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Supplying The Front Lines In Eastern Ukraine

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, dressed as a Russian paratrooper, speaks in Moscow before sending humanitarian aid from his party to pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine in June.

As the deadly fighting continues to rage in eastern Ukraine, activists on both sides of the conflict are stepping up efforts to funnel equipment, basic necessities, and even fighters to the front lines.

In Ukraine, dozens of groups have sprung up to support the country's cash-strapped army in its bid to stamp out pro-Russian separatist from the eastern regions.

Activists have been raising money for the army and the National Guard, a force composed of reservists and volunteers, and delivering supplies to troops, often risking their own lives in the process.

With the rebels appearing to wield increasingly advanced military technology, the needs of the Ukrainian Army are rapidly evolving.

"The nature of the fighting has changed," says Yuriy Kasyanov, a coordinator for the volunteer group Army SOS. "At the beginning we needed the most basic supplies, such as bulletproof vest, helmets, or drinking water, but we are overcoming these shortages. What we need now is high-tech equipment: night-vision devices, drones, secure radio systems, radio transmitters, all-terrain vehicles, and stuff like that."

Perhaps the most popular volunteer group in Ukraine is Wings Phoenix, which boasts 35,000 followers on Facebook and claims to have already raised more than $850,000 for the country's armed forces.

Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry is running its own crowd-funding campaign. Four months since launching an appeal for donations, it has already collected over $11 million. Of this sum, almost $3 million were gathered through its "565" campaign, named after the mobile-phone number people can dial to make 50-cent donations.

Support For Separatists

As for the separatists, the origin of their funding, equipment, and actual fighters is still murky. The West has accused Russia of funneling supplies, weapons, tanks, and missiles to eastern Ukraine. It has also accused Moscow of training the separatists.

Additionally, Kyiv has alleged that Moscow provided separatists the Buk antiaircraft missile system believed to have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

The Kremlin has vehemently denied backing the separatists.

A man carries boxes containing food and medical supplies received as humanitarian aid at the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" administration headquarters in Donetsk in June.
A man carries boxes containing food and medical supplies received as humanitarian aid at the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" administration headquarters in Donetsk in June.

Various groups across Russia are currently collecting what they describe as humanitarian aid for residents of the conflict zone -- medical supplies, food, and clothes.

In May, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which has lawmakers in parliament, signed a cooperation agreement with representatives of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" to help purchase and ship humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine.

The party, however, is helping with a little more than just blankets and aspirin. It has put one of its Moscow offices at the disposition of the separatists, who have since announced they had opened a recruitment center in Moscow, in addition to the one operating in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk.

'We Have Everything We Need'

Staff at the recruitment center declined RFE/RL's interview request. But when an RFE/RL reporter introduced himself as a volunteer wishing to join the rebels in eastern Ukraine, he was put in touch with Mikhail, one of the men coordinating what he himself describes as "transit points" for Russian recruits.

Mikhail comes from Shakhty, a Russian town 70 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. He says there are three separatist recruitment centers in Russia: in Moscow, Voronezh, and Bryansk.

Mikhail instructs the RFE/RL reporter to travel to Shakhty and call him back upon arrival. There, he will be picked up and taken for a preliminary assessment. "They are very thorough," he says. "They conduct tests and they decide who goes where, depending on experience, skills, abilities."

Mikhail says new recruits are taken to Ukraine in groups, either through a standard checkpoint or by illegally crossing the border. "There are different channels, both official and unofficial" he explains.

Once in eastern Ukraine, Mikhail says recruits are provided with weapons, accommodation, and free food for the duration of their service.

And, in his words, the Ukrainian Army's meager rations pale in comparison with the cuisine enjoyed by separatists. "We have everything we need there," he quips. "No one's complained so far, no one's gone hungry. I was there recently, I've never eaten that well in Moscow."

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    Oleksandra Vagner

    Oleksandra Vagner is an editor for RFE/RL's Russian Service, based in Prague since 2006. Born in Kyiv in 1979, she graduated from the Kyiv Institute of Journalism with a master's degree. She studied English at City College Brighton and Hove in the United Kingdom. She has worked for Ukrainian newspapers and been published in the analytical weekly Zerkalo nedeli and several European publications. She was an employee of the Czech Republic's foreign broadcasting service, Radio Prague.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.