LIVE UPDATES: Missiles hit Odessa in southern Ukraine as Russia seeks gains in the east

In a workshop in western Ukraine, a technician modified a metal bracket that was attached to a racing drone so that it could carry a grenade, turning a plane sold in hobby stores into a lethal weapon.

Standing nearby was two American entrepreneurs, who arrived at the workshop bearing gifts from dozens of other drones, a small batch in what became a torrent of military aid to Ukraine. But this is not part of the state-sponsored arms shipments that are being moved quickly to Ukraine to help the country fight a more powerful Russian army in the east.

Instead, the drones are part of a multi-faceted multi-million dollar crowdfunding campaign that is producing multi-million dollar donations, as well as a bounty of small arms and other military equipment for the Ukrainian military. To attract donations, Ukrainian officials and private companies are making direct online appeals to sympathetic foreign nationals, even as they continue to lobby governments for heavier weapons as well.

One American entrepreneur, Chad Capper, said his journey began with a call with a Ukrainian friend of a drone.

“I said: Listen, what do you guys need if you need anything? You know, can we provide spare parts or something?” “Yes, whatever you can do,” he said.

credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

For many of the donors involved, this conflict has extraordinary moral clarity.

We made a mistake with Iraq, just as we made a mistake with Vietnam. “We put ourselves in places we shouldn’t have been,” said the other American businessman who brought in the drones, a Tennessee businessman who asked not to be identified due to safety concerns. “These people are not asking us to come, they are just asking for our support. The least we can do is support them.”

Even as Ukraine receives large shipments of heavy weapons from the United States and other governments, the online campaign has benefited from broad Western sympathy and produced meaningful donations to the country’s war effort. Donations include dual-use items such as hobby drones; Military equipment such as night vision binoculars; Armor, guns and ammunition. And Free compression services by American companies.

Biggest campaign Social media appeals to the Ukrainian embassy for donation In Prague, it raised nearly $30 million from 100,000 donors less than three weeks after its launch, including donations from around the world, According to Czech officials.

“We call on everyone to provide financial support to fundraisers for immediate assistance in purchasing military equipment for the Ukrainian army and self-defense units for citizens,” the embassy said in February on its Facebook page.

The Czech government, which also benefits from its arms sales, said it would provide quick approval for the purchases.

credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Another Ukrainian site It provides a list of groups seeking donations, including in cryptocurrency, for items including thermal imagers, drones, and satellite phones.

With any crowdfunding campaign, there are concerns about scammers, and Ukraine was battling corruption before the war. But, to date, there have been no reports of wrongdoing in online efforts to bring in more guns.

In the boldest of appeals, a Ukrainian company last month launched a government-approved appeal to collect collective donations for the purchase of a fighter jet.

Buy me a fighter plane. It will help me protect my skies full of Russian planes, a grizzly Ukrainian fighter pilot pleaded in English.

The site explained that a MiG-29 or Su fighter jet could be acquired from one of several countries at a cost of much less than $20 million for a new aircraft.

“That’s why we appeal to international companies, entrepreneurs and everyone who can join the initiative,” the site wrote, adding kindly, “Join! Teamwork makes dream work!” A company spokesman said A week after the campaign began, they had raised about $140,000 and admitted that the appeal was aimed at millionaires.

“me “I think it’s hard to believe that he could buy a fighter jet, that they could use it purposely and get, you know, the right people with the right training,” said Simon Schlegel, senior Ukraine analyst at the Crisis Group think-tank. “I think this is really something that is probably more of a marketing ploy.”

credit…Hristo Rousseff / Getty Images

Stephen Flanagan, a chief political scientist at the RAND Corporation who served as director of defense policy at the National Security Agency, said that US public involvement in the war had put pressure on the US government to do more for Ukraine and “certainly shattered some of the initial hesitation” by the US government. United to provide lethal support to the Ukrainian army.

While sending weapons to Ukraine requires US export licenses, the Department of Commerce in Mars said it was speeding up approvals To export guns and ammunition sent by the Americans. Donations of dual-use items, such as hobby drones, face few hurdles.

“For drone enthusiasts, doing anything with military equipment is practically impossible,” said Mr. Kapper, founder of Rotor Riot. “Hobby things are not regulated in a certain sense so that they can use as much as possible,” said Mr. Kapper, a celebrity in the world of drone racing.

Mr. Kapper’s hobby drones – known as First Person View for images streamed directly into a pilot’s glasses – are at the other end of the spectrum from combat aircraft. But they appear to be filling a gap as Ukraine awaits more supplies of military drones.

“They are calling me from different places and from different battalions and saying to me ‘Can you send more?’” “We’re out,” said a Ukrainian drone operator who asked to be identified only by his middle name, Oleksandr. For security reasons, he requested that the UAV hub not be located.

credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Oleksandr said the drones brought in by the Americans would be useful either for carrying explosives or for monitoring units of Russian fighters on the front lines.

The war narrative of a weaker nation colliding with a powerful aggressor and the specter of genocide in Europe resonates widely with Americans and others around the world.

“You know, after sending the money, I didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” said the Tennessee businessman. “I have resources and I have connections in this part of the world. And I realized that I could make a difference by putting some things into operation to help deliver drones.”

The businessman, who said he was called by the Ukrainian military for help, said he was setting up a charitable organization to allow people to donate to buy drones for Ukraine. Despite subsequent modifications to the drones, he said he felt the donations were for “humanitarian purposes.”

“There is nothing illegal,” he said. They asked for drones. What they do with them is entirely up to them.”

In addition to carrying grenades, drones, with a speed of up to 70 miles per hour, are used by Ukrainian forces for forward monitoring of Russian units, targeting artillery, and identifying people in destroyed buildings or forests using infrared cameras. Many hobby drones, which cost $1,000 and up, have short lifespans.

“The enemy hits them, so some of them only live for a day or two,” Oleksandr said. But in that day or two, they had important missions. We protect ourselves. We do not cross the border into Russian territory – we are in our homeland. ”

credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

In 2014, Ukrainian civilians responded to the Russian invasion of Crimea by mobilizing in support of an ill-equipped and ill-equipped army, laying the foundations for many popular efforts in this war.

“It is truly amazing how deeply rooted this advocacy effort is in civil society,” said Mr. Schlegel of Crisis Group. “There are very few networks of people who can buy almost anything, except for heavy weapons.”

Mr. Schlegel said that video from the front lines and the proliferation of social media sites using open source intelligence to analyze battle dynamics have also fueled public participation in the conflict.

“Social media has been very close to the front, much closer than it has been in most historical wars,” he said. “It’s the biggest ground war in a lot of people’s lives, and it’s the first time for a lot of people to see tanks in action at this scale.”