Serhiy Prytula once waited tables in London — now he’s buying combat drones, satellites and armoured vehicles for Kyiv

Maxim Tucker

May 25, 2023

The Times


The first man to buy his country’s military a satellite smiles when he remembers how Ukraine’s defence minister asked him to find one. It seemed an odd request for a comedian and TV presenter, even one whose extraordinary fundraising ability has revolutionised the way Ukraine’s army fights Russia. “At first I thought it was some kind of joke. We didn’t know anything about space or satellites, but I said OK, we will try,” Serhiy Prytula tells The Times in his Kyiv office, a pile of wrecked Russian equipment next door and stacks of drones in a storeroom a floor below. Now 41, he has come a long way since he waited on tables at Hampton Court Palace in his teens.

Last year his Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation bought Ukraine’s first satellite, with access to a network of a further 15 providing the military with constant real-time coverage of the conflict. This month he revealed they had bought Ukrainian-made kamikaze drones with a range of more than 600 miles, used to strike targets deep inside Russia. The foundation has raised $120 million for military equipment since President Putin ordered tanks across the border last February. His greatest coup came when he appealed for $20 million to buy three Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and his followers raised the money in a day.

The effort so impressed Baykar, the Turkish manufacturer, that they decided to give Ukraine the drones free of charge — presenting Prytula with a dilemma. When he asked Oleksii Reznikov, the defence minister, what to spend the money on instead, he was told to buy a satellite. For two months, Prytula’s team worked in secret to track down and contract a company that could provide access to military-grade material. “We had this $20 million and people knew we had this money. Every day hundreds of people were asking us how we would use it, how we spent their money,” he says. “Some idiots started to say Prytula bought a home in Switzerland, then the Maldives. It was f***ing cruel to have to keep silent but I was afraid if someone knew what we want to buy, the Russians will do everything to destroy my plan.”

US intelligence shares satellite images with Ukraine but it takes up to 36 hours before they reach frontline troops, limiting the kind of mission they can be used for. With Prytula’s satellite, soldiers in the trenches have the images within three to four hours, he said. Ukraine’s military intelligence, the GUR, says it has helped to destroy 7,321 different pieces of Russian equipment.

Prytula says his foundation only purchases the equipment, and has no say in its use, handing it straight over to the military. Maintaining that level of distance could mean the difference between life and death when facing an enemy like the Kremlin, which has often sought to assassinate its opponents.

On October 10 the Kremlin unleashed a relentless missile bombardment on power infrastructure in Ukrainian cities, hoping to freeze the nation into submission during a bitterly cold winter. Prytula responded with the “For Revenge” project, raising $9 million that same day. “Remember our big crowdfunding campaign For Revenge?” he tweeted this month. “Well, we cannot confirm nor deny, but some [Russian] oil depots have had hard times recently. Ilsky oil refinery in Kuban for example. What a coincidence!”

It is thought the GUR employs the long-range drones to hit targets in Russian territory, taking out infrastructure vital to the war effort while adhering to the US’s conditions not to fire western long-range missiles across the border. “I have only one dream: to stay alive to the victory. I don’t know the next time the Russian missiles will strike, I don’t know what will happen next time I visit Donetsk or Zaporizhzhia region, I don’t think about it,” Prytula says.

He might never have returned to Ukraine were it not for an incident in London in which a burglar smashed his eye socket more than two decades ago. “When you’re an 18-year-old from a town of 15,000, you imagine studying in London will be like Beverly Hills. I imagined good times, lots of girls with books and a big university college,” he says, breaking into the easy smile that has become his trademark. “I was so disappointed when I found my two-storey college on the last station of the Piccadilly line. All my fellow students, even my teachers, were also from Ukraine, Poland or Lithuania.”

Deciding the course would be a waste of time, he switched to working as a builder, waiting on tables at Hampton Court Palace and labouring in a fruit warehouse. On his 19th birthday a group of men broke into the apartment he shared with other Ukrainians and hit him on the head with a metal bar, fracturing his skull. He spent a month in St Bartholomew’s hospital before returning to Ukraine for a series of eye operations.

Prytula still retains an affection for the UK, however, which he has visited twice in the past year to buy 101 infantry fighting vehicles for £5.5 million, the largest purchase on record of armour by a member of the public. “I felt this spirit of support for Ukraine. I was so impressed. The way they support us is more than just political. You feel that people do it from the bottom of their heart.”

Prytula has always been a pioneer. In the 2000s, when the capital’s celebrities still found it fashionable to speak Russian and looked to Moscow for cultural leadership, he burst on to national television wearing a Ukrainian vyshyvanka (embroidered shirt) and made fun of them all. Success came quickly, but not easily, he says. “I was nervous every time before I took a step on the stage. I really think if you feel relaxed you need to leave this business. That’s why I never eat. Everyone in the business knows Prytula has a really cheap rider: coffee and water.”

President Zelensky is just four years older than Prytula and the pair came to prominence leading different comedy troupes at the same time.  As a university radio host he interviewed Zelensky and his satirical troupe, Kvartal 95. “We had a different audience. My show was the first and only 100 per cent Ukrainian-speaking comedy show. Kvartal 95 was all the time in Russian. I’ve known Zelensky since 2001 [but] now our president is too busy. I haven’t seen him since the war started.” Yet Prytula also has political ambitions. On the eve of the invasion he was

about to launch his own political party. “I was really tired to wait for somebody that will do something for me, my country, my society. If I have people who support me, why not?” Those ambitions are on hold now, he says, to focus on the war. “First we need to win. After our victory I will drink for three days then decide what to do next.”


Maxim Tucker was Kyiv correspondent for The Times between 2014 and 2017 and is now an editor on the foreign desk. He has returned to report from the frontlines of the war in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. He advises on grantmaking in the former Soviet countries for the Open Society Foundations and prior to that was Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Ukraine and the South Caucasus. He has also written for The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, Newsweek and Politico.