At a workshop in western Ukraine, a technician adjusted a metal bracket attached to a racing drone so that it could carry a grenade, turning a plane sold at a hobby store into a deadly weapon.
Standing nearby are two American entrepreneurs who came to the workshop with gifts of a dozen other drones, which have become part of a torrent of military aid to Ukraine. But it’s not part of a state-backed shipment of weapons that are racing to enter Ukraine to help the country fight stronger Russian forces in the east.
Instead, the drones are part of a multi-faceted, multi-million dollar crowdfunding campaign that is providing millions of dollars in donations to the Ukrainian military, along with a slew of small arms and other military equipment. To push for donations, Ukrainian officials and private companies are appealing directly online to sympathetic foreign citizens, even as they continue to press the government for heavier weapons.
One of the American entrepreneurs, Chad Kapper, said his trip started with a phone call to a Ukrainian racing drone friend.
“I said ‘Look, if you need something, what do you need? You know, can we provide parts or something?'” recalls Mr. Carper, founder of the racing drone company. “He said ‘yes, whatever you can do’.”
For many of the donors involved, the conflict has had unusual moral clarity.
“We made a mistake in Iraq, just like we made a mistake in Vietnam. We took ourselves where we shouldn’t be,” said another U.S. entrepreneur from Tennessee who brought drones of a businessman who asked 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.”
Although Ukraine has received large quantities of heavy weapons from the U.S. and other governments, the online activity has drawn widespread Western sympathy and meaningful donations to the country’s war effort. The donation includes dual-use items such as hobby drones; military equipment such as night vision goggles; body armor, rifles and ammunition; and free lobbying services provided by U.S. companies.
The biggest campaign, a social media call for donations from the Ukrainian Embassy in Prague, raised nearly $30 million from 100,000 donors, including donations from around the world, in less than three weeks, according to Czech officials.
“We call on everyone to provide financial support for the fundraiser to immediately assist in the procurement of military equipment for the Ukrainian Army and Civil Defence Forces,” the embassy said on its Facebook page in February.
The Czech government, which has also benefited from selling its own weapons, said it would provide fast-track approval for the purchase.
Another Ukrainian website provided a list of groups seeking donations, including items donated in cryptocurrency, including thermal imaging equipment, drones and satellite phones.
Any crowdfunding campaign raises concerns about scammers, Ukraine battled corruption before the war. However, so far, there have been no reports of misconduct in introducing more weapons online.
In perhaps the boldest appeal, a Ukrainian company last month launched a government-sanctioned call for crowdfunding donations to buy a fighter jet.
“Buy me a fighter jet. It will help me protect the skies full of Russian planes,” a grizzled Ukrainian fighter pilot urged in English.
The website explains that a MiG-29 or Su fighter can be purchased from one of several countries for far less than the $20 million that would cost a new aircraft.
“For this reason, we are open to international companies, businessmen and everyone who can join the initiative,” the website reads, adding gleefully: “Join! Teamwork makes dreams come true!” a spokesman said A week after the campaign, they had raised about $140,000, acknowledging that the call was aimed at millionaires.
“I think it’s hard to believe that he can buy a fighter jet that they can use with purpose and get the right people with the right training,” said Simon Schlegel, a senior Ukrainian analyst at Crisis Group think tank. It might actually be more of a marketing ploy.”
Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and former director of defense policy at the NSA, said U.S. public engagement in the war put pressure on the U.S. government to do more for Ukraine and “certainly undermined some of it.” The U.S. government was initially hesitant to provide lethal support to Ukrainian troops.
While arms shipments to Ukraine require a U.S. export license, the Commerce Department said in March that it was expediting approval of U.S. shipments of guns and ammunition. There are few barriers to donation of dual-use items like hobby drones.
“It’s almost impossible for drone enthusiasts to do anything with military equipment,” said Mr. Carper, the founder of Rotor Riot. “Hobby stuff is unregulated in a sense, so they Can be used as much as possible,” said Mr Carper, a celebrity in the international racing drone scene.
Mr. Kapper’s hobby drones — known as first-person imagery for live streaming to pilots’ goggles — are on the other end of the spectrum from fighter jets. But they appear to fill a void Ukraine is waiting for more military-grade drone supplies.
“They called me from different locations, different battalions, and they told me ‘Can you get more points? We’ve run out,'” said one Ukrainian drone operator, who asked to use only his middle name, Oleksandr. identify. For safety reasons, he asked not to determine the location of the drone hub.
Oleksandr said the drones brought by the Americans would be used to carry explosives or to observe troops of Russian fighter jets on the front lines.
The narrative of a war in which a weaker nation fended off a powerful invader and the specter of European genocide resonated broadly with Americans and others around the world.
“You know, after sending the money I felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” said the Tennessee businessman. “I have resources, I have connections in this part of the world. And I know I can make a difference by doing something in helping supply drones.”
The businessman said the Ukrainian military had contacted him for help, and he said he was setting up a charity that would allow people to donate to buy drones for Ukraine. Although the drone was later modified, he said he believed the drone donation was for “humanitarian purposes”.
“Nothing is illegal,” he said. “They demand drones. What they do with them is entirely up to them.”
In addition to carrying grenades, the drones can travel at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour and are used by Ukrainian forces for forward-looking observations of Russian forces, and infrared cameras to target and locate people in destroyed buildings or forests. Many hobby drones costing $1,000 and up have a short lifespan.
“The enemy is attacking them, so some of them only have a day or two to live,” Oleksandr said. “But for a day or two, they have important tasks. We are protecting ourselves. We are not going across the border into Russian territory – we are in our homeland.”
In 2014, Ukrainian civilians responded to Russia’s invasion of Crimea by mobilizing in support of an ill-equipped and ill-prepared army that laid the groundwork for many grassroots efforts in the war.
“It’s really amazing how much this defense effort is rooted in civil society,” said Crisis Group’s Mr. Schlegel. “Almost nobody can buy anything but heavy weapons.”
Mr Schlegel said the proliferation of video from the front lines and social media sites using open source intelligence to analyze the dynamics of the battle also contributed to public participation in the conflict.
“Social media has gotten very close to the front, it’s closer than most historical wars,” he said. “It was the biggest land battle of many people’s lives, and for many it was the first time a tank operation on this scale was seen.”