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 DIY stores into a deadly weapon .
Nearby were two American contractors, who had arrived at the workshop with a dozen more drones as gifts, a small contribution to what has become a torrent of military aid to Ukraine. But that’s not part of the state-sponsored arms shipments that are flowing to Ukraine to help the country fight a more powerful Russian military in the east.
Instead, the drones are part of a multi-faceted, multimillion-dollar crowdfunding campaign that is generating millions of dollars in donations, as well as a bounty of smaller weapons and other military equipment for the Ukrainian army. To generate donations, Ukrainian officials and private companies are making direct online appeals to sympathetic foreign citizens, even as they also continue to press governments for heavier weapons.
One of the American entrepreneurs, Chad Kapper, said his journey began with a call to a Ukrainian racing drone friend.
“I said, ‘Look, what do you need if you need anything? You know, can we supply parts or anything?’ recalls Kapper, the founder of a company of racing drones.” And he said ‘yes, anything you can do.’ ”
For many donors involved, this conflict has an 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 contractor who brought the drones, a Tennessee businessman who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “These people are not asking us to introduce ourselves, they are simply asking for our support. The least we can do is support them.
Even as Ukraine receives large shipments of heavy weapons from the United States and other governments, the online campaign has tapped into widespread Western sympathy and produced significant donations for the country’s war effort. Donations include dual-use items such as hobby drones; military equipment such as night vision goggles; bulletproof vests, guns and ammunition; and free lobbying services by American companies.
The largest campaign, a social media appeal launched by the Ukrainian Embassy in Prague, raised nearly $30 million from 100,000 donors less than three weeks after its launch, including donations from world, according to Czech officials.
“We all call for financial support in raising funds for immediate assistance in the purchase of military equipment for the Ukrainian army and the Citizen Self-Defense Units,” the embassy said in February on its Facebook page.
The Czech government, which also benefits from sales of its own weapons, said it would provide expedited approval for purchases.
Another Ukrainian site provides a list of groups seeking donations, including in cryptocurrency, for items such as 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 irregularities in online efforts to bring in more weapons.
In perhaps the boldest appeal, a Ukrainian company launched a government-approved appeal last month to fund donations to buy a fighter jet.
“Buy me a fighter plane. It will help me protect my skies full of Russian planes,” a grizzled Ukrainian fighter pilot said in English.
The website explained that a MiG-29 or Su fighter could be had in one of several countries for far less than the $20 million cost of a new one.
“For this reason, we reach out to international companies, business people and anyone else who can join the initiative,” the website reads, casually adding, “Join us! Teamwork breeds dream work!” A company spokesperson said a week after the campaign began that it had raised around $140,000 and acknowledged that the appeal was aimed at millionaires.
“I think it’s hard to believe that he can buy a fighter jet, that they can put it to good use and get, you know, the right people in the right training,” said Simon Schlegel, senior Ukraine analyst for the Crisis Group think tank. “I think it’s really something that’s probably more of a marketing ploy.”
Stephen Flanagan, senior political scientist at RAND Corp. who served as director of defense policy for the National Security Agency, said the US public involvement in the war has pressured the US government to do more for Ukraine and “certainly has shattered some of the initial hesitation” by the US government to provide lethal support to the Ukrainian military.
While sending weapons to Ukraine requires US export licenses, the Commerce Department said in March it was accelerating approvals for the export of arms and ammunition sent by Americans. Donations of dual-use items such as hobby drones encounter few barriers.
“For drone enthusiasts, doing anything with military hardware is next to impossible,” said Kapper, the founder of Rotor Riot and a celebrity in the international racing drone world. “The hobby is unregulated in some sense, so they can use as much as they can.”
Kapper’s hobby drones, known as first-person view for live-streamed footage over a pilot’s goggles, are the opposite of the fighter jet spectrum. But they appear to be filling a void as Ukraine awaits more military-grade drone supplies.
“They call me from different places, from different battalions and they say ‘can you send more? We don’t have any more,” said a Ukrainian drone operator who asked to be identified only by his middle name, Oleksandr. For security reasons, he requested that the location of the drone hub not be identified.
Oleksandr said the drones brought by the Americans would be useful either for carrying explosives or for observing units of Russian fighters on the front lines.
The war story of a weaker country fending off a powerful aggressor and the specter of genocide in Europe resonated widely with Americans and others around the world.
“You know, after sending money, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” the Tennessee businessman said. “I have resources and I have connections in this part of the world. And I knew I could make a difference by putting some things in place to help with 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 drones, he said he believed drone donations were for “humanitarian purposes”.
“There is nothing illegal,” he said. “They asked for drones. What they do with it is entirely up to them.
In addition to carrying grenades, the drones, which reach speeds of up to 70 mph, are used by Ukrainian forces for forward observation of Russian units, targeting artillery and locating people in buildings or forests destroyed using infrared cameras. Many hobby drones, which cost $1,000 and up, have short lifespans.
“The enemy hits them, so some of them only live for a day or two,” Oleksandr said. “But in that day or two, they have important missions. We protect ourselves. We are not crossing the border into Russian territory – we are on our homeland.
In 2014, Ukrainian civilians reacted to Russia’s invasion of Crimea by mobilizing to support an under-equipped and unprepared army, laying the groundwork for many grassroots efforts in that war.
“It’s really striking how much of this defense effort has its roots in civil society,” said Crisis Group’s Schlegel. “There are small networks of people who can buy almost anything except 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 lines, it’s much closer than in most historic wars,” he said. “This is the biggest ground war in many people’s lives and for many people this is the first time to see tanks in action on this scale.”