More than a Hobby: Informal Security Assistance to Ukraine

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“We are where NATO should be,” says Rima Žiūraitienė, Managing Director of Blue/Yellow Ukraine. Her non-governmental organization communicates directly with combat units at the brigade level and uses trusted drivers to deliver much-needed equipment directly to units on the frontline, bypassing Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. 

Debates about appropriate military equipment for Ukraine continue a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These arguments focus predominantly on state-to-state assistance. But they miss an important element of Kyiv’s battlefield performance: informal security assistance. Aid from domestic civil society, informal military networks, and foreign volunteers are bolstering the Armed Forces of Ukraine in real and meaningful ways. 

While some may argue that the aid provided by non-state actors — relative to over $113 billion in global aid provided to Ukraine — is too small to make an impact, we believe the aid has had a tangible effect. Highly motivated groups are providing equipment with a comparative advantage in areas where formalized state aid cannot. Several Ukrainian soldiers told us that “It’s more common for the average Ukrainian unit to have 100 percent of its drones sourced from these non-governmental organizations [Prytula Foundation, Come Back Alive, and Monsters Corporation], not our Ministry of Defense…and these drones already come ‘modified’ so they’re ready for combat use when they arrive.”

 

 

These soldiers also told us that “Most Ukrainian units have half their vehicles coming from non-governmental organizations,” and that Come Back Alive arms all “Territorial defense units with ready fire support” by providing them “120-mm mortars with vehicles.” Volunteer organizations are providing night vision goggles and medical supplies, collecting and analyzing battlefield intelligence. Many international volunteers also serve a vital role with training simulators, delivering lethal aid, and buying and modifying simple drones to drop grenades.

Informal security aid reinforces a global narrative that Ukraine’s battle against Russian invaders is a just cause worthy of support. Third parties act with speed and initiative that risk-averse government bureaucracies lack and provide a low-profile and low-risk lever that Western governments can use to amplify the impacts of conventional assistance and strategic-level communications. Such hobbyists often work through important networks of people and trusted information sources beyond the reach of government agencies. Thus, private aid fits within the scope of irregular warfare. 

Though barely mentioned in the 2022 National Defense Strategy, the 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy warns that “We must not — and will not — repeat the ‘boom and bust’ cycle that has left the United States underprepared for irregular warfare in both Great Power Competition and conflict.” Non-governmental organizations have knowledge of soldiers’ specific needs in ways that state-led efforts do not. Engagement and active learning from these efforts should play a significant role in advancing these irregular warfare goals in contexts very different than wars of the past 20 years.

As the political winds shift in Western capitals, informal security assistance offers a way to bridge the gap in the “boom-bust” cycle that has typified Western military aid in past conflicts. 

There are four ways the West can help Ukraine. First, the United States can continue to emphasize transparency. Volunteer groups that publish where and how they spend their resources engender public trust and broader, follow-on support. Second, U.S. officials can engage critical private companies, like SpaceX, and encourage more robust assistance to Ukraine’s defense. With privately sourced capabilities like Starlink playing decisive roles on the battlefield, such pressure will ensure Ukrainians receive energetic support from both the private and public sectors. Third, policymakers can revisit export laws to ensure that the U.S. government transfers key manuals and supporting information for Western equipment without violating export controls. Finally, the United States government can incorporate volunteer groups into a long-term, low-cost strategy for irregular warfare in Ukraine. Flexibility and responsiveness are important elements to strategically compete with the Kremlin without risking significant escalation or expending additional state-based resources.

Three types of Informal Security Assistance

Our Department of Defense Minerva team has interviewed dozens of American, NATO, and Ukrainian military personnel across Europe over the last two years. Through these visits, we have come to understand the value — both tactical and strategic — of informal security assistance in the Russo-Ukrainian War. This private aid comes in at least three forms: help from Ukraine’s civil society, unofficial support through informal professional networks (government, military, and private), and assistance from foreign volunteers.

Civil Society in Ukraine  

Civil society has long played an important role in war. Dating back to the American Civil War through World War Two, and beyond, civic groups such as churches, clubs, and others have provided “care packages” to soldiers. In the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, this type of assistance responded to deficiencies. Some families dropped candy deliveries for more practical “care packages” such as mailing body armor.

 

 

Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine inspired changes in how everyday Ukrainian citizens supported their military. Natalia Ricabal Kalmykova, whom we interviewed in Kyiv in 2021 while she worked at the Ukrainian organization Come Back Alive, said that “When Russia invaded, our government was too weak to do anything…so we formed our group to start providing our troops night vision goggles, thermal sights, drones, medical supplies, and anything else they requested.” She added that it was the strength of Ukrainian civil society that prevented Russia from making bigger gains in 2014–2015. Later as the conflict stabilized, her group began modifying drones for frontline use against Russian forces and invented a tripod-camera system for identifying Russian snipers. According to Ukrainian troops we met, these non-governmental organizations give them an edge against Russian troops.

A Ukrainian group, Aerorozvidka, has direct ties to the Ukrainian military. It has been operating since 2014 and created the R18 octocopter drone. Ukrainian troops use this drone to drop grenades on Russian forces. Drones are a major focus of funding drives. In July, citizens in both Poland and Lithuania raised over $5 million dollars in private donations to supply Ukraine with Bayraktar drones. The Polish campaign inspired the Turkish drone manufacturer to provide several for free and allocated the money raised to humanitarian aid organizations. At the same time, the crowdsourcing of Bayraktar drones, for example, creates a supply-side issue, pressuring the Ukrainian military to use them even though the money would be better spent on more critical demands on the front, like artillery and mortar rounds, according to several Ukrainian officers contacted.

Informal Military Networks 

Informal advising between Western militaries and Ukrainian forces is growing too. This development is important because it allows government and military personnel to communicate instantly and with frontline tactical units through secure messaging apps. 

Some Ukrainian troops noted that many of their weapons and ammo do not come with guides or firing tables. NATO personnel, according to Ukrainian sources we interviewed, have privately responded to such needs and acquired this information through unofficial channels, providing it directly to frontline units. In another case, Ukrainian soldiers told us that Western military officers have set up Facetime calls to teach their units how to use weapons, such as a recently acquired rocket-propelled grenade that did not have instructions. A different Ukrainian unit encountered problems related to mounting adapters for aiming sights on Western machine guns. The oversight caused a several-week delay but was eventually overcome with help from personal networks between Western special operations units. Most Ukrainian troops appreciate these informal solutions, but the United States and Europe could do a better job of ensuring future war matériel deliveries actually make sense for the Ukrainian military. 

Foreign Volunteers 

According to Ukrainian estimates earlier in the war, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters from 50 different countries answered Ukraine’s 2022 plea for help. The total number of foreign volunteers has since dropped to between 1,000 and 3,000 foreign fighters, with most serving in three International Legion battalions. While these numbers may seem small in comparison to the overall size of the Ukrainian military, their presence provides symbolic importance and facilitate important private donor networks. 

For example, the founder and director of Anomaly, David Plaster (a former U.S. combat medic), told us that his Ukraine-based organization has supported the instruction of more than 100,000 Ukrainian personnel to help institutionalize NATO military training standards, veteran transition, and development of local communities since 2014. Anomaly has provided over 1,000 individual first aid kits, over 1 million units of life-saving hemostatic gauze (“quick clot”) and consulted the Ukrainian government on the proper filling of first aid kits according to NATO standards.

     

Not all foreign volunteers are interested in direct fighting. Some organizations, like Blue/Yellow Ukraine, are focused on raising funds for Ukraine’s war effort. They also provide non-lethal military aid to units on the battlefield. In the case of Blue/Yellow Ukraine, a Lithuanian and United States-based non-governmental organization, activists have raised over $40 million for non-lethal military aid. Jonas Oehman founded the group in 2014 during Russia’s initial invasion, and Blue/Yellow has been vital to delivering niche aid and supplies to the frontlines.

Since 2022, newer charitable organizations have been formed to aid, assist, and equip Ukraine. “NAFO Fellas” is an organic global civil society response to Russian trolls. NAFO has also enabled crowdsourcing efforts for Ukrainian naval drones via donations to UNITED24 (a 501c3 organization created by the Embassy of Ukraine in the United States), in exchange for getting a customized cartoon Shiba Inu dog. Razom has provided more than $38 million dollars in assistance, including $21 million in medical equipment alone. The Prytula Foundation has raised $85 million and provided over 3,000 drones and nearly 900 “hell ride” vehicles. 

Flexible and Responsive Informal security assistance: Caution required 

Informal security assistance can be more flexible and responsive than official aid. This informal assistance should be considered as part of a robust irregular strategy for the United States military. However, governments looking to utilize this irregular warfare approach with non-governmental organizations need to properly vet individuals running these groups to ensure appropriate alignment with U.S. interests and concepts of irregular warfare doctrine. The other danger is that countries such as Russia view these organizations and human rights activists as an “ecosystem of propaganda…in the interests of the West” that is waging hybrid warfare against Russia. 

Balancing official and unofficial linkages between governments and non-governmental organizations is a nuanced juggling act of achieving similar interests in Ukraine while managing escalation with Russia. As part of our research, we spoke with individuals that since 2014 have organized and maintained a grassroots movement known as the “Red Dawn Project.” This Ukrainian diaspora-led organization leads guerilla operations against Russian forces, spray painting “Wolverines” graffiti on destroyed Russian armor. The Red Dawn Project consists of Ukrainians, the Ukrainian diaspora, and dozens of veterans from foreign militaries. Their aim is to convey the effectiveness of partisan units in a manner that creates uncertainty and frustrates the Russian adversary in the classic manner of irregular warfare.

Not all groups trying to help Ukrainian forces are reputable. According to Rima Žiūraitienė, “the number of unqualified people in Ukraine is a bit of a mess…people teaching and training under false credentials.” The New York Times identified this growing problem with some volunteer fighters and organizations doing paramilitary training with Ukrainians. For instance, the decision by the Mozart Group shutter its operations in Ukraine came amid growing scrutiny of its murky legal status, in-fighting, perceived fraud, and some troubling comments made by one of its founders Andy Milburn. In other cases, groups like Ripley’s Heroes blurred the line between helping and trying to profit from donors. The organization also allegedly broke export laws and is under federal investigation, underscoring the importance of appropriate vetting.

Building on a Foundation of Success 

Informal security assistance scored successes in the first year of Russia’s renewed invasion in part due to three key factors. First, crowdfunding efforts and leading organizations emphasize transparency. They track and publish where and how they spend their resources. Transparency engenders donor trust and spurs follow-on support.

Second, when it comes to private citizens assisting Ukraine, smaller is often better. A smaller organization means less overhead when financing assistance. Organizations that are smaller on the ground tend to be more efficient and responsive — translating into higher quality assistance — according to our discussions with Blue/Yellow and Christian Borys and Evgen Vorobiov, the founders of St. Javelin. Instead of dealing with layers of bureaucracy and contractors, smaller groups are flexible and can quickly solve problems through personal networks.

Third, successful informal security assistance is built on years of close and continuous relationships. Many organizations conveyed the value and credibility built by being present in Ukraine before 2022, which enabled faster donor responses and mobilization of networks and resources. U.S. National Guardsmen who trained Ukrainian soldiers in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 intervention were instrumental in advising the Ukrainians in the first weeks of Putin’s full-scale invasion. Moreover, the California Air National Guard has advised the Ukrainian Air Force since 1993 through the State Partnership Program and is credited as an important relationship in keeping the Ukrainian Air Force highly adaptive and flying.

Improving Informal Security Assistance Efforts

Four policies are needed for the U.S. and Western governments to make informal security assistance more effective and cost-efficient. 

First, policymakers can streamline International Traffic in Arms Regulations to prioritize groups sending assistance to Ukraine. Volunteers mentioned the State Department export process is mired in red tape and can cost them up to $2,500 per license, impeding the delivery of supplies to frontline Ukrainian forces. The State Department must place a “pause” and moratorium on certain export licenses and costs involving the movement of goods to Ukraine. 

Second, the United States must leverage technology companies. Per our interview with Jonas Oehman, PayPal blocked electronic payments to Blue/Yellow in June 2022, because they “felt that we, at first were allowing friends/family payment types and then later we were told we were deemed a ‘risk’ because it looks like we supply weapons, but we don’t.” In January of 2023, the Russian government, according to Oehman, filed a complaint with Paychex and Amazon Web Services for “objectionable content” on the Blue/Yellow website to prevent donations. Such actions force them to seek alternative funding methods. The February 2023 announcement that Starlink was limiting the use of its systems for Ukrainian troops was not new. Several activists said SpaceX has been unresponsive to multiple repeated attempts to troubleshoot Starlink terminals for internet access near Russian frontlines since the summer of 2022, impeding Ukrainian communications. Concern about Elon Musk cultivating closer relations with Russia and advocating pro-Russian narratives gives many activists worries about Musk inhibiting pro-Ukrainian use of Twitter and Starlink. Congress should pressure companies to allow pro-Ukrainian groups to utilize vital services, and in the case of Space X, the White House should consider invoking the Defense Production Act to compel the provision of Starlink coverage.

Third, Congress and the Department of Defense — and many NATO allies — need to reform export laws concerning manuals and firing tables for certain weapon systems. In most cases, such information is not classified or top secret but is marked “Not for Export” or “Controlled Unclassified Information.” This creates a difficult dilemma for some NATO military members hamstrung by the laws of their own governments that limit their abilities to provide instructions to units using Western weapons and ammo. Weapon manuals come in many different languages, leaving Ukrainian units to translate them into Ukrainian or English. NATO could expedite translations or provide English manuals. Our team has identified the Ukrainian military using at least 18 western mortar and artillery systems (105mm, 120mm, and 155mm), over 28 unique projectiles, and 9 different propellants. Due to the unusual mix of Western weapons and mismatched rounds, more resources should be dedicated to model artillery and mortar distances at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center. This would save Ukrainian units resources by not having to develop their own trial-and-error firing tables and reduce the number of tubes damaged each week due to incompatibility. 

Finally, the U.S. can support concerted interagency efforts to integrate some non-governmental organizations and activists into long-term irregular statecraft strategies for Ukraine. Military planners could establish non-governmental organization coordination cells, providing them access to excess military airlift to help transport bulk goods and supplies. It would save volunteers thousands of dollars on international flights and excess baggage fees. Civil society and highly motivated volunteers bring substantial speed, power, and value in a crisis and should be accounted for in future irregular strategies.

Despite the entrepreneurial value of non-governmental organizations and volunteers — supplying frontlines units, collecting sensitive intelligence, and developing trusted sources and networks — several groups told us no U.S. government agency has reached out to them for information. As rising costs and fears of escalation continue to shape debates over military assistance to Ukraine, informal security assistance to Kyiv represents a long-term, low-cost irregular option to outcompete Russia and, more importantly, defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The fact that many view informal security assistance as little more than a hobby suggests the United States is missing a major opportunity. 

 

 

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, Ph.D., (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the national security affairs department at the U.S. Naval War College, a 2023 Non-Resident Fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative (joint production of Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point), and U.S. Department of Defense Minerva researcher. Lt. Col. Matisek has published over 80 articles and essays in peer-reviewed journals and policy-relevant outlets on strategy, warfare, and security assistance. A 2020 Bronze Star recipient for serving as the director of operations and commander of the 451st Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, he is a command pilot that previously served as a senior fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute and associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the US Air Force Academy.

Dr. William Reno is a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. He has conducted fieldwork and interviews in conflict zones across Africa and the Middle East for over thirty years, having authored three books: Corruption and State Politics in Sierra LeoneWarlord Politics and African States, and Warfare in Independent Africa. Dr. Reno has published over one hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals, and policy-relevant periodicals, and edited volumes on civil wars, rebels, and military assistance. Finally, he is the principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Defense Minerva-funded program studying how the United States can improve foreign military training.

Lieutenant Colonel Sam Rosenberg (@SamR2508) is a Ph.D. student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, serving as a Goodpaster Scholar through the Army’s Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program. His dissertation research focuses on U.S. efforts to build partner militaries for large-scale combat. Sam is an active-duty Army officer, serving most recently with United States Northern Command on the Commander’s Initiative’s Group and within the Strategy and Policy Directorate. He was commissioned in 2006 as an infantry officer and served in a variety of leadership positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, and Eastern Europe. He holds a bachelor’s degree in American Politics from West Point and a master’s degree in National Security Policy from Georgetown University, where he studied as a Downing Scholar.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

Image: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

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