Ukraine. Crowdfunding campaigns are vital for national defense | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

Two days after Russia launched its war against Ukraine, Farid Bekirov decided to help the beleaguered country. The Amsterdam-based businessman has teamed up with three others to create the EyesOnUkraine.eu crowdfunding campaign. In June, they were ready to send an aid convoy, consisting of an all-terrain vehicle and 86 surveillance drones, or “eyes in the sky” to Ukraine.

From the earliest days of the fighting, they wanted to help document Russian war crimes, Bekirov told DW. Bekirov was born in Kazakhstan but grew up in Soviet Russia, more precisely in what was then Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg. In the 1990s he moved to Western Europe to work for Ukrainian airlines and traveled to Kyiv in the winter of 2013/14 to help the pro-European Maidan uprising.

Soon after, he saw thousands of volunteers pouring into eastern Ukraine to stand up against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass. Already then, volunteers in Ukraine and the west were collecting donations to buy protective vests and uniforms for Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the east.

Collecting donations across Europe and the United States

These days, the Ukrainian armed forces are deploying ordinary commercial drones to spot Russian tanks. As Russia began sending more and more tanks into Kyiv in late February, Ukrainian defenders could track their advance thanks to those unmanned eyes in the sky. After locating their locations, ground units could then eliminate them using light shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets.

Farid Bekirov’s crowdfunding initiative is one of hundreds that have sprung up across Europe and the United States in recent months. Kamil Galeev, a researcher at the US think tank Wilson Center, posted a list on Twitter detailing Ukrainian military units, their bank details and the donations they need. Drones, night vision goggles, protective vests and first aid kits are in high demand.

Artists mobilize for the cause

Several fundraising campaigns have also been launched in Ukraine to support the army. Serhiy Zhadan, a renowned Ukrainian novelist and musician, also helps. He is known for his bestseller, The Invention of Jazz in the Donbass, published by renowned German publishing house Suhrkamp in 2012. Now Zhadan is using his fame to help raise donations to support the Ukrainian military.

He posts photos of soldiers for whom he has successfully funded new vans and cars on his Facebook page. His efforts help defend his hometown of Kharkiv. Zhadan collects money using US payment platform PayPal, sharing his details everywhere.

« PayPal by Zhadan [fundraiser] really works,” says Yuriy Gurzhy, a fellow novelist and artist, who has collaborated with Zhadan on several projects. Gurzhy moved from Kharkiv to Berlin in the early 1990s.

A Turkish-made Bayraktar drone

At the end of May, the founder of the Lithuanian streaming service TV leads called on people to donate money to buy an armed drone, the Turkish-made Bayraktar, for Ukraine. The drone, equipped with precision-guided munitions, proved vital in the defense of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Crowdfunding campaigns reach a new level

In just 48 hours, the campaign raised more than 5 million euros ($5.3 million). Shortly after, Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas announced on Twitter that Turkish manufacturer Bayraktar would offer a free drone to Ukraine.

Margarete Klein, a researcher and analyst for Eastern Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says these crowdsourcing campaigns have reached “a new quality”. She says money was collected for helmets and body armor after the Maidan uprising in 2014 to help those defending eastern Ukraine from Russian attacks. While these fundraising campaigns were centered on Ukraine, today we are witnessing much greater international cooperation,according to the analyst.

Troops depend on donations

But is the money really going where it is needed? To find out, DW contacted a Ukrainian officer in charge of an artillery battery in the Donbass in early June. He wishes to remain anonymous so as not to divulge any sensitive information, as required by the Ukrainian military command. The man, whom this DW reporter knows personally, says crowdfunding campaigns are “crucially important” to the war effort.

He tells DW what the donated funds have brought them: “Unread vehicles, so basically jeeps; our unit is not equipped with them, so volunteers help us get them – without these vehicles you can hardly make war.” He adds that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have never bought conventional drones either. “I don’t think senior army officials even knew them.”

Without the donated funds, he says, the small units wouldn’t even have computers to work with. Prior to 2014, the armed forces had not invested in thermal imaging devices and surveillance systems. After the revolution swept pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and Russia invaded Donbass, however, it bought “smaller numbers”.

Decreasing donations?

Unfortunately, Farid Bakirov has seen donations to the eyesonukraine.eu donation platform dry up.

“In recent weeks, we have not received any donations,” says the businessman. He thinks Western audiences are fed up with the war in Ukraine.

He also says his Ukrainian contacts are growing increasingly frustrated that the promised arms shipments have still not arrived, even though they would be crucial at this time. Bakirov says the war has changed: while the defense of the capital was achieved using guerrilla tactics, the current battle for Donbass is one of artillery duels.

Additionally, he says, Russian forces have severely damaged the country’s military infrastructure, such as munitions factories. With each destroyed factory, Ukraine’s dependence on arms supplies increases. That is why Bakirov will continue to collect donations, so that the soldiers can at least track the aggressor with drones.

Mykola Berdnyk contributed to this report.

This article has been translated from German.

Mary I. Bruner