How To Win A War With Trucks, Trolls, And Tourniquets
Posted On July 6, 2023
Ukraine: 500 Days of Resistance
How a nation is bootstrapping and innovating its way to victory on the battlefield, reshaping how government works and wars are fought.
The Future of War Is Small
Good tourniquets save lives. Bad ones kill soldiers. The global market is awash with cheaply-made knock-offs: Handles that shear off under tension, rubber tubes that won’t tighten around a limb, devices that fail when they’re needed most. That’s why most armies buy in bulk from trusted suppliers. But Evgen Vorobiov prefers Amazon. Top of his Wish List at the moment are combat application tourniquets (CATs) from North American Rescue (five stars from 1,720 reviewers). Also on the list: burn dressings, compact chest seals, trauma shears and “The Original Rescue Essentials Brand QuikLitter”—a black canvas stretcher which promises low-cost casualty evacuation and patient transfer.
Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Vorobiov, a lawyer, worked for the Ukrainian central bank and then on international projects trying to reform Ukraine’s financial system—“banking regulations, consumer protection, that kind of thing.” But, with Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, he took some courses in tactical medicine, hoping to make himself useful if the worst happened. It did.
The Ukrainian army, dwarfed by its opponent, was supposed to collapse in days. But remarkably, it held the line, bolstered by a huge wave of volunteers and reservists. Trucks filled with Kalashnikov rifles drove into Kyiv’s neighborhoods and handed out weapons to anyone who wanted to join the fight. Engaged in constant combat for days on end, the armed forces quickly ran short of supplies. Vorobiov, with his basic knowledge of combat medicine, started reaching out to anyone he knew overseas who could help find CAT tourniquets, trauma bandages, chest seals and other lifesaving equipment. He and a couple of colleagues sourced gear from the UK, US, and the Netherlands and got it to Poland. Anyone they knew coming back to Ukraine via Poland was asked to bring bags of supplies, forming “a human chain” stretching from Europe to the frontline.
Evgen Vorobiov bulk-buys crucial medical supplies on Amazon, then uses his legal expertise to get them swiftly across the border from Poland into Ukraine—and then into the hands of soldiers on the frontline.Illustration: Mark Harris
Eighteen months on, his operation has blossomed. Vorobiov’s intimate understanding of Ukrainian bureaucracy means he’s been particularly effective at getting sensitive shipments over the border, making him a focal point for other donors. He’s built a potent fundraising operation on social media, tapping into an international community of supporters to raise money and find supplies. And, by driving back and forth across Ukraine, delivering right into the hands of combat medics, he’s forged relationships with units who can tell him exactly what they need and when, creating a personalized military logistics operation from his living room in downtown Kyiv. In May, Vorobiov got a call from a medic working at a makeshift field hospital close to Bakhmut, the burned-out ruin of a town that was a bloody pivot point for the frontline in the first half of 2023. They were in desperate need of a portable ultrasound machine to scan casualties for internal injuries. Vorobiov tapped his network for money, and found a secondhand device in Poland for $3,400. When we meet, it’s sitting in his apartment waiting to go east, and he’s turned his attention to getting hold of a portable charging unit for a defibrillator. Soldiers ask for everything: Drones for artillery and reconnaissance units, portable generators, Starlink satellite internet terminals, 4x4s, the things they need to keep them online and alive, which are often the same thing in a war defined by the use of technology on the frontline.
For decades, Ukrainian civil society has been built horizontally. Rather than rely on government agencies for help, people have leant on personal connections—everyone knows someone who knows someone who can get what you need, help you out. This parallel state has been providing vital aid in eastern Ukraine since Russian proxies invaded in 2014. Since the full-scale invasion began it’s become super-charged, using social media and messaging platforms to go global. Vorobiov is just one link in a relay of money, supplies, innovations, and solidarity that is keeping Ukraine’s soldiers in the fight.
The Front Line Kitchen occupies a few cramped ground-floor rooms and a shed off a sloping street on the edge of Lviv’s picturesque old town. In the courtyard, volunteer cooks peel mountains of potatoes and beets among the organized chaos of plastic vegetable crates, cardboard boxes and IKEA bags overflowing with baked goods. Inside, fridge-sized dryers are filled with shredded vegetables, meat and mushrooms, waiting to go into vacuum-sealed ration packs.
The kitchen started years before the full-scale invasion, in the aftermath of the “Euromaidan” demonstrations and “Revolution of Dignity” in late 2013 and early 2014. Protests against the Kremlin-backed government of Viktor Yanukovich in Kyiv’s Independence Square—Maidan Nezalezhnosti—were met with a bloody crackdown by security forces. As the violence escalated, protesters formed self-defense forces and medical units, repelling assaults and even storming government buildings. In February 2014, Yanukovich fled Kyiv. Days later, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and its proxies seized government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of Ukraine, declaring themselves independent of Ukraine. They met little formal resistance: Under Yanukovich, Ukraine’s armed forces and intelligence agencies had been gutted.
That spring, Ukraine raised volunteer battalions, some directly linked to the self-defense units formed in Maidan. They were still ill-equipped, so they came to rely on other volunteers to supply them with basics—food, uniforms, medicines, vehicles—even weaponry. “The volunteers essentially replaced the function of the government for supplying the necessary resources,” says Roman Makukhin, a member of the National Interests Advocacy Network, a Kyiv-based NGO. “Protecting basically their neighbors, their friends, their brothers and sons.”
Oksana Mazar and Lyuda Kuvayskova, the Front Line Kitchen’s founders, met sewing camouflage nets and balaclavas for the volunteer detachments. Many of their friends, and Kuvayskova’s son, had been at Maidan. “The war had started, even if it wasn’t talked about like it’s a war,” Mazar says. “We just wanted to help, as the guys didn’t have anything. No clothes, no shoes, and no food—because it was not [officially] a war.”
Oksana Mazar cofounded the Frontline Kitchen in the aftermath of the Euromaidan demonstrations, to support Ukraine’s self-defense units. Since the Russian invasion, the Kitchen produces 20,000 meals per day.Illustration: Mark Harris
They started cooking meals for soldiers, experimenting with ways to turn home-made borscht and holubtsi (cabbage rolls) into ration packs that would survive the 1,000-kilometer journey to the Donbass, usually in the back of cars or trucks after being handed over to anyone heading that way. The cooks worked in small batches, drying food in friends’ kitchens, before they were gifted their current premises. They raised enough money to buy their own dryers, and gradually expanded. After the full-scale invasion began, the kitchen’s front yard was filled with volunteers and people bringing supplies. “They knew that we were doing food for the military, and they wanted to help,” Mazar says.
With 1 million Ukrainians mobilized to fight the Russians, the need has grown massively. The kitchen is now putting out 20,000 meals a day, sending truckloads of food east, and taking orders direct from the military. To scale up they’ve relied on donations, often sourced via the @frontlinekit Twitter account. The account is run by Richard Woodruff, who came to Ukraine from the UK early in the war, intending to join one of the international brigades in the Ukrainian army, despite having no military training. After seeing footage of the ferocious defense of Kyiv, “I kind of rethought my chances of survival,” he says. Instead, he arrived at Lviv train station a few weeks after the full scale invasion began, and soon found his way to the kitchen.
If the 1991 Gulf War was the first major conflict broadcast live on TV, the defense of Ukraine is the first full-scale interstate conflict to be shown in real time on Twitter. Ukrainians posted from the early hours of the invasion—air raid sirens sounding over a European capital in 2022; queues at the recruiting centers, calls for aid and statements of defiance. They recorded acts of insane valor, videoing themselves as they ambushed Russian columns with anti-tank missile launchers they’d barely been trained to use. Civilian drones pressed into service as surveillance tools provided a steady stream of high-definition footage made for phone screens, giving a gamer’s-eye view to the fighting. As Russian forces were pushed back, and the Ukrainian armed forces reclaimed land, the atrocities and scenes of destruction were shown live, along with poignant videos of liberating soldiers greeted by their ecstatic families. For those that wanted to see them, there were graphic videos: helmet cams showed firefights, drones dropping grenades on Russian soldiers and into the hatches of occupied vehicles.
Many of Ukraine’s new volunteers were “terminally online”—ordinary digital natives forced into a brutal conflict. Gen-Z recruits did dance videos for TikTok. Their meme game was wild. Woodruff’s Twitter bio reads “British Chef Fella”—a reference to the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, or NAFO—an online movement of Ukraine-supporting shitposters with shiba inu avatars who flood social media with memes mocking the “Vatniks” (Russian propagandists).
The NAFO movement taunted Russia, at one stage managing to send the country’s ambassador in Vienna into a public meltdown. “Imagine, literally getting a world-class ambassador to speak with cartoon dogs on Twitter,” says Ivana Stradner, an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington DC, an expert on misinformation and propaganda, and NAFO member. “This is the future of information warfare.”
NAFO does what state-backed information warriors, particularly those from democracies, can’t do. Its members make insane, often tasteless jokes, moving quickly to jump on trends. They’re good at memes, and flood the zone with infectious pro-Ukrainian vibes, humanizing, entertaining, and explaining to people far from the war why they should care. “I think NAFO, by boosting certain narratives, can actually also help people understand the severity of the situation and what’s going on there,” Stradner says.
NAFO has helped raise millions of dollars through sales of merchandise (“I invaded Belgorod and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”) and crowdfunding campaigns. Now its avatars appear on the Twitter profiles of European politicians, on official Ukrainian defense channels, and on military equipment headed to the front. It has funded everything from food to medical supplies to a mobile artillery piece to the Georgian Legion, a unit of overseas volunteers that has been fighting since 2014. When the Frontline Kitchen’s vegetable shredder broke, Woodruff put out a call for funds to buy a new one. In the time it took him to drive to the supplier, the money had already been deposited in his account.
Social media works in tandem with the tight networks of Ukrainian society. This is a war being fought close to home—everyone knows someone at the front, and the soldiers are in constant contact. Link people like Vorobiov can connect those in the trenches with supporters in Kyiv or overseas. A unit under fire can ask for drones on Telegram, and within hours there’s a call for donations out on Twitter or Instagram. Vorobiov can deliver tourniquets to a combat medic near the front, and record a thank-you video to send directly to donors.
“I see a spike in donations when there is a story that I can tell of how donations help,” Vorobiov says. “Yesterday, I received a very long message from one of the medics, and she was telling me how medical supplies we brought to her helped her basically provide care to two servicemen. I posted that story on Twitter and folks started to donate.”
Sometimes, donors become more active participants. Last February, Polish filmmaker Maciej Zabojszcz was watching the conflict unfold over Twitter, and thinking about selling some of his military memorabilia to help raise money for a 4×4 for the Ukrainian army. But then, a graphic video emerged, apparently shot by Russian soldiers, of a Ukrainian prisoner of war being horrifically mutilated. “I felt like something changed,” he says. “I said, listen, let’s not only buy one car.”
In the spring of 2022 he drove his first vehicle, a Nissan pickup, to Kyiv to deliver to the Georgian Legion. While there, he met Vorobiov, who was collecting some drones from Exen, another Polish volunteer. From then on, Zabojszcz was part of the network. Because they couldn’t order supplies online to be delivered to Ukraine, Vorobiov and others started putting Zabojszcz’s home as the delivery address. Each time he drives a car to Ukraine, he’s carrying helmets, body armor, drones, all kinds of medical supplies. When we met in March in Warsaw, he’d delivered seven 4x4s, and was fixing up an eighth.
Polish filmmaker Maciej Zabojszcz raises money to buy 4x4s—which he then fills with body armor, drones, medical supplies and more, and then delivers the whole lot to the soldiers who need it.Illustration: Mark Harris
Some Ukrainian units have a tradition of naming their vehicles, and the seventh car that Zabojszcz delivered, a Land Rover, was christened Mathilda. It was used to shuttle men from their barracks to the frontline through thick mud. “The whole unit was driving the car,” Zabojszcz says. “They were crazy about Mathilda.”
But after ten days of constant driving, Mathilda broke down. Another Polish volunteer found a local mechanic specialized in Land Rovers. They arranged an online consultation. The mechanic helped the soldiers figure out what was wrong and identify the part they needed to replace. The car broke on Monday. On Tuesday, a volunteer delivered the replacement part. “And on Thursday the car was fixed,” Zabojszcz says. “This is how this network works.”
Absorbing donations has required a degree of flexibility from the military establishment. Armies typically don’t like amateurs pitching in, turning up in warzones with stuff they’ve brought from home. Getting goods into Ukraine can be challenging—it’s understandably not legal for just anyone to move military equipment across borders—and even bringing in theoretically civilian items like cars, consumer drones, and generators requires customs forms and other paperwork. But volunteers say once they’ve got donations into the country, working with the military has been fairly easy. There’s still some admin, and donors have to have forms showing that the goods they’re delivering have been specifically asked for by a soldier, but mostly, they’ve integrated relatively seamlessly with the supply chains, with commanders on the ground sometimes turning a blind eye to help their soldiers get what they need.
This acceptance is driven partly by necessity—the military simply couldn’t supply its troops to the level it needed, and unlike its adversary, doesn’t want to send them into battle with tourniquets that snap under pressure and rations years past their expiration date. Volunteer networks can take orders, source, and deliver in a way that a centralized bureaucracy can’t. They’ve helped feed the battlefield innovations that have given outnumbered soldiers an edge, linking into the networks of workshops jury-rigging consumer drones; bringing 3D printers to the frontline to help turn hand grenades into air-dropped bombs.
“For the chaotic time after the invasion, these organizations created a stopgap solution for markets that the army could not operate,” says Simon Schlegel, senior Ukraine analyst at the Crisis Group think tank. “The army is good at buying in bulk, but these smaller operations are good at finding five pieces of Chinese-made drones in different countries and shipping them to Ukraine.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy understands this. He has, since the early days of the conflict, often made his social media addresses direct to citizens of other countries, not just to his fellow leaders. Volunteers—and the state’s own propagandists—have built a formidable ground game on social media, which has helped with donations, but also contributed to the ratcheting up of material being sent to the frontline by NATO partners. With public support for Ukraine high in their own countries, western leaders feel emboldened to hand over money and weapons. When those weapons deliver battlefield successes, the resulting content feeds back into the loop. “I think Ukraine is literally right now the superpower in this information war,” says Stradner.
The war, as seen through the filter of social media, has an oddly gamified quality. At times it seems it’s being won by jokes, by Ukrainian farmers pulling tanks behind tractors, by “Saint Javelin” (the “patron saint” of anti-tank missiles), and shiba inu soldiers. But it hasn’t been won yet, and many people at the far end of the volunteer supply chain have taken incredible risks, and exposed themselves to unspeakable horrors. In Lviv, I met Ernest Polanski, a Ukrainian volunteer taking a brief rest on his way back from delivering equipment to troops near Bakhmut.
What he saw there, he says, was “hell.” There was constant shelling, and the smell of corpses hung over the area. Whenever the bombardment stopped for longer than a few minutes, he wondered if something worse was about to come, “like a nuclear bomb,” he says. On the way back, he rescued three bedraggled kittens from the ruins.
Polanski has been driving back and forth from the frontlines since the early days of the war, and has lost count of the number of journeys he’s made, bringing generators, trench periscopes, medical gear and other supplies. Like other volunteers, he’s formed a special connection with a single unit, which he devotes most of his journeys to. He’s currently looking for €6,000 ($6,480) to buy new wheels for one of the unit’s 4x4s. “Not a lot of people want to go to this area,” he says. “But we have a special friendship with [this unit], and we want to help.”
Ernest Polanski (above, right) has been making supply runs since the start of the war. He’s often joined by Lithuanian kickboxing champion Sergej Maslobojev (above, left), who uses his high profile to raise vital funds.Illustration: Mark Harris
The volunteer networks are made up of people from all over the world, but outside of Ukraine itself the cause has resonated more than anywhere in former Soviet nations, and in particular Baltic states like Lithuania, which see themselves as next in line if Ukraine falls. Traveling with Polanski on this journey to the front is one of his most committed supporters, the Lithuanian kickboxing champion Sergej Maslobojev. “Our country had the same problem years ago,” he says. “We feel their pain in our hearts.”
Maslobojev’s profile at home has meant he’s been able to fundraise for supplies, but, he says, it’s important for him to get out into the field to witness, and show the sacrifices still being made in the trenches of eastern and southern Ukraine. “When we listen to our news, usually we’re thinking that they’re winning the war. Everything is going great. Why do we need to donate?” he says. “But when you go to the frontline and help those military guys, give them ammunition, extra food and the stuff that they really need. And they look at you with almost tears in their eyes and say, ‘nobody comes to us’. And then you understand why, in this moment.”
The day after Polanski and Maslobojev returned from Bakhmut, reports came through that the town had finally fallen. Individual defeats are hard to talk about in the context of fundraising campaigns and propaganda drives that are buoyed by a sense of inevitable victory. But they also underline the fragility of life close to the front. Almost all of the volunteers I spoke to in Ukraine had their own story of raising funds, or sourcing gear, only for the intended recipient to fall in battle before it could be delivered. All that does is make them more committed. Most say their supporters are also holding the line, a year and a half into the war.
“Sometimes it feels like this continuing western support is contingent on possible breakthroughs and huge victories. But I don’t feel that, at least among my donors,” Vorobiov says. “You cannot afford hopelessness, because no one is going to support a lost cause. And we Ukrainians believe in winning this war. We have to infect others with that belief. But complacency is equally dangerous.”
This article appears in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK