Crowdsourced War

Editor’s note: Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

At least 4,000 people have died in Eastern Ukraine, according to United Nations estimates, spilling roughly 5,000 gallons of blood on the nation’s soil.

As with much of the needless waste of war, this bloodbath was avoidable and this death toll could have been much lower.

In 90% of potentially survivable battlefield mortalities, uncontrollable bleeding was the top cause of death, the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research found in 2012.

These statistics caught the attention of Ilya Tymtchenko, a young Ukrainian man who recently moved back to Kiev after studying in the United States.

Using the crowd-funding website Indiegogo, he raised more than $2,000 in 10 days to provide bandages and QuikClot, a blood coagulant, for Ukrainian soldiers. Using Facebook, he found an American friend headed to Kiev who could make the medical purchases in the United States and bring them abroad in a suitcase, avoiding the pricey and unreliable Ukrainian mail system. Also through social media, he found contacts in Kiev who would soon be headed east, who could transport the trauma kits to the front line.

“I would say that I am a very minor example in the greater picture, because there are people who are much more involved with raising funds,” Tymtchenko tells me by Skype. “For myself and my friends, we look at what can be the most effective way of saving a life.”

As Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders and pro-Russian separatists continues, the country has embarked on an unintentional innovation: crowd-sourced war.

Though patriotic civilians have long supported war efforts — think Rosie the Riveter, volunteer nurses and the dutiful stocking-knitters of yore — Ukraine’s crowd-sourced war effort is different.

For starters, it’s born of stark necessity; around the time Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine had only 150,000 troops, down from 700,000 in 1991. Ukraine’s defense spending in 2013 was only U.S. $1.9 billion—35 times smaller than Russia’s military budget. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin puppet who fled to Russia in the wake of the Maidan protests last February, spent his time in office weakening the military, diverting funding from foreign-focused troops to his own internal police, who helped suppress the Ukrainian people.

Second, Ukraine’s crowd-sourced war effort is decidedly techy. A primarily grassroots effort, volunteers and fund-raisers publicize and coordinate their efforts on social media. To collect money, fund-raising campaigns rely on everything from Western crowd-funding websites to text-message campaigns to electronic terminals created by Ukrainian banks.

Tymtchenko tells me most contributions to his campaign ranged between U.S. $20 and $50. A $100 donation is considered big, he adds. That’s not surprising, given that Ukraine remains a relatively poor country, with the per capita gross domestic product still only $3,867.

But small donations make a big difference, as one fund-raising campaign launched by the Ukrainian military demonstrated earlier this year. By texting 565, Ukrainians could send in a 49-cent donation to help with “logistics and military support.” It brought in an overwhelming U.S. $2.3 million in the first five days alone.

The majority of the crowd-sourced war effort, though, has come from private volunteer organizations, many of which sprung up during the Maidan protests, then shifted focus to support the fight in eastern Ukraine. Reporting for National Review in April, I spoke to a Halyna Tanay, 23, who had volunteered to create secret hospitals during the protests, and who already saw those skills as transferrable to the war effort.

“Things the government couldn’t do in years, we did in weeks,” Tanay told me at the time. “It just shows that if you want to do something, you can do it. … Now we have a real war in East Ukraine, and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. There, it’s still dangerous. That’s why we can’t relax. We are waiting for [the Russians] every day, and if [our troops] need help, we can help. … Of course, war is worse than revolution, but we understand what to do, and we are ready.”

The range of these projects is impressive. Ukrainian civilians can’t buy military weapons like guns or tanks, so many projects focus on raising funds to provide soldiers with food, helmets, body armor, and warm clothing; some projects buy armed cars, and rumors even circulate about volunteers who have managed to restore an old cargo plane, proudly presenting it to the military.

Eugene Levchenko, a man in his early 20s who is part of Ukraine’s reserve forces, tells me by email that his favorite volunteer is a little boy who cleaned out his piggy-bank, using his $13 to buy warm boots for a soldier.

Fund-raising for drones is also an increasingly popular project, albeit an ambitious one. Good ones cost between U.S. $1,000 and $7,000 when equipped with a camera, says Vitalii Moroz, who volunteers with several initiatives, working especially with Patriot Defence.

“Drones are needed for understanding what is happening with an enemy, and it helps to investigative the enemy territories,” he tells me. “The cheaper the drones, the more accidents: The drones may fly away, they don’t follow the [control] of the operator.”

The logistics of raising money and making purchases can be complicated, though, volunteers say.

Crowd-sourcing websites have their pros and cons. It’s convenient, but some companies, like Kickstarter, require a project’s approval. Most are foreign, causing potential currency-transfer problems, though a few Ukrainian ones exist. Worse, almost all of them charge a service fee that gobbles a precious percentage of the funds raised.

“In Ukraine, the technological solutions for fundraising are not so developed as in the States,” Moroz says. “We don’t have some particular platforms to collect money for Ukrainian soldiers, but [instead, we’re] sending money through [bank] terminals to card accounts. There are hundreds of volunteers, leaders of the volunteer groups, who post on Facebook the numbers of these accounts, and they encourage people to send money.”

PrivatBank’s LiqPay system is especially popular, offering both online payment and in-person money-transfer terminals. The fee is also significantly lower than crowd-sourced websites.

Volunteers also take big risks to get their supplies to the front lines, Levchenko, the reserve trooper, tells me. “They bring aid to the front, sometimes moving under enemy fire,” he says. “Sometimes they’ve been captured as hostages by terrorists and [the] Russian regular army.”

For Ukrainians, the volunteer ethic of Maidan was inspiring and empowering—there’s a reason many refer to it as a “revolution of dignity.” The effort to support their defenders is a logical continuation of this fight, which volunteers say they hope restores a flourishing civil society and creates a free, Western-style nation that protects the rights of its citizenry.

“Since the war with Russia is the worst-case scenario, many people do not care about their positions and their work,” Moroz says, noting that war volunteerism unites members of the “creative class” with businessmen and intelligentsia. “The just do all they can to fight for the independence.”

But there’s also a darker side to crowd-sourced war.

The basic need for it illustrates a fundamental shortcoming: Ukraine can’t sufficiently protect its citizens from foreign threats, one of the most fundamental responsibilities of government.

And in a world where non-state actors, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have access to the same autonomous techniques to finance terrorism, that’s a disturbing development.