Jonas Ohman, founder of the Lithuanian NGO “Blue / Yellow," at his computers. Photo courtesy of Jonas Ohman.
Its founder Jonas Ohman told us he believes the war in Donbas is a drone war, why he thinks the “volunteer approach” to assisting Ukraine is better than official measures, and why he continues to fundraise and send military equipment such as small drones and periscopes to the Donbas frontline.
Back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and unleashed war in Ukraine’s easternmost region of the Donbas, a large number of civil volunteers in Ukraine and abroad started to collect and provide aid to Ukrainian forces as many military units often lacked even basic necessities such as food, vehicles, uniform, equipment after the rule of pro-Russian kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovych. The volunteer battalions hastily formed in the wake of the Russian invasion faced the same issues.
Since 2014, the Lithuanian NGO “Blue / Yellow” has been one of the organizations which support the Ukrainian military in the Donbas and the civilian population in the frontline area. The NGO’s volunteers have, according to the organization’s website, provided about $1 mn worth of humanitarian aid and military equipment, including for small drones and periscopes.
In an interview, Jonas Ohman, founder of the NGO, told Euromaidan Press about their activities, issues they face, and how they see the ongoing war.
Beginning of the war
I’m in Lithuania and from summer 2014, our organization steadily supports the Ukrainian Armed Forces and all kinds of forces all the way from the volunteer “dobrobaty” battalions to the special forces.
I think it is fair to say that we by now have a solid experience when it comes to wartime logistics and support in the conflict in Ukraine.
Obviously, we – myself and others – understood that what is happening first in Crimea, then in the Donbas is dangerous for us as well, I mean for the Baltic states. I, personally, understood it immediately as I saw these so-called “green men” – I served in a Swedish long-range intelligence unit, so I understand the Soviet/Russian military equipment quite well.
I understood immediately that Russia was coming and this time it was going into Europe. This was not like Chechnya or Georgia (Russian invasions in 1999 and 2008, – Ed.) – this was something else, a new kind of aggression. We understood that we had to do something.
Lithuanian help for Ukraine
Of course, it was not only me and the NGO but also the Lithuanian government, everybody. You may say we had a vertical understanding in society that this is dangerous. On my end, we understood very quickly that the fighting Ukrainians need Lithuanian direct help for Ukraine.
We had friends from Euromaidan in the volunteer units like Aidar. They started to call us and ask for help from the Donbas, we could even hear the artillery over the phone.
The first phase was very chaotic — lots of requests, very hard to tell who to work with, making sure that the equipment got to the right people and units. I must say, though, that at the beginning of winter 2014, maybe November, we had a pretty good idea of how to work, through a network of people we deemed reliable.
Lithuanian charity concert in gathers 140,000 Euro to support Ukraine
And I must say one interesting thing here: we started with the soldiers but soon we understood that it was not always the best approach. Instead, we started working with journalists, doctors, with people in Ukraine who deal with soldiers and military units. And via them, we managed to get a good idea of what to do and who to go to.
And we picked up fast. During the last parts of the fight for Donetsk Airport, for instance, we supported the fighters of the Right Sector with thermal vision devices from Lithuania. From there, we have developed steadily and by now we are working, I think, for being an NGO, on a fairly serious level.
- Read also: Four days at the front with the Right Sector battalion (2014)
Quite soon I realized that the West’s more indirect approach to support Ukraine often wasn’t as efficient as it could be.
I think that the “volunteer approach” is much more effective since we receive direct information on how the war is going, and what is needed to give an advantage to the soldiers. More importantly, we are very quick to establish who is fighting, who is actually worth supporting.
Lithuanian civil volunteer perspective: a drone war
Let me give you one example. Very quickly we understood that this was going to be a drone war, the first major conflict where both sides were using a wide range of drones and drone capacities in various ways. We understood this in the winter of 2014/2015 when we started to deliver our first small drones, like Phantom.
Yes, there are Leleka, Furiya, etc, mid-level drones. But the low-level tactical drones, used at the company or even platoon level are still today provided by volunteers or, in some cases, by soldiers themselves. By the way, at one point in the summer of 2016 at the southern front – the Shyrokyne sector, etc — there was only one Leleka, and it was provided by us.
The Bayraktar is a high-level drone, but the deadliest drones in this war are the small tactical, often commercial, drones, used for reconnaissance, direction of fire, dropping explosives, etc. Small drones remain a very serious factor to this day.
What really surprises me is that it seems as if not only NATO and the West but even the Ukrainian authorities still don’t seem to fully understand the importance of small, tactical drones in this specific war. Or maybe it is “under their dignity” to purchase small drones?
- Read also: The Ukrainian army still can’t do without its volunteers: opinion (2018)
The US government provided the drones, RQ-11 Raven. Since I worked with people piloting these Ravens, I learned that for a long time the Ukrainians weren’t choosing the pilot students for a training course in the US, meaning that in the end they took anybody and just sent them, and when they came back many of them left the armed forces quite quickly.
I was surprised that the Americans didn’t pick up on this factor because, as we know, there are very many skilled and motivated drone pilots in Ukraine.
On top of that, the frequencies used by Raven were long since known by Russia, which made the whole effort almost obsolete. In this very complicated situation with serious military implications, the West seemed to be very slow and unable to pick up the various signals and to be flexible enough to actually try to figure these things out in an effective way.
The hybrid war and periscopes
What’s the essence of hybrid war? It’s to do things half the way – occupying a little territory, being there while saying you’re not there, and then conveniently hiding behind this rhetoric. But the shells keep coming, I mean we can see whenever Russia needs something politically, they increase the artillery shelling, they increase the sniper activity, and so on. It worked this way for a very long time.
What we could do from our side during the escalation of sniper activity in the front was to provide hundreds of tactical periscopes that would decrease the risk of being shot. We tried to think of a simple, relatively cheap, way to save lives. I know of several cases when this has worked.
West-European “arms embargo” on Ukraine
We asked Jonas Ohman to comment on Germany’s recent veto on Ukraine’s purchase of anti-drone rifles from Lithuania via the Nato Support and Procurement Agency, given that earlier military expert Mykhailo Samus in his interview with Euromaidan Press pointed out that Ukraine is under an unofficial arms embargo in the West-European countries, which isn’t the case for Eastern Europe.
- Read also: Berlin concerned by Ukraine using Bayraktar drone, but not by Russian-separatist side using banned weapons
From the Lithuanian point, I’m very happy that Lithuania was the first country that provided lethal arms support to Ukraine, like heavy machine guns DShK in 2014. As I said, in Lithuanian, there is a “vertical” understanding in all layers of society that this is dangerous for us, so all the way from the President down to civil society we act accordingly.
For example, since 2016, our NGO in cooperation with the Lithuanian authorities has provided Lithuanian anti-drone equipment to Ukraine. Western Europe has a paradigmatic unwillingness to engage in anything beyond diplomacy. Historically speaking, there is, of course, some very traumatic historical relevance to it.
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- New Ukrainian radiolocation stations knock out Russian drones (2018)
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- How Ukraine counters use of drones by Russian hybrid forces (2017)
- Ukraine will manufacture its own military drones — Turchynov (2016)
- Volunteers are creating a drone revolution for Ukraine’s army (2016)
- How to stop Russian aggression in post-Soviet states
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- Poroshenko: Ukraine needs radars, drones, not advanced lethal weapons (2014)
Tags: Lithuania, NGO Blue/Yellow, Russo-Ukrainian War (2014-present)