convoys of vans, trucks and other vehicles, sourced second-hand from elsewhere in Europe, set off loaded with gear every week from the foundation’s depot in Kyiv. Some vehicles are repainted in army green to make them battle-ready. Their front-line lives can be short: Two recently delivered ambulances lasted just two days before Russian bombs destroyed them.

The foundation says it has raised more than $34 million since the invasion began, mostly as donations – ranging from pennies to a businessman’s gift in cryptocurrency of $1.3 million. The foundation also auctioned the Eurovision Song Contest trophy won and then donated by Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra and raffled the bright bucket hat worn by its frontman. Together, they fetched $1.25 million.

The foundation says it has fulfilled 2,200 orders from units in just the last two months. On the receiving end, the troops or volunteers who make the deliveries take photos to prove that aid is being used as intended.

“Ukrainians are a nation of volunteers and we can do unimaginable things together,” said Maria Pysarenko, who works with Prytula. “It’s also about not just the fundraising but community-building and showing that, ‘Yes, we can.’”

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Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv contributed.