American, global donations fill key gap in Ukraine’s military needs

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
A woman hugs a Ukrainian serviceman after a convoy of military and aid vehicles arrived in the formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022.

Grassroots efforts by NGOs and private citizens are helping raise millions of dollars to support Ukrainian forces, donating critical items from medical kits to bulletproof vests and even Turkish drones.

The public funds add to billions of dollars of weapons and other assistance provided by the U.S. and its global allies to support Ukraine as its war against Russia moves into its fourth month.

In the U.S., Americans and American companies have donated tens of millions of dollars to organizations that source and deliver hundreds of tons of supplies, ranging from military-grade items to medical assistance, and practical supplies like food and transportation. 

The donations largely seem to benefit Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), a civilian-volunteer force that was originally intended as a reserve, regional defense unit. Their numbers swelled to about 100,000 volunteers in the wake of Russia’s invasion on Feb 24. 

While Ukrainian forces declared victory in the battle for Kyiv, Russia has taken control of larger parts of Ukraine’s east, called the Donbas, and Ukrainian forces are suffering heavy losses after weeks of punishing fighting.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late last month that between 60 and 100 soldiers were being killed each day, with at least 500 more wounded. 

Russian missiles are also targeting Kyiv, as Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to disrupt the shipment of heavy weapons from the West, including mid- and long-range missiles from the U.S. and United Kingdom. 

While Zelensky urges for more of the heavy weapons from the West, and war planes that the U.S. and others have not delivered, activists have stepped in to support under-supplied soldiers on the front lines. 

In the early days of the war, the former civilians that compose Ukraine’s TDF force deployed to man checkpoints with rudimentary rifles, receiving only a few day’s worth of combat training sessions. 

Today, they are being sent to frontline fighting in the east, but are described as the most under-equipped and under-trained forces.

“These territorial defense units, they were less experienced and, potentially, less efficient in terms of combat activities and they were less supplied with military resources,” said Borys Danevych, a Ukrainian lawyer, who launched an organization, Yellow/Blue, focusing on sourcing donations from global corporations for frontline needs. 

“That was the reason why many different volunteer initiatives and organizations, they specifically focused on their needs and that is why, for example, thousands of vests, helmets, thermal imagers, quadcopters [drones] and some other non-lethal items were sourced and provided directly to these units.” 

Supplying military-grade items from the U.S. requires obtaining special licenses from the State and Commerce Departments, which can carry with it filing fees costing thousands of dollars. 

Still, Ukrainian-American groups and others have, with these licenses, succeeded in sending hundreds of tons of frontline equipment since February, many streamlining their delivery methods since Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, supplying Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline in the Donbas.

The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) has donated $1.75 million worth of supplies – out of an estimated $15 million raised in the U.S. – that includes body armor, helmets, communication and night vision equipment, as well as vehicles, ambulances, ready-to-eat meals and sleeping bags. 

Another community-based organization, Ukrainian American Coordinating Council (UACC), also holds licenses to export military-grade equipment. UACC has donated 12,000 pieces of body armor and 3,800 helmets, with a total value of $5.25 million. 

Mick Safron, the senior vice president of UACC, said the organization’s next major delivery is focused on “eyes in the air and eyes on the ground, with thermal vision drones and night scopes.”

“Ukrainian defenders need eyes at night with drones with thermal vision cameras, so they can see Russians attack in advance from the air, and then they can regroup and they can move around the front line,” he said, adding that such vision is also critical in monitoring humanitarian corridors to protect civilians. 

“This actually saves lives, the same way lives are saved with helmets and bullet proof vests. We are not providing them weapons, we are providing them tools to save lives of civilians, this is our mission,” Safron said.  

Other donations that supplement military equipment have focused on transportation and medical assistance. 

Spirit of America, based in Arlington, Va., has delivered $20.8 million of assistance weighing 155 tons, ranging from protective gear, trauma kits and, recently, nine 50-passenger commercial busses. These will be used to transport TDF volunteers to frontline positions and evacuate civilians from conflict zones, the organization said. 

Danevych, the Ukrainian lawyer, said his group focuses on raising money to purchase generators for hospitals near combat zones, which also provides cover for corporations that are cautious about outright equipping foreign militaries.  

“They were very happy to provide financial donations to cover the needs of such hospitals and, yes, they realized it would be potentially used also for the healthcare provided to soldiers, but that was not a question for them,” he said. 

John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said donations from American citizens prove two important points, practical support and a morale boost to Ukrainians, while demonstrating U.S. popular favor to Washington. 

“It demonstrates that support for Ukraine is substantial in American society, and so substantial that private Americans are using their resources and spending their time to help a country that desperately needs support as it faces this massive aggression,” he said. 

“It also demonstrates to American politicians that American people are in on this.”

America is a key destination for organizations to raise funds and source materials for the fight in Ukraine, as many supplies in Europe have either been bought up or the prices have become prohibitive.

Jonas Öhman, director of the Blue/Yellow organization, a prominent Lithuanian- and American-based fundraising and training group for Ukrainian forces, is buying drones from the U.S. – ranging in price between $1,500 and $10,000 – and optics like binoculars and monoculars. 

But he said the group has faced delays in obtaining the specific licenses to export. In particular, it has yet to receive permission to export about 200 binoculars, an issue it raised during recent meetings with the offices of House and Senate lawmakers, while also explaining how the organization has operated on Ukraine’s front line since 2014. 

“We feel there’s a need to make our voice heard,” Öhman said. 

Blue/Yellow, and Lithuanians, in general, have stood out for their support for Ukraine. Earlier this month the Lithuanian Defense Ministry announced that Turkey had agreed to donate a combat drone – the Bayraktar TB2 – after Lithuanian citizens raised nearly six million euros for its purchase. 

Öhman’s group has raised about $1 million in donations from the U.S. out of an estimated $30 million raised globally since 2014. 

A key part of Öhman’s meetings in Washington was urging lawmakers and the administration to remain engaged and keep up their support for Ukrainian forces as the fighting rages on. 

“Right now, we have a situation where the Ukrainian armed forces have been at war for three months consecutively. There’s fatigue, there have been serious losses, and people are basically — they have been put to their edge,” he said.

“The victories – relatively speaking – in Kyiv and Kharkiv, they help” raise morale, he added, but called for a doubling-down on military support, through both government and nongovernmental organizations. 

“We try our best to do what we can, as an NGO, to be there and to aid and assist,” he said.

“We think we’re doing a good job, we think our methods are sound, they make sense for many reasons, we’d like to share this with the U.S. administration.”

Updated at 5:04 p.m.

Tags Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Volodymyr Zelensky
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