Support: Ukrainian Civilians Stop The Russians With Facebook


November 19, 2014: The fighting in Ukraine found the Ukrainian Army lacking many combat support services. These were never abundant during the Soviet period because the Soviets did not believe in a lot of that. Not much money was spent on such things after Ukraine became independent in 1991. When the Russian aggression began in early 2014 many civilian organizations formed, often spontaneously, to provide needed support for Ukrainian troops sent to fight. One of the biggest of these aid groups was “Help the frontline.” This group was founded by Ukrainian patriots (and Maidan activists who had recently ousted the pro-Russian government) from Lugansk. This was one of two major cities controlled by “separatists” in Donbas. The organizers met on Facebook. It began with a request for help to transport a power generator to the frontline troops. A larger organization grew from that seemingly trivial event. That is how many other volunteer organizations were founded so it was not really that unusual. Social networks on the Internet made it happen faster.

Similar groups soon formed to carry out a wide range of activities. Using cell phones and the Internet, the volunteers get information about what the troops need from local commanders or the troops themselves and then seek ways to implement the requests. One area where the volunteers were quickly effective was in medical care. The hospitals near front line always had problems with a lack of supplies. When a lot of wounded soldiers and civilians began showing up one thing the volunteers were able to deal with was the need for more sheets. They did this by collecting used sheets and delivering them to the hospitals. Clean sheets were needed in large quantities because of all the casualties. The hospitals nearest all the fighting were only able to provide basic medical treatment before the badly wounded could be moved to other hospitals for more advanced care. Volunteers often helped with transport and looking after the wounded while they were being moved.

Volunteers also helped house and feed reservists further west while they trained to regain (or obtain) combat skills. Soon there were “Help The Troops” groups forming throughout Ukraine and these were often ready to handle any problem the soldiers were having. Given the shabby shape the military was in, after two decades of low budgets, there was a lot of take care to ready troops for combat. The one thing the volunteers could not help with was obtaining weapons and ammunition, but some volunteers were expert mechanics or even with experience maintaining firearms. These experts helped get a lot of weapons in shape.

One of the least talked about volunteer tasks was helping negotiations for the release of captured soldiers, often in exchange for captured rebels and Russian soldiers. This is really delicate work and there were a number of volunteers, especially ethnic Russians, who stepped in and helped make things happen.

The volunteers developed some very effective techniques to get things done and done quickly. For example they would often collect funds and then put that on credit cards so that it was easier to buy things overseas like protective vests, Kevlar helmets, night vision goggles, laser rangefinders and so on. Since some of this equipment was “restricted” to military or police organizations there were volunteers with connections overseas to deal with the restrictions.

Closer to home volunteers, especially in the major cities, were able to collect soap, shaving gear and food (even if just snacks) and quickly transport it to the troops. Using social media like Facebook and local radio and press volunteers could quickly act on a request from front line units. Volunteers came to know commanders and many individual troops and many requests could be filled within 24 hours. Given the corruption that was prevalent in Ukraine, the social networks and personal networks ensured that there was very little theft occurring when volunteers were involved.

There volunteer initiatives are numerous and rang from large organizations like “Help the frontline” to smaller ones that supported units formed form local men (in a neighborhood, town or village). There were a lot of volunteers who preferred to operate independently, as individuals. Because of social media it was possible to keep track of everyone in terms of contact information, capabilities, what they had done and what they were up to. Naturally a lot of the volunteers were parents who had child in military and they tended to support the particular unit in which their child served.  

The volunteers were an embarrassment to many officers and officials in the military because the military was notoriously corrupt and slow in taking care of things the volunteers could do quickly and at little cost. Most senior political and military leaders supported the volunteers and shut down any of the corrupt bureaucrats who tried to create problems. There were still a lot of army officers around who had earlier been involved with stealing equipment or money and items needed for maintenance. These guys learned to behave honestly, at least for a while. Otherwise these crooks would be caught and called out by the volunteers and reservist soldiers. The government explicitly recognized that volunteers were often the only reliable support for the soldiers at the front and enthusiastically praised and supported the volunteers.

This Ukraine civilian volunteer support for military was not unique. It was very similar to the situation in Poland during war with Soviets in 1920 where people tried to help Polish troops any way they could. Back then local groups provided provisions and even weapons. There were villages who conducted organized efforts to collect machine guns, repairs as needed and get them to the troops. When the Russian war effort collapsed in 1917 a lot of portable weapons disappeared, but there were civilians who knew how to find them in 1920. In Ukraine the spontaneous and widespread volunteer activity from below allowed soldiers to fight when the government and the military was unable to provide supplied and other support. The volunteer efforts played a key role in repairing the broken spirit of many Ukrainians in early 2014 and restored the will of many Ukrainians to fight for their country. -- Przemys&&22;aw Juraszek





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