Everyday Ukrainians recently donated $35,000 via a crowdfunding Website to buy a small reconnaissance drone for Kiev’s impoverished military.
This isn’t the first time the Ukrainian public has rooted around in the proverbial sofa cushions to buy weapons and supplies for the troops fighting Russian-backed separatists in restive eastern cities.
In March, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense came right out and asked for private donations to fund the war effort. It worked. The campaign raised a million dollars in three days.
It’s inspiring, sure. But the crowdfunding is also symptomatic of Ukraine’s broader economic and political woes. Crowdfunding is great for producing fringe comic books and nerdy little TV shows, but it’s no way to pay for an army.
To afford the drone, the Website The People’s Project signed up more than 900 private donors. The site also raised enough cash to outfit a commando unit and to purchase an armored personnel carrier.
Its other efforts are even more ambitious. The People’s Project is trying to raise $25,000 for a field hospital, $30,000 to equip a parachute unit, $60,000 to supply naval commandos and $18,000 to buy gear for an artillery battalion.
There are dozens of groups like The People’s Project. Army SOS on Facebook accepts donations of basic supplies for the troops—food and sunglasses, for instance.
Former journalist Diana Makarova runs a similar Facebook-based operation. She sends a convoy of cars full of supplies back and forth between Kiev and Slavyansk in the eastern battle zone.
These are only a few examples of a wider phenomenon. Crowdfunding groups believe they’re making a difference—and in some ways they actually are. Kiev’s underfunded army needs all the help it can get.
But the donations belie a deeper problem. For years, the Ukrainian government has starved its armed forces of funds. An army must be pretty desperate if it’s practically begging for pocket change.
“What [crowdfunding] can do is provide quickly mobilizable resources to fill emergency gaps,” Mark Galeotti, a New York University Russia expert and blogger, told War is Boring via email. “But it can’t meaningfully fill basic needs, like artillery shells and armored vehicles.”
To be fair, The People’s Project has paid for one armored vehicle. But the Ukrainian army needs hundreds more. Must the military really organize a virtual bake sale for every acquisition?
Of course, meeting material needs—however modest—isn’t the only point. Crowdfunding “also acts as a way more widely to mobilize the public and make them feel part of the war effort,” Galeotti said.
But there’s a flip side. “A mobilized public is a more demanding one,” Galeotti explained. “It may mean that policy becomes driven by the pressure to keep various constituencies happy immediately, rather than what actually addresses Ukraine’s long-term needs.”
Pres. Petro Poroshenko is already making those kinds of decisions, Galeotti pointed out, citing the president’s “decision to co-opt militant and ultra-nationalist groups into the national guard,” as well as his willingness to work with the oligarch Ighor Kolomoisky’s private military.
Galeotti isn’t the only one to notice this. When the short-lived ceasefire in eastern Ukraine collapsed earlier this month, Reuters reporters Thomas Grove and Richard Balmforth wondered if Poroshenko were bowing to internal pressure.
Thousands of Ukrainians had protested the ceasefire. They marched on Maidan Square and demanded Poroshenko attack east Ukraine. He obliged them.
People are fickle. Which is why governments generally don’t rely on donations for their military expenditures. War can be unpopular—even when it’s just and necessary. And even in popular conflicts, politicians and generals should perhaps avoid giving the masses veto power over specific matters of strategy.
In one sense, Ukraine’s military crowdfunding succeeds because the war in the east is, in fact, small in scale and low in intensity. “This is not a total war,” Galeotti said. A few thousand private donors actually can have some small effect.
But in the interest of lasting national security, it’d be better for Kiev to levy taxes, craft reasonable budgets and match resources to plans. You know, like pretty much every government in the world does … without having to ask for handouts.