Volunteer network distributes drones, weapons, armor to Ukrainian forces


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LVIV, Ukraine — They wait in a secret warehouse on the city’s outskirts, lounging in a corner hammock or an idle wheelchair as a red van weaves through small villages and over gravel roads. When it finally pulls into the gated lot, seven bodies spring into action. The drones are here.

The volunteers unloading the military supplies are friends from the Ukrainian film and television industry — a longhair bunch of cinematographers, gaffers, set decorators and marketing strategists. They take dozens of boxes of self-heating meals, six thermal rifle scopes, a satellite communications kit and 10 drones worth $8,000 each. All are bound for the front.

The paths these vans weave daily from the Polish border to the Lviv warehouse to places such as Kyiv, Sumy and Kharkiv illustrate a daunting reality for Russian invaders: The defense of Ukraine has mobilized citizens from every sector of life, from battle-hardened soldiers who have been at war in Donbas for almost a decade, to the people who decide the food budgets for Florence and the Machine music video shoots.

This is Vladislav Salov’s show. Before Russia invaded in late February, the 34-year old was a cinematographer who shot Apple, BMW and Mercedes commercials for a Kyiv-based film studio. On most shoots, he was the first assistant camera, responsible for image clarity.

“Now he’s managing all the contraband in Ukraine,” said a friend and former unit production manager turned smuggler.

Salov is actually managing just a small chunk of the unmeasurable volume of goods now flowing through unofficial and clandestine channels in support of Ukraine’s military. His crew estimates it has acquired more than $1 million worth of supplies and high-end fighting tools for friends and strangers in the Ukrainian military battling Russian forces.

“Film producers are used to having us get anything from anywhere, yesterday,” Salov said. “Now we’re doing the same thing, but we’ve changed our point of view.

“It used to be cameras. Now it’s armor.”

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Ukrainian victories in the north and center of the country in recent days have been aided by a flow of supplies to Kyiv, the capital and a major supply hub. Nonprofits that sent basic medical supplies and necessities such as diapers and water to the front in the early days of the war have shifted to hard-to-find medicines, medical supplies and specialized military equipment.

“We have enough Pampers,” Salov said. “Our defenders can’t fight with those.”

Local organizations built on informal networks of friends who once enjoyed open roads toward the war’s hot zones, now find their vans in Kyiv-bound checkpoint traffic jams behind Red Cross vehicles and tractor trailers.

The road to Kyiv, for the first time since the invasion began, has more people coming than going.

Elizabeth Sigorska was vacationing in Egypt when Russian forces invaded Ukraine. At 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, the 32-year-old brand strategist woke up to the news and called her boyfriend, Salov.

“Wake the [expletive] up,” she said. “The war has started.” Sigorska caught a plane to Berlin several days later, then a ride to the border to meet him.

Salov connected with an executive at a digital marketing company in Kyiv who was rallying a network of young, educated professionals to action. Friends in banking, casinos, pharmacy and information technology united to form the IT Troops. More than 200 people work for Ukraine’s official information technology arm in an information war with Russia.

While the group used donations to the group to send humanitarian and military supplies to the front, the IT Troops computer minds planted digital adverti
sing on Russian social media and entertainment platforms faster than Russia could thwart them. When Russia blocked citizens’ access to most social media sites, IT Troops turned their focus to the rest of Europe, placing ads approved by Ukraine’s armed forces calling for volunteers to join the military’s foreign legion.

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After depleting most of their own bank accounts, members appealed to comparatively wealthy friends across Europe.

Donations came in quickly at first. Some were made online via the group’s donation page. Others came in the form of supply purchases. One donation came with an odd request: A man who gave $30,000 asked if a van driver could collect his Porsche summer tires from his Kyiv home and somehow deliver them to his summer home in France. “I don’t know how I’m going to get it there, but I’ll figure it out,” Salov said. “Tomorrow evening they’ll be in France.”

As the IT Troops proved their reliability delivering ballistic helmets and armor to military units, soldiers began to request items that were more difficult to obtain. A member of a sniper group asked for an Adams Arms P2 rifle. It was found in Lviv and delivered within seven hours. The Ukrainian Alpha Group sent back photos of dead Russian soldiers to encourage investors to give more.

Three weeks ago, a connection texted Sigorska with a revelation: A friend knew a man in Poland who would sell six black armored vehicles to the IT Troops. Within two days, the vehicles were leaving Lviv on a transport truck bound for Kyiv.

IT Troops have now sent to the front helmets from Israel, drones from England, thermal-vision goggles from France, laser range finders from Canada, Starlinks from the Netherlands, 3D printers, red dot sights and body armor from Poland and meals from the United States.

Kirill Skurikhin, a 20-year-old student at the Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv, has done sourcing research for the group. He said every request has been filled within two weeks.

“Who would’ve thought in 2022 Russia wouldn’t have McDonald’s and Ukraine would have Starlink?” he said.

But as Ukraine’s war front successes have continued, Sigorska said, donations have begun to slow.

“The landscape of donation has changed a lot,” she said. “At a certain point we had no money to donate. And now all of our friends of friends have given all they can.”

The drones arrived last Saturday in the back of the van driven by Rafael Schleifer, a 46-year-old business consultant in Poland. Schleifer volunteers his time on the weekends. He considers his contribution a small one; multiple friends are hosting refugee Ukrainian families in their homes.

“What I’m doing doesn’t require you to be especially brave,” Schleifer said. “We live quite close, so we can really feel this conflict in a very personal way. We have this feeling in Poland that we could be next. When Russians have problems here, they will not come to Poland so quickly.”

While Sigorska shared pictures of the haul on the IT Troops Instagram page, Serhiy Vorobiov helped load a separate van destined for Kyiv. Vorobiov, 36, has made the trip to the capital four times, usually wheeling through the southern suburbs to avoid fighting west of Kyiv.

Vorobiov says he was having a cigarette on his balcony in Zhytomyr in early March when a Russian missile struck a school less than three miles away. “In my hometown, not everybody really comprehended what was going on,” he said. “Once you see and hear that type of thing in real life, you understand.”

His marriage soon became a casualty of the war. His wife of three years preferred to stay close to family in the Kyiv area, but he wanted to link with friends who were creating a supply chain anchored in Lviv. “The war made us realize we might not be the best fit for each other,” he said.

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When IT Troops established the Lviv-Kyiv route, Vorobiov volunteered to drive. He’s had one major brush with death: He was returning to Lviv via Kyiv’s southern suburbs last month when he was told at a checkpoint there was a Russian column on his tail. As he sped through checkpoints, the Russians blew by territorial defense forces for several miles. Finally, a well-equipped Ukrainian unit engaged them and Vorobiov could slow.

Otherwise, he’s seen only the aftermath of battles: Captured Russian military vehicles repainted and in transit to the front; burned out shells of armored military vehicles; buildings obliterated by artillery strikes.

Vorobiov drove the 10 drones through dozens of Ukrainian checkpoints last week, past white and black storks plucking bugs from sopping soil, by graveyards full of light-blue Orthodox crosses and alongside grandmothers on bicycles carrying groceries in handlebar b
askets. Outside the capital, he speeds over stretches of road pocked by artillery fire.

“The closer you get to Kyiv,” he said, “the more you start seeing the ghosts of war. But I’m only thinking about today. I’m here, now. I’m a little gear in the Ukrainian mechanism now.”

‘Are you with me or not?’

Two weeks into the war, a police major in Cherkasy asked his fraternal twin brother, a commander of a combat unit in Ukraine’s national guard, what supplies he needed.

“What do you want to eat?” Yevheniy Honcharenko asked.

Alex Honcharenko shot back: “If you ever ask me again about food, I’ll send you to hell. We will not win with food.”

Alex, 35, fought Russian and separatist forces from 2015 to 2016 in Donbas before that conflict cooled to an extent. He lived in Kyiv for a year and then moved to New York City, where he started an appliance repair business. When Russian soldiers began massing at the Ukrainian border, Alex sold the business and his car and flew back to Ukraine nine days before the full-scale invasion.

“I asked him, ‘Do you really think this kind of war is possible in the 21st century?’” Yevheniy recalled. “He said, ‘Brother, are you with me or not?’”

During his time in Donbas, Alex had spent much of his wages on advanced weapons and armor systems. Upon his return to Ukraine, he pulled a thermal rifle scope out of storage and rejoined the military.

A few weeks ago, he asked his brother and friends for a drone. The Ukrainian military flies drones in support of artillery units, which use them for target reconnaissance, but combat units like Alex’s often don’t have them.

Katia Egorova, a friend of the brothers who before the war was chief executive of a Ukrainian advertising agency and now works as a military volunteer, found someone willing to spend $80,000 on 10 drones. Other front-line units that could put them to use were quickly identified.

“This is a story of war, destruction and despair, but also of friendship and brotherhood,” Egorova said. “That’s the main thing now.”

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A London-based film producer picked up the drones in northern England and organized a network of friends to take them by ferry to the Netherlands, through Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. After the pit stop in Lviv to change vehicles, the journey continued through shellshocked Kyiv suburbs. Vorobiov met another volunteer in a secret location in Kyiv. The volunteer sorted the goods into six piles bound for 10 locations in the north, east and southeast.

Finally, the military contacts responsible for picking up the supplies were called and told them they were ready. Between England and Kyiv, the drones had changed hands six times and traveled more than 1,500 miles.

A soldier in Chernihiv received one of them. He slapped away the instruction manual, shouted “just give me the remote!” and began nimbly piloting the craft above the heads of his unit. “With this, the Russians will be gone soon,” he declared in Ukrainian.

Around Kyiv and in the north, the Russians were already gone. The same day the drones were delivered, the invading forces retreated and began to regroup in the east. That is where Alex’s group may meet them in what many fear will be the bloodiest chapter of the invasion.

Yet this time his unit will have technology capable of revealing enemy positions in advance. It’s a small victory for a twin brother pulling every string he can to keep his family and friends well-equipped.

“I would sell my soul to the devil to save one Ukrainian life,” said Yevheniy, who had no qualms about sharing select details of the procurement efforts in hopes they inspire western support. “Almost every Ukrainian is doing it. Russians have to kill all of the nation in order to stop our activity.”

On Friday Alex was in an undisclosed forward position. Talking via a video interview from an improvised barracks, he paused to consider the gargantuan effort required to put a single drone from the opposite end of Europe in his hands.

“It feels like we’re not left behind,” he said, “like we’re not on our own.”

Violetta Pedorych in Lviv contributed to this report.


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