Russia-Ukraine War Live Updates: Biden Signs Lend-Lease Act & More

In a workshop in western Ukraine, a technician modified a metal bracket attached to a racing drone to allow it to carry a grenade, turning an aircraft sold in hobby shops into a deadly weapon.

Nearby stood two American entrepreneurs, who had arrived at the workshop with gifts from a dozen other drones, a small part of what has become a deluge of military aid to Ukraine. But this is not part of the state-sponsored arms shipments being wheeled into Ukraine to help the country fight a more powerful Russian army in the east.

Instead, the drones are part of a multi-million dollar crowdfunding campaign that will bring in millions of dollars in donations, as well as a plethora of smaller weapons and other military equipment for the Ukrainian military. To encourage donations, Ukrainian officials and private companies are making direct online appeals to sympathetic foreign citizens, even as they continue to push governments for heavier weapons.

One of the American entrepreneurs, Chad Kapper, said his journey started with a phone call to a Ukrainian racing drone friend.

“I said, ‘Listen, what do you guys need if you need something? You know, can we supply parts or whatever?'” recalls Mr. Kapper, the founder of a racing drone company. “And he said ‘yes, whatever you can do’.”

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

For many of the donors involved, this conflict has an unusual moral clarity.

“We made a mistake with Iraq, just as we made a mistake with Vietnam. We got to places we shouldn’t have been,” said the other American entrepreneur who brought the drones, a Tennessee businessman who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. “These people aren’t asking us to show up, they’re just 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 sparked widespread Western sympathy and made meaningful donations to the country’s war effort. Included in the donations are dual-use items such as the hobby drones; military equipment such as night vision goggles; body armor, rifles and ammunition; and free lobbying services by US companies.

The largest campaign, a social media appeal for donations from the Ukrainian embassy in Prague, has raised nearly $30 million from 100,000 donors less than three weeks after it was launched, including donations from around the world, according to Czech officials.

“We call on everyone to financially support the fundraiser for immediate assistance in the procurement of military equipment for the Ukrainian army and civilian self-defense units,” the embassy said on its Facebook page in February.

The Czech government, which also benefits from the sale of its own weapons, said it would approve the purchases quickly.

Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Another Ukrainian site offers a list of groups seeking donations, also in cryptocurrency, for items such as thermal imaging equipment, drones and satellite phones.

With every 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 the online efforts to bring in more weapons.

In perhaps the boldest call, a Ukrainian company launched a government-approved call to crowdfund a fighter jet last month.

“Buy me a fighter jet. It will help me protect my skies filled with Russian planes,” a gray Ukrainian fighter pilot made an appeal in English.

The website explained that a MiG-29 or Su fighter jet from one of several countries could be purchased for much less than the cost of a new $20 million.

“For this reason, we are targeting international companies, business people and anyone who can join the initiative,” read the website, adding perky, “Join us! Teamwork makes the dream work!” A company spokesperson said: a week after the campaign began, they had raised about $140,000 and acknowledged that the appeal was aimed at millionaires.

“L think it’s hard to believe that he could buy a fighter jet, that they could use it on purpose and, you know, get the right people in the right training,” said Simon Schlegel, senior Ukraine analyst for the Crisis Group- thinktank. “I think this is really something that’s probably more of a marketing ploy.”

Credit…Hristo Rusev/Getty Images

Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation who has served as the National Security Agency’s director of defense policy, said U.S. public involvement in the war has pressured the U.S. government to do more for Ukraine and “certainly make some of the US administration’s initial reluctance to provide lethal support to the Ukrainian military.

Ships of arms to Ukraine require U.S. export licenses, but the Commerce Department said in March it was speeding up approvals for exports of arms and ammunition shipped by Americans. Donations of dual-use items, such as hobby drones, have few obstacles.

“It is practically impossible for drone hobbyists to do anything with military equipment,” said Mr. Kapper, the founder of Rotor Riot. “The hobby stuff is unregulated in a way, so they can use as many as they can get,” says Mr. Kapper, a celebrity in the international racing drone world.

Mr. Kapper’s hobby drones – known as First Person View for the images that are streamed live to a pilot’s goggles – are on the other end of the spectrum from combat aircraft. But they appear to be filling a gap as Ukraine waits for more deliveries of military-grade drones.

“They call me from different places, from different battalions and they say, ‘Can you send more? We’re up,” said a Ukrainian drone operator who wanted to be identified only by his middle name Oleksandr. For security reasons, he asked not to identify the location of the drone hub.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Oleksandr said the drones brought by the Americans would be useful for carrying explosives or for observing units of Russian fighters on the front lines.

The war story of a weaker country holding off a powerful aggressor and the specter of genocide in Europe has resonated with Americans and others around the world.

“You know, after I sent money, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” said the Tennessee businessman. “I have resources and I have connections in this part of the world. And I knew I could make a difference by getting some things started to help with the delivery of drones.”

The businessman, who said he had been approached by the Ukrainian military for help, said he was setting up a charitable organization to allow people to donate to buy drones for Ukraine. Despite the later adjustments to the drones, he said he felt the 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 miles per hour, are used by Ukrainian armed forces for forward observation of Russian units, artillery targeting and locating people in destroyed buildings or forests using infrared cameras. Many of the hobby drones, which cost $1,000 and more, are short-lived.

“The enemy hits them, so some of them only live a day or two,” Oleksandr said. “But they have important missions on that day or two. We protect ourselves. We are not crossing the border into Russian territory – we are in our homeland.”

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

In 2014, Ukrainian civilians responded to the Russian invasion of Crimea by mobilizing to support an under-equipped and unprepared army, laying the groundwork for many of the grassroots efforts in this war.

“It’s really striking how deeply rooted these defense efforts are in civil society,” said Mr. Schlegel of the Crisis Group. “There are small networks of people who can buy almost anything except heavy weapons.”

Mr Schlegel said video from the front lines and the proliferation of social media sites that use open source intelligence to analyze combat dynamics have also fueled public engagement in the conflict.

“Social media has been very close to the front, it’s much closer than in most historic wars,” he said. “It’s the biggest land war in many people’s lives and for many people it’s the first time they see tanks on that scale in action.”

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