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A batch of drones by Come Back Alive
A batch of 2,000 FPV drones, 200 night vision devices and 50 generators delivered to Ukraine’s 82nd brigade in Zaporizhzhia direction by Come Back Alive in March 2024. Photo by Come Back Alive Foundation.

Why donations to the Ukrainian army are crucial for victory

The short answer is a lack of state budget to cover all needs as well as unwieldy bureaucracy missing relatively “small” but important issues, such as effective sniper rifles or even vehicles for particular units.
Why donations to the Ukrainian army are crucial for victory

The longer answer will show why supplies from private funds and volunteers matter, even though donations for them equal only 5% of Ukraine’s state military spending.

From helmets and first aid kits to designer drones

Various Ukrainian volunteer movements started in 2014 when Russia occupied Ukrainian Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

Along with the regular army, numerous volunteer battalions emerged, and both lacked equipment because the army was never a priority in peaceful times before 2014. The initial problem was as deep as the lack of body armor and modern first aid kits, with old Soviet medicine being useless in combat conditions.

That is how the largest Ukrainian military foundations emerged, including Come Back Alive, dozens of smaller organizations, and thousands of other groups of volunteers or even individuals “covering” particular units.

In addition to supplying modern first aid kits and the first FPV drones for the army in 2014, volunteer organizations started proper training on how to use these tools and communicated with state officials, pursuing numerous military reforms between 2014 and 2022.

That is how, for example, the Ukrainian volunteer NGO Aerorozvidka emerged in 2014.

The organization states its goal “is that robots should fight, not people, because defenders’ lives are priceless!” Aerorozvidka was among the first to use FPV drones in combat since 2014 and integrate them into armed forces units. Later, it also contributed to the development of unique Ukrainian-made drones. For example, the R18 octocopter can effectively hit the enemy without the need for the military to cross mined fields and enemy ambushes to complete the task.

After Russia started its full-scale war against Ukraine in 2022, the functions of volunteers gradually evolved from supplying helmets and body armor to drones and eventually even armored vehicles, mortars, and entire specially created complexes to address particular needs.

One of the latest examples was vehicles equipped as mobile control points for unmanned aviation systems, with various drones in each complex. Come Back Alive Foundation executes this project.

Why are volunteers needed to supply the army?

Despite being the largest country in Europe, excluding Russia, Ukraine is much smaller than its neighbors in terms of population and GDP, which means a smaller capacity to fund the military.

By population, current Ukraine’s 36 million is even smaller than Poland’s population of 40 million (which partially increased due to a surge of refugees from Ukraine). Ukraine’s population is 2.3 times smaller than Germany’s 83 million and four times smaller than Russia’s 144 million.

Ukraine’s GDP, hit by war, is even further behind, staying at $166 billion, compared to Poland’s $697 billion, Germany’s $4.12 trillion, or Russia’s $2.2 trillion. It is estimated that Ukraine has a very high informal economy of about 50%, which makes the situation slightly less dramatic but still far from parity with Russia.

These figures are directly reflected in the defense spending. Ukraine is currently allocating 99% of state budget revenues or 81% of all budgets’ revenues (including regional and municipal) for the army and security. Ukraine will spend UAH 1.78 trillion ($48 billion) on defense in 2024. This makes Ukraine’s defense spending equal to 28% of its expected 2024 GDP.

High military expenditures mean that Ukraine covers non-military needs, such as healthcare or education, primarily by loans and international financial aid.

Yet the absolute size of military expenditures is not inspiring compared to Ukraine’s neighbors, given that Ukraine is at war. For example, Poland’s 2023 Defense sector budget was $31 billion, and it is expected to exceed $38 billion in 2024, reaching 79% of Ukraine’s spending. Germany’s 2024 defense spending of EUR 89 billion will be almost two times higher than that of Ukraine. Finally, Russia’s 2024 defense spending is almost 2.5 times higher, surpassing $110 billion.

Notably, 62% of Ukraine’s current military spending goes to salaries and other compensations to service members, 4% is spent on fuel and food, while only 21% is spent on equipment and weapons procurement.

Volunteers focus on cars, advanced sniper rifles, night vision, and other optical devices

In these conditions, non-state supplies of equipment for the army remain crucial. And while international military aid plays the main role, smaller volunteer supplies are also important, covering more niche but sometimes basic needs.

One such example is cars, which are needed for sufficient mobility of military units. The military car park was small before the war and is already exhausted, while demand has only increased. It has become common in the army that with limited state finances, weapons and ammunition are a priority in procurement. Cars, instead, are provided in very limited quantities. A unit of 30 infantry personnel normally receives small arms, ammunition, and, at best, mortars or grenade launchers from the state. It is up to the unit itself to find cars, thermal imagers, and other additional equipment they would like to have to perform the task effectively.

Before the state program of the Drone Army was developed recently, all units usually equipped themselves with FPV drones, raising funds through volunteer crowdfunders or spending their own salaries. And even after the Drone Army was launched, volunteers continued working in parallel to cover the huge demand for drones.

For example, the army gave me one car in March 2023,” a company commander, who agreed to speak anonymously, shared his experience with Euromaidan Press.

It was a ZIL-130, the engine of which is now broken because it was an old car mobilized from some forestry company. We were looking for a new engine for several months and bought it in Poland for $2,000. They gave me a second car later. These are all my cars, which were given by the state. Others were supplied by volunteers.

The commander says that all such car repairs are conducted at the servicemen’s own cost because the state storage of spare parts is already exhausted, and no money is allocated for repairs.

“All cars were repaired with our own money… Each time we collect different sums, for example, UAH 500 ($15) from each of 100 people in our company to repair something. Even if you were given military equipment from the state, they don’t give you spare parts because the warehouses are empty.

And a car provided by volunteers, some kind of jeep or bus, is out of the question at all because the army does not have such spare parts, therefore doesn’t allocate money for them. They give you a salary, and then you become a volunteer crowdfunder and procurer for yourself.”

Writing off cars is another nightmare, the commander says. On paper, his battalion has 200 vehicles, but only 60 work. Because even when volunteers supply cars, they are officially written on balance as military equipment. Writing them off after they are damaged or severely broken is very difficult. Therefore, the situation de facto is much less rosy than de jure.

While the state doesn’t have money for cars, they are crucial equipment. Every unit has to move in and out from positions for several kilometers or more, which is safer and faster to do by car than on foot. And even more importantly, every unit needs to move its equipment, such as anti-tank missiles, mortars, or drones. For drone detachments or snipers, working in different positions daily is crucial, which is also difficult without cars.

How larger foundations work

Come Back Alive

Understanding this problem, larger foundations are trying to work comprehensively, equipping a smaller number of units but with all necessary devices to work the most efficiently and not seek any additional help. For example, the Come Back Alive Foundation has recently started a project worth UAH 220 million ($5.8 million) to equip 100 snipers for effective reconnaissance and hitting targets at a distance of more than 2 km.

Standard sniper complexes in the Defense Forces of Ukraine make it possible to hit effectively at a distance of up to 1,200 meters. The complex provided by the foundation allows hitting from 2,000 meters and, with luck and favorable circumstances, even further. The sniper will be able to work at a safer distance and, at the same time, control a larger area.

Yet, the project is not only about better sniper rifles but also covers all the related needs of snipers so that the provided aid will be indeed effective. The project will support 50 pairs of snipers, and each pair will receive:

  • two Cadex CDX-40 CBA Shadow rifles with daytime optics, thermal imaging pre-objective attachments, bipods, and silencers;
  • 1,000 high-precision bullets, which are expected to cover the next two years of work;
  • a specially prepared SUV;
  • a rangefinder;
  • a night vision device;
  • a remote monitoring complex;
  • optical tubes for observation and correction;
  • a ballistic calculator;
  • a Mavic Thermal Pro quadcopter.

Such a complex approach is common for the Come Back Alive Foundation, which describes itself as a “charitable foundation dedicated to providing competent assistance to the Ukrainian military and… defense sector analytics.”

The foundation focuses on comprehensive and systematic long-term aid rather than sporadic coverage of the most urgent needs. It also executed numerous other similar comprehensive projects aiding entire branches of Ukraine’s armed forces, such as:

  • Raising UAH 15 million ($400,000) for five command posts to control unmanned aerial vehicles for the Marine Corps brigades. These are specially equipped pass-through cars with comfortable workplaces for pilots. Universal command points are suitable for any reconnaissance UAV SHARK, Leleka-100, Fury, Valkyrie, FlyEye, ACS-3, etc.
  • Raising UAH 400 million ($10.5 million) to purchase 300 82-mm mortars, 200 large-caliber machine guns, and 100 automatic 40-mm grenade launchers to completely cover the most urgent need of the Territorial Defense Forces for heavy infantry weapons.
  • Within the “Long Hands of Territorial Defense” project, the foundation is collecting UAH 333 million ($8.8 million) for reconnaissance and strike systems with 120-mm mortars for the Territorial Defense Forces.
The most recent batch of 82-mm mortars was delivered by the Come Back Alive Foundation to Ukraine’s territorial defense brigades on the frontline. Photo via: Come Back Alive, March 2024
United 24

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initiated the United 24 platform at the beginning of the Russian full-scale aggression in 2022. It has also conducted multiple fundraising projects to support the Ukrainian military, including the famous fundraiser for the first fleet of naval drones, which included 100 such drones.

Within the operation “Unity,” United 24, together with the Come Back Alive Foundation and Monobank, have also conducted a fundraiser of $6 million towards 5,000 FPV drones with ammunition for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Another example of a United 24 project was Safe Skies — an innovative sensor system for detecting air targets. Designed in Ukraine during active air attacks, the system can detect targets at very low altitudes and predict their course for further neutralization. AI technology allows the system to anticipate where the next threats may come from. Safe Skies proved its effectiveness during tests against cruise missiles and enemy Shahed 136 UAVs.

Serhiy Prytula Foundation

The third-largest Ukrainian military charity was Serhiy Prytula Foundation, which has executed multiple large-scale projects, including purchasing and supplying 8,048 small drones for the Ukrainian army, 12,061 FPV drones, 199 UAVs, and 251 strike UAVs, 20,198 communication devices, 10,855 units of optics for the Ukrainian military, 1,514 vehicles, and more.

Among other prominent organizations are Aerorozvidka, which focuses on the development of new drone models; Sprava Hromad, led by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, which provides various types of military aid, including heavy trucks and mobile shower stations for soldiers in the field; Razom for Ukraine providing humanitarian aid and medical aid for soldiers; and many more.

2000 FPV drones were supplied to the army by the foundation of the fifth Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, on 13 March 2024. Screenshot from Poroshenko’s video

Multiple international organizations are also fundraising for Ukraine’s military aid, one of the biggest being a Lithuanian fundraising effort called Radarom. In its latest project, Radarom raised over €8.2 million to purchase 1,115 Lithuanian-produced kits containing night vision, a laser sight, and an individual anti-drone system.

How individual volunteers work

Small groups or individual volunteers mainly cover particular units with whom they have a personal connection. And there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people in Ukraine who have been conducting some military fundraisers.

One of the brightest examples here is Yuriy Chornomorets, a Ukrainian sniper who fought at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Kyiv Oblast. After his health deteriorated due to a lengthy operation in the Chornobyl exclusion zone, he started his fundraising campaign to support the best Ukrainian snipers.

As in the case with cars, basic equipment provided for snipers by the state includes relatively cheap rifles, including old Soviet SVD sniper rifles with an effective range of a mere 800 meters. All better equipment for snipers was provided mostly by volunteers. Chornomorets alone has already supplied snipers with over 253 sniper complexes (rifles), over 25 vehicles, over 240,000 rounds of ammunition, over 200 scopes for rifles, over 40 thermal scopes, over 180 silencers, over 125 bipods, and over 75 rangefinders.

Since rifles provided by Chornomorets are still too rarely in service of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, there is also a lack of ammunition for them, which needs to be covered by volunteer costs again.

Numerous volunteers are focusing on the support of servicemen from their local community.

For example, local activist Mariana Voloshyn takes care of nearly 50 servicemen from her village Murovane, near Ukraine’s Lviv. She has already bought several cars and hundreds of drones since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, mainly from the donations made by villagers. During a local school concert and sports competition, children recently collected UAH 26,000 ($700) for FPV drones. They regularly conduct similar events.

UAH 27,050 was collected for the military by children in Myrovane school during the lottery, where they baked cakes as a prize. Collage via Mariana Voloshyn

Agile and quick donations cover over 10% of all Ukraine’s military equipment supplies

In September 2023, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, Oleksiy Reznikov, said that volunteer supplies equal 3% of all expenditures on the Defense Forces. He noted that one day of war costs Ukraine $100 million, far exceeding the budgets of large volunteer foundations.

Technically, this number seems to be true. However, the actual role of volunteer help is much higher.

Considering the number itself, the three largest Ukrainian volunteer foundations (United 24, Come Back Alive, and Serhiy Prytula’s Foundation) have gathered UAH 18.75 billion ($500 million) in 2023, according to the Ukrainian open data service Open Data Bot. Additionally, according to another figure given by the second-largest Ukrainian banking app, Monobank, Ukrainians donated $720 million in 2023 through the bank app to all individual volunteers and foundations.

These two figures comprise a large portion of all donations, although they do not show the full picture. People donate not only through Monobank but also through numerous other banks and, of course, not only to the three largest funds.

Let us suppose these three largest funds and Monobank cover roughly half of Ukraine’s volunteer donations; doubling the amount, we would get the figure of $2.44 billion. This is 5% of Ukraine’s total defense spending. Taking the added international military aid, volunteer supplies constitute roughly 3% of total spending for the army, as mentioned by the Minister.

However, this figure is compared with total defense spending, 62% of which is salaries and compensations to nearly 1 million service members. Equipment-wise, the share of volunteers is significantly higher — equivalent to more than 10% of all state procurement of military equipment.

Moreover, volunteers can cover the most pressing needs of many units faster, which would otherwise remain all but out of reach due to state bureaucracy and lack of resources. And these calculations don’t include materials and equipment purchased by soldiers themselves.

Most importantly, the state largely neglects crucial equipment such as SUVs, cargo cars, or modern sniper rifles, focusing more on basic needs such as ordinary ammunition, guns, or armored vehicles. This makes the work of volunteers essential and complementary to the state effort.

Donations stay high in the third year of the war

After a huge surge in donations in February-April 2022, during the first months of the full-scale invasion, they remained stable and high: some data show a moderate decline in donations, while others, on the contrary, a moderate increase.

In particular, in 2023, Ukrainians contributed $720 million through Monobank, a threefold increase compared to the $220 million recorded in 2022. The statistics further reveal that donations in 2023 soared to 5.4 million donors, up from 3 million in 2022. The average one-time donation increased from UAH 258 ($7) in 2022 to UAH 349 ($9) in 2023.

The increase in donations through Monobank can also be partially attributed to increased bank popularity, including its special feature of banka (“jar”) used to collect them.

According to Open data bot data, the UAH 18.75 billion ($500 million) donated to the three largest foundations in 2023 slightly exceeds the UAH 18.2 billion collected in 2022. However, the 2022 number could be a bit higher, as in February-March 2022, nearly UAH 15.8 billion ($420 million) was donated to the National Bank of Ukraine – an initiative that later morphed into the major fund United 24.

In total, starting from May 2022 and all the way until March 2023, donations have been stable, fluctuating depending on the foundation.

Donations to three largest Ukrainian military charities
Donations to the three largest Ukrainian military charities in 2023 by quarters, billion UAH. Source: Open Data Bot

Statistics shared by Come Back Alive also show rather stable donations, albeit with a slight decline. In 2022, the foundation collected UAH 5.7 billion ($184.5 million); in 2023 – UAH 4.5 billion ($123.4 million), while in the first two months of 2024 – UAH 455 million ($12 million), which is comparable to UAH 641 million ($16.8 million) collected in the first two months of 2023.

In 2023, Ukraine was placed second in the World Giving Index published by the Charities Aid Foundation, climbing 13 spots to rank as the survey’s highest riser. Unless the Ukrainian economy rapidly grows, which is unlikely in the near future, or unless the state significantly increases already high taxes to cover more military needs, volunteer organizations and donations will remain a crucial source of equipment for the Ukrainian army.

Feeling like donating to the Ukrainian Army yourself? Euromaidan Press is constantly running a fundraiser to help frontline units. Also, we have a list of Verified ways to help Ukraine and the Ukrainian army.
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