Accessibility links

Breaking News

Army In Need: Volunteers Try To Get Supplies To Ukraine's Forces

Ukrainian forces pose next to boxes of equipment donated to them by pro-Kyiv activists from across the country who have been collecting money to buy much-needed supplies for the country's cash-strapped army.
Call it the Euromaidan approach to fielding an army.

Not long ago, volunteers in Kyiv cooked food at home and delivered it and other supplies daily to the activists manning the barricades in the battle that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Now, volunteer groups across Ukraine are raising funds and buying equipment for soldiers fighting in the east of the country and, in some cases, delivering the supplies directly to the soldiers themselves.

Tatiana Rychkova is one of the organizers of a volunteer group in Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine.

She raises money to purchase bulletproof vests, binoculars, and pain-killing drugs. Then she loads it all into her car and heads for the restive Donbas region.

Rychovka says she began after her husband, who is in the army, was wounded and hospitalized. She says she was shocked by the lack of basic supplies and decided to try to improve the soldiers' situation.

Other activists have begun similar initiatives.

Serhiy Karnoza belongs to a group called the "Society of Dmitry Doncova," also in Dnipropetrovsk.

"We deliver directly into the hands of our soldiers and officers because we have no confidence in the command," he says.

To cut costs, he says, his group has not registered as a charity and does not pay taxes. But it is cooperating with other activist groups in the city to set up a central website to make their efforts transparent to the public and track how much money is raised and spent.

Office Collection Centers

Similar groups have sprung up in many other cities, where activists operate out of their own homes or business offices.

Some say that the outpouring of public support for their efforts has turned their volunteer work into a full-time responsibility.

Oleksandr Foshchan one of the coordinators of "Army SOS" in Kyiv, has turned his downtown office into a collection center where tables are filled with military goods purchased from a steady stream of contributions.

"The day before yesterday, a man contributed 200,000 hryvnas ($16,500) to buy body armor and today a person gave 15,000 hryvna ($1,200) to buy generators," he says.

"Once, I raised 25,000 hryvna ($2,000) to buy binoculars in the space of just two hours."

The private activities mirror efforts by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry to also raise funds for the army.

In March, the Defense Ministry launched a "565" campaign, named after a mobile phone number the public can dial to make donations, and has raised some 128 million hryvna, or about $10.5 million, to date.

But whereas the private groups move fast, the monies raised by the 565 campaign have yet to be disbursed.

The Ministry of Defense told RFE/RL this week in response to a written request for information that it is planning to spend the funds on uniforms, helmets, boots, sleeping bags, camouflage nets, cotton sheets and pillowcases, among other items.

It did not, however, mention any expenditures so far.

WATCH: Ukrainian Civic Group Raises Money To Supply National Guard
Ukrainian Civic Group Raises Money To Supply National Guard
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:31 0:00

The Ukrainian parliament announced on June 5 that, due to the high level of public interest in the 565 campaign, it is creating a special commission to oversee how the money is handled. Official corruption is rampant in Ukraine and a major obstacle to public trust in institutions.

The multiple private and public efforts to raise funds for the army come as Ukraine also appeals to international partners for help. The material requested includes some of the most basic items needed to keep soldiers in the field.

After meeting Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroschenko in Warsaw on June 4, U.S. President Barack Obama said that Washington will provide Ukraine with $5 million worth of body armor, night-vision goggles, and communication equipment.

According to the White House, Obama has approved more than $23 million in security assistance to Ukraine since early March, including ready-to-eat meals and money for medical supplies and other non-lethal assistance.

Gutted Budget

But experts say that, even with the aid, Ukraine's military remains severely underfunded for the protracted and increasingly bloody struggle with well-armed insurgents in the east.

Serhiy Zhurets, director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, a research center in Kyiv, says the Ukrainian army's budget has been persistently gutted over the 20 years since the country's independence.

He says that by European standards a 200,000 strong military such as Ukraine's would normally need some $20 billion in annual funding to maintain readiness. But Ukraine's defense budget over the past two decades never exceeded $1.3 billion.

That low funding was justified by the official position that there was no military threat to the country to justify more spending.

"The last four years under Yanukovych brought the army to full degradation," Zhurets says. "The money allocated was enough only to keep the army in the barracks, nothing was done to raise its military capability and no modern equipment was purchased."

He notes that the 40,000 Ukrainian troops deployed on the Russian border had just one bullet-proof vest per 100 soldiers when Kyiv started its ongoing counter-offensive against separatists.

Similarly, only 2,700 troops in the east had lightweight Kevlar helmets, while the rest had Soviet-era metal ones. Only a very limited number of units had thermal vision sniper scopes.

Now, Zhurets says, Ukraine's military is trying to produce new equipment as quickly as possible in addition to seeking help from abroad. Yet it remains massively undersupplied.

Given the extent of the military's needs for even basic supplies, the public fundraising efforts may seem like just a drop in the bucket.

But Zhurets says they play a larger role than simply providing additional funds to buy equipment.

"$10 million dollars from ordinary people is important because the soldiers need support," he says. "But in this case, the support is mostly moral. It is a demonstration of the public's will to defend the country."
Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague based on reporting by Julia Ratsybarska in Dnipropetrovsk, and Levko Stek and Natalie Sedletska in Kyiv. Merhat Sharipzhan in Prague also contributed to this report.