We traveled east from Kyiv in a three-vehicle convoy. Two were bound for delivery to Ukrainian forces just behind the fiercely contested frontline in Donetsk, the third was our ride home. A faded-yellow delivery van led the way, followed by a vaguely tactical-green Nissan pickup truck, and then us in a surplus Latvian police car in the rear. As a U.S. Army veteran, these vehicles seemed more fit for a junkyard than a battlefield. But thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a supply chain ill-prepared to handle the destruction of Europe’s bloodiest combat since World War II, these vehicles are soon to be war horses. And the cavalry delivering them aren’t combat trained soldiers, they’re three of many Ukrainian civilians doing whatever it takes to help defend their home.
Ukraine has defied expectations against an adversary with far greater resources and manpower. Political leaders and analysts frequently tout advanced Western-supplied weapons as the key to Ukraine’s success in defending against Russian aggression. Military aid packages are undoubtedly vital—just ask any Kyiv resident depending on Patriot air defense systems to survive nightly air strikes. But a visit near the frontline in Bakhmut reveals a harsh reality: soldiers rely on civilian volunteers to meet their most urgent survival needs.
It’s a point that many Ukrainians emphasize, not least of them Maryan Zablotsky, a lawmaker who later told me that military commanders estimate that 60% of their material support early in the war came from volunteers.
“Volunteers provide and fundraise for stuff that governments can’t provide: [commercial] drones, used cars, heating, most tactical medication and related training,” Zablotsky said. The lawmaker emphasized that “initially nearly all personal [body]armor was provided by volunteers,” and that nearly all non-armored vehicles and drones continue to come from volunteers.
Some 500 days into the war, the Russian war-machine remains relentless, despite massive losses. Ukraine has lost a great deal of equipment early into its “slow” and “bloody” counteroffensive, which has recently escalated. Ukraine’s survival hinges not only on state security assistance, but on civil society’s capacity to fill critical logistical gaps.
During my trip east, I rode with members of Free Spirit, a charity group of lawyers and marketers that communicates with soldiers at the frontline, identifies units’ immediate needs, and delivers whatever they can procure. They’ve provided over 400 vehicles, 75 communications devices like Starlink receivers and satellite phones, 13 tons of batteries and generators, 60 portable power stations, a handful of reconnaissance drones, and over 100 tons of basic necessities like food, cots, mattresses, and clothing.
But there are countless organizations that share this mission, based everywhere from Kyiv to the U.S. They supply lifesaving, nonlethal aid with a speed that government aid cannot match. Oleksandr, an officer in the 97th Separate Battalion who asked that his full name not be printed because of safety concerns, told me that an “absence of bureaucracy” is what makes civilian volunteers so nimble. “When the state buys [equipment], it will take months. Volunteers can deliver it in a week. Such mobility helps to save many lives of our fighters,” he said.
Oleskandr described a recent battle in Bakhmut. A squad of Ukrainians, facing likely death under overwhelming Russian fire, flew a commercial drone sourced from civilian volunteers out of desperation. The enemy fled, falsely thinking the drone was armed, allowing all 12 Ukrainians to retreat to safety.
Without civilian support, Alex Cherniavskyi, the Free Spirit co-founder who led our convoy, thinks many units would lose twice as many lives. Zablotsky, the lawmaker, said that may be an underestimate. “I think without the support of volunteers, both civilian and military deaths would have been at least three times higher.”
Few of our frontline aid recipients are career soldiers. Among them were a coal miner, a proud new grandparent, the spouse of an MP, a cobbler who recounted Russian soldiers raiding his family home, and a pregnant deputy commander. Mykyta Lepeshov, a combat medic who worked as a copywriter and engineer before the war, bluntly told me they’d be “doomed” without civilian volunteers. He said that 50% of wounded soldiers today are saved by medics using equipment donated by civilian volunteers.
While many forms of aid are needed, the unseemly vehicles we used to travel east are a priority. Within earshot of artillery fire are countless sedans, pickups, and SUVs with hastily spraypainted green-camouflaged exteriors, driven by soldiers. Over 60,000 vehicles have been imported into Ukraine to meet military and humanitarian needs, many sourced by organizations like Free Spirit. Most donated vehicles are unarmored, and highly vulnerable to enemy fire.
During our trip to the frontline, one of the soldiers we assisted briefly took the wheel of that old Latvian police car. At first, I found his driving reckless, but I later realized it's muscle memory. He was driving aggressively at 90 miles per hour on roads designed for speeds less than half that, swerving when needed to avoid craters. Racing to avoid artillery shelling in these rust-and-bullet-ridden vehicles is how he survives.
Most Americans support continued military aid to Ukraine. By delivering vehicles and other equipment directly to the frontline, local NGOs play a vital role in plugging the holes in the slow and often unwieldy fulfillment process of government aid packages. These organizations rely on grassroots funding; supporting them can have an immediate, lifesaving impact.
On the return trip to Kyiv, we punctured a tire. A spare would’ve taken up valuable space for aid, so we were stuck. Within mere minutes, two good samaritans pulled over and replaced our tire with their spare. Understanding what we were doing on the frontline, they refused payment. We shared breakfast together instead. This vehicle was soon delivered to a firefighting brigade, those passersby just two more members of the volunteer-led supply chain, whose impact must not be overlooked.
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