At a workshop in western Ukraine, a technician adjusted a metal bracket that had been attached to a racing drone so it could carry a grenade, turning a plane sold in hobby stores into a lethal weapon.
Nearby were two American businessmen, who had arrived at the garage carrying a dozen other drones as gifts, a small installation in what has become a torrent of military aid to Ukraine. But this is not part of the state-sponsored arms shipments being speeded up in Ukraine to help the country fight a more powerful Russian army in the east.
Instead, the drones are part of a multi-faceted multimillion-dollar crowdfunding campaign that is producing millions of dollars in donations, as well as a smaller weapon bounty and other military equipment for the Ukrainian military. To guide the donations, Ukrainian officials and private companies are making direct online appeals to sympathetic foreign citizens, even as they continue to lobby governments for even heavier armaments.
One of the American entrepreneurs, Chad Kapper, said his journey began with a call to a Ukrainian racing drone friend.
“I said ‘Listen, what do you guys need if you need anything? You know, can we supply parts or something? ‘”Recalled Mr. Kapper, the founder of a racing drone company. “And he said ‘yes, whatever you can do’.”
For many of the donors involved, this conflict has unusual moral clarity.
“We made a mistake with Iraq, just as we made a mistake with Vietnam. We ended up in places we shouldn’t have been, “said the other American businessman who brought the drones, a businessman from Tennessee who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.” These people aren’t asking us. to introduce us, they’re just asking for our support. The least we can do is support them. “
Even as Ukraine receives major shipments of heavy weapons from the United States and other governments, the online campaign has drawn widespread Western sympathy and yielded significant donations to the country’s war effort. Donations include dual-use items such as hobby drones; military equipment such as night vision telescopes; bulletproof vests, rifles and ammunition; Other Free lobbying services from US companies.
The largest campaign, a appeal on social media for donations from the Ukrainian embassy in Prague, raised nearly $ 30 million from 100,000 donors less than three weeks after its launch, including donations from around the world, according to Czech officials.
“We ask everyone to financially support the fundraising for immediate assistance in procuring military equipment for the Ukrainian army and citizen self-defense units,” the embassy said in February on its Facebook page.
The Czech government, which also benefits from the sale of its own weapons, said it will provide accelerated approval for the purchases.
Another Ukrainian site provides a list of groups seeking donations, including in cryptocurrency, for items including thermal imaging devices, drones, and satellite phones.
With any crowdfunding campaign, there are concerns about scammers and Ukraine struggled with corruption before the war. But, so far, there have been no reports of impropriety in online efforts to carry more guns.
With perhaps the boldest appeal, a Ukrainian company last month launched a government-approved appeal for crowdfunding donations to purchase a fighter jet.
“Buy me a fighter jet. It will help me protect my sky full of Russian planes, ‘a grizzled Ukrainian fighter pilot appealed in English.
The website explained that a MiG-29 or Su fighter could be obtained from one of several countries for far less than the $ 20 million cost of a new one.
“This is why we turn to international companies, businessmen and all those who can join the initiative”, reads the site, adding jaunty: “Join! Teamwork makes the dream work! ” A spokesperson for the company said so a week after the campaign began, they had raised about $ 140,000 and acknowledged that the appeal was aimed at millionaires.
“I I think it’s hard to believe that they could buy a fighter plane, that they could use it in a targeted way and get, you know, the right people with the right training, “said Simon Schlegel, senior analyst from Ukraine for the Crisis Group think tank. “I think this is really something that is probably more of a marketing ploy.”
Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation who served as director of defense policy for the National Security Agency, said America’s public engagement in the war has put pressure on the U.S. government to do more. for Ukraine and “has certainly brought down some of the initial hesitation” of the US government to provide lethal support to the Ukrainian military.
While sending weapons to Ukraine requires US export licenses, the Commerce Department March said he was speeding up the approvals for the export of weapons and ammunition sent by the Americans. Donations of dual-use items such as hobby drones face few obstacles.
“It is virtually impossible for drone enthusiasts to do anything with military equipment,” said Kapper, the founder of Rotor Riot. “Hobby stuff isn’t regulated in some sense, so they can use whatever they can get,” said Kapper, who is a celebrity in the international racing drone world.
Mr. Kapper’s hobby drones, known as First Person View for images transmitted live to a pilot’s goggles, are on the opposite end of the spectrum from fighter jets. But they appear to fill a gap as Ukraine awaits more supplies of military-grade drones.
“They are calling me from different places, from different battalions and they say ‘can you send more? We’re done, ‘”said a Ukrainian drone operator who asked to be identified only by his middle name, Oleksandr. For security reasons, he asked not to identify the location of the drone hub.
Oleksandr said the drones carried by the Americans would be useful both for carrying explosives and for observing units of Russian fighters on the front line.
The war narrative of a weaker country holding off a powerful aggressor and the specter of genocide in Europe has resonated widely with Americans and others around the world.
“You know, after I sent money I didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” the Tennessee businessman said. “I have resources and connections in this part of the world. And I knew I could make a difference by putting some things in place to help with the drone supply. ”
The businessman, who said he was contacted by the Ukrainian military for help, said he was setting up a charity to allow people to donate to buy drones for Ukraine. Despite subsequent changes to the drones, he said he believed the drone donations were for “humanitarian purposes”.
“There is nothing illegal,” he said. “They requested drones. What they do with them is entirely up to them. “
In addition to carrying grenades, drones, which reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, are used by Ukrainian forces for forward observation of Russian units, targeted artillery, and locating people in destroyed buildings or forests using video cameras. infrared. Many of the hobby drones, which cost $ 1,000 and up, are short-lived.
“The enemy is hitting them, so some of them only live for a day or two,” Oleksandr said. “But on that day or two they have important missions. We are protecting ourselves. We are not crossing the border into Russian territory, we are in our homeland. “
In 2014, Ukrainian civilians responded to the Russian invasion of Crimea by mobilizing to support a poorly equipped and unprepared army, laying the foundation for many of the grassroots efforts in this war.
“It is truly amazing how much this defense effort has roots in civil society,” said Schlegel of the Crisis Group. “There are small networks of people who can buy almost anything, apart from heavy weapons.”
Schlegel said frontline video and the proliferation of social media sites using open source intelligence to analyze battle dynamics have also fueled public engagement in the conflict.
“Social media has been very close to the front, much closer than in most historical wars,” he said. “It is the largest land war in many people’s lives and for many people it is the first time they have seen tanks in action on that scale.”