Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens from computer wizards to pensioners are intrinsic to Kyiv’s war effort

John Paul Rathbone and Christopher Miller

October 21, 2022

Financial Times

It took less than 48 hours after Russia unleashed a massive missile and drone bombardment of Ukraine this month for the aptly named “You Have Enraged Ukrainians” crowdfund to raise almost $10mn to buy 50 kamikaze drones.  “Thank you generous and noble Ukrainians,” celebrity turned fundraiser Serhiy Prytula, who helped organise the campaign, wrote on social media. “We will make sure these funds are well spent on effective support of our armed forces!”

Prytula is one of the more visible of the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who have joined Ukraine’s war effort since President Vladimir Putin of Russia launched his all-out invasion of their country in February.

They form a shadow army of activists, from youthful computer wizards to patriotic pensioners, determined to do their bit. Their fervour also reflects a recent Gallup poll which showed that almost three-quarters of Ukrainians believe the country should keep fighting until the Russians are defeated and pushed out.

With Moscow having failed in its initial war aim of subjugating Ukraine quickly, the Kremlin’s latest plan is to break the will of its people with almost daily rocket strikes that have already destroyed a third of the energy plants — just as winter is coming.

That has generated widespread concern in Europe, and a warning from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that falling temperatures could prompt a fresh wave of Ukrainian refugees.

If anything, though, the Russian strategy which was stepped up on October 10 has so far only strengthened Ukrainians’ resolve. This week in Kyiv, excited children ran up and down the side of a 10-metre wide crater that had been formed by a recent missile explosion — transforming a site where Russia had sought to sow terror into a giant sandpit. “Every bomb does the opposite of what they want. We only become more united,” said Raisa Yuriyvna, a Ukrainian pensioner with a Russian mother who said that half of her identity was “now dead” because Russia was a “country of terrorists”.

While not all Ukrainians are military minded, a palpable sense of social cohesion sustains what military officials and analysts call a society of “total resistance”. “You need society to contribute at every level,” said Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Reforms

think-tank. “All of society is a resource and we are lucky that Ukraine has a deep sense of civil commitment.”

The outsized role that civilians have played in the war became clear as soon as Putin launched his invasion against a vastly outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian army. “We had to build a military from scratch but we also had civil society to help,” said Daniel Bilak, a lawyer who joined the roughly 160,000-strong territorial defence force. Ukraine’s military commanders “understood the importance and vitality of volunteers from the very start”, he said.  Everyone did what they could, taking it upon themselves to help out with whatever resources and skills they had.

Marta Bobyk, a 23-year-old IT developer, co-designed an application that enables Ukrainians to feed geolocated data of drone and missile sightings to the army in real time so they can help shoot them down.

Others trained to fight, while some organised aid missions. Maria Zakharova set up a group in the western city of Lviv called Listen that provides refugees with food, medicine and even meditation sessions. “It helps them regain a sense of community. They have lost so much and can feel so lonely and disorientated,” said the quietly spoken 43-year-old.

Ad hoc groups meanwhile sprang up to raise funds to buy desperately needed military equipment, such as night-vision goggles, body armour or first-aid kits. “We did what we could to help — the government couldn’t do everything — and we’re all now working for victory,” said Katryna Aslamova, 37, who helps run a centre in Kyiv called Resistance 2022 that stages fundraising events. “Without that help, a lot of people now alive would be dead,” said Zero, the name tag of one volunteer fighter whose body armour was funded by private donations funnelled through the Ukrainian World Congress, which represents the country’s 20mn strong diaspora.

Such efforts helped to turn the tide against Russia on the battlefield. Eight months into the conflict, with successful counteroffensives having reclaimed swaths of territory in the east and south of the country, most Ukrainians now share the conviction that they will eventually prevail. “Ukrainians have embraced the state and the army as institutions to free them rather than to oppress them,” historian Serhii Plokhy told a recent Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv.

The contrast with Russia, where reportedly more than 200,000 men have fled abroad to escape the military draft, becomes clear in Prytula’s offices, where his foundation has raised more than $250mn for the war effort so far.  “The national spirit is perhaps something like Dunkirk was to the British in the second world war — except here it’s every day,” said the former television presenter and one-time candidate to become Kyiv’s mayor.

Liudmyla Arkhypova was testament to that spirit, as the 87-year-old hobbled into the foyer of Prytula’s foundation on crutches, carrying a backpack filled with hand embroidered handkerchiefs.  She wanted to auction them to raise money to buy a military drone, and was apologetic she had not made more. “There are 208 handkerchiefs in there and I meant to make 210,” she explained. “Sorry, I got tired.”