UKRAINE

Ukrainians pitch in to buy thermal underwear for soldiers

Weakened by years of corruption, the Ukrainian army is struggling to wage its war in the east. The soldiers on the ground say that they are short of almost everything, including basic equipment like uniforms, sleeping bags and long underwear to help them survive the bitter coldly Ukrainian winters.  Some Ukrainians decided to come to their aid, spending their own money on buying equipment for the soldiers.

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Ukrainian soldiers receive boxes of provisions in the eastern part of the country.

 

Weakened by years of corruption, the Ukrainian army is struggling to wage its war in the east. The soldiers on the ground say that they are short of almost everything, including basic equipment like uniforms, sleeping bags and long underwear to help them survive the bitterly cold Ukrainian winters. Some Ukrainians have now come to their aid, spending their own money on buying equipment for the soldiers.

In February 2014, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was chased out of office by a pro-democracy movement. The day after his ouster, Ukraine’s defence minister launched an appeal to the Ukrainian people, asking them to come to the aid of the weak, badly trained Ukrainian army. Less than a year later, at the end of December, the minister announced the army received 153 million grivna (equivalent to 8 million euro) in donations. The money was reportedly used to buy tens of thousands of bullet-proof vests, helmets, shoes, and more than 150,000 tons of fuel.

Mobile phone companies helped to raise funds by donating a percentage of their earnings to the ministry. A number of private individuals also publicised appeals for donations on social media.

Thermal underwear sent to soldiers by the organisation Wings Phoenix.

Anna and volunteers collect equipment to be sent to soldiers.

These boots were sent to soldiers during Christmas time by the organisation "Help the Army of Ukraine".They were paid for by a Ukrainian business.

"The generals give me a list of what they need"

Anna Sandalova launched an online appeal to collect donations for the Ukrainian army in the spring of 2014. Her website and her Facebook page "Help the Army of Ukraine" (which exists in English, Russian and Ukrainian) has already helped raise nearly a million euros.

 

I launched this initiative when the Russian army started to surround Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea. The government didn’t have the financial or logistical means to act. We very quickly raised enough money to rush buses to the region to bring back the soldiers. Now, we are collecting funds for soldiers deployed in eastern Ukraine.

A generator bought with donations.

I am in direct contact with the commanders in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kramatorsk etc… Now, they give me lists of what they need. With time, we’ve become very efficient and we manage to deliver their orders in a few days. If the soldiers had to ask the ministry, they would have to wait months before their orders went through.

Volunteers brought a Christmas tree and presents for soldiers in Kramatorsk.

Volunteers test the cold-weather sleeping bags to be delivered to the soldiers in their tent, where the temperature hovered around 3°C.

We have already delivered night-vision goggles as well as maps, GPS systems, and communication equipment. We also deliver lots of equipment to help them deal with the cold, like boots, sleeping bags and thermal long underwear. We also send food to both soldiers and civilians.

On the other hand, it is illegal to provide them with weapons, so we don't do that [Editor’s note: Other groups indicated that the money they gave directly to the ministry could be used to buy weapons].

Far from the frontline, elderly people receive fruit and blankets.

 

An army weakened by corruption

 

Officially, the Ukrainian army does not receive military aid from NATO. However, in September, the Ukrainian defence minister indicated that certain member states had sent Ukraine weapons, though he did not indicate which states or what weapons.

Even so, specialists agree that the Ukrainian forces are undeniably weaker – in terms of both logistics (petrol and ammunitions) and combat training – than the Russian army, which is accused of supporting the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Many pro-democracy activists believe that these weaknesses are due to years of corruption that they say were part of the “strategy” of the “pro-Kremlin authorities.” The Maidan activists accuse the authorities of seeking to increase the wealth of a small number of people while also making Russia comfortable in its position as Ukraine’s sole defender.

However, corruption does not seem to have disappeared with the fall of President Yanukovich. In the east of the country, allegations have emerged that high-level Ukrainian officers were selling information to the enemy. Moreover, soldiers have made accusations to the media that Ukrainian officers steal provisions sent by civilians.

Anna herself travels to the east of the country every two weeks alongside a team of half a dozen people to hand-deliver the equipment and provisions to the soldiers. She works in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence, who put her in contact with some of the generals on site. After ten months of work, she now says she knows the soldiers well.

 

We give our provisions to both soldiers who are part of the regular army but also those who belong to volunteer battalions like the Donbass and Azov battalions. For us, these groups are an integral part of the army and they may be the most dedicated and fervent fighters.

Equipment for the extreme right battalions

 

Some of these battalions are aligned with the far-right, like the paramilitary unit Azov or the ultra-nationalist organisation Praviy Sektor, who are fighting pro-Russian militias on the front lines in the area around the Donetsk airport. The ideology of these groups doesn’t scare the activists who spoke to FRANCE 24: "Only some of the fighters fall into this category and, in terms of extremism, there is a lot worse on the Russian side," said Taras Revunets, a pro-Maidan activist based in Kiev.

But not everyone shares this same feeling. In an interview given to Bruxelles2, Oleg Anatoliyovych, a former colonel in the Ukrainian army and a member of a council of independent experts set up by the Interior minister, said he is worried that these civilian-equipped groups could one day turn against Kiev.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.