A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 12, 2023

The Reason Crowd-Funded Technology Gives Ukraine A Battlefield Edge

The small suppliers and delivery networks are hard for Russia to monitor or stop and are effective because the army units they supply give them real time feedback on which equipment is most effective - from drones to encrypted radios to software for targeting. JL 

James Marson reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Small-scale crowdfunded operations have been instrumental in helping Ukraine turn the tide against Russia. Hundreds function outside military procurement channels, delivering vital equipment to the front line, from encrypted radios to Starlink terminals. The commercially available equipment brought across the border from Poland with no paperwork has helped the army use Western weapons, as well as Soviet-era models, more effectively by providing data that helps aim their fire, conserving ammunition. The informal, decentralized networks are hard for authoritarian Russia to stop or replicate. Volunteers get instant feedback from the front on which makes and models work best.

From his base at a century-old villa, computer programmer Dmytro Zhlutenko fielded a call from the front line with an urgent request.

A unit had lost one of the aerial drones it uses to track Russian troops and help artillery target them. Could he send a fresh one?

Mr. Zhlutenko messaged a contact in the Netherlands, who found a suitable craft on eBay and shipped it to Poland. From there, another volunteer sent it by car across the border to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where Mr. Zhlutenko drove it eastward.

Within a week, a reconnaissance team at the front was using it to spot Russian tanks and troops and drop small bombs on them.


Such small-scale crowdfunded operations have been instrumental in helping Ukraine turn the tide against Russia. Mr. Zhlutenko’s fund—named Dzyga’s Paw, after his dog—is one of hundreds that function outside regular military procurement channels, delivering vital equipment to the front line, from encrypted radios to Starlink internet terminals produced by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The informal, decentralized networks are hard for authoritarian Russia to stop or replicate. They align with the approach of the Ukrainian military, where on-the-ground commanders are given much autonomy.

The U.S. and its allies are furnishing Ukraine with big-ticket items, such as howitzers, precision rocket artillery and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

The equipment provided by Mr. Zhlutenko helps units operate in small, autonomous teams that have given Ukraine a critical advantage in combating Russia’s lumbering army.

The commercially available equipment—which can largely be brought across the border from Poland with no paperwork—has helped the army use the Western weapons, as well as Soviet-era models, more effectively by providing data that helps aim their fire, thus conserving ammunition.

Volunteers get instant feedback from the front line on which makes and models work best.

While his friends headed to the front lines at the start of the conflict in February, Mr. Zhlutenko—a tousle-haired outdoorsman known to friends as Dimko—left his job and turned his tech savvy to the war effort.

The 24-year-old plunged around $60,000—savings he’d put aside to open a bicycle cafe—into equipping his friends. After he shared posts about his efforts on Twitter, others asked how they could chip in. He created a fund run like a startup from his iPad in his home in Lviv. So far, he has raised around $700,000.

Mr. Zhlutenko is driven by what he calls a historical chance to settle Russia’s attempts to dominate Ukraine. His grandmother was born in Siberia after her father was deported as a so-called kurkul, a wealthy farmer. 

His great-grandmother survived the Holodomor, the killing of millions of Ukrainians in a famine in the early 1930s that resulted from the Kremlin’s policies. She never forgot it: When she died, her family found scraps of bread stashed under her mattress.

Mr. Zhlutenko gained trust online by posting photos of the equipment he had bought and delivered to the army.

Daan Nielander, a 34-year-old janitor in Breda, a medieval Dutch city, is one of his suppliers. Mr. Nielander is fueled by anger over the shooting down of a passenger jet flying from Amsterdam by Russian-controlled paramilitaries in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s denial of any involvement is, he says, “spitting on the graves of my countrymen.”

Mr. Nielander began by sourcing encrypted radios for Ukrainian troops, tapping his experience in running illegal raves in forests, where it was important to keep communications secret from the police.

One day in September, Mr. Zhlutenko messaged Mr. Nielander with the request for a drone.

The call had come from Skala Battalion, a crew of about 120 men named after its commander, whose towering frame earned him the same alias as U.S. actor Dwayne Johnson: the Rock, or Skala.

Mr. Nielander trawled eBay and other websites for a good deal on a second-hand Mavic 3, made by China’s SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s largest maker of consumer drones. Powered by four rotors, it weighs about 2 pounds and is beloved by videographers—and military reconnaissance teams—for its powerful zoom camera. Skala’s men often attach a 3D-printed plastic claw that releases a bomblet when triggered by a button on the remote-control panel.

Mr. Nielander ships the equipment to an intermediary in Warsaw, who dispatches parcels via private cars across the border to Mr. Zhlutenko in Lviv. Mr. Zhlutenko sends them on to the front line or takes them himself.

In September, he sped eastward in his car packed with Starlink terminals, the drone, food, sleeping bags and other supplies for Skala and other units.

Mr. Zhlutenko got to know Skala—whose real name is Maj. Yuriy Harkaviy—through a volunteer called Viktor Yatsunyk, after helping Mr. Yatsunyk tweak some small, radio-controlled aerial drones to prevent the Russians from tracking them.

Mr. Yatsunyk, better known as Britanets, or Brit, because he’d lived in the U.K. for a quarter-century, received the shipment at the group’s headquarters in a small village house.

Small teams typically launch drones and beam live feeds to artillery units nearby using Starlink. Those units use the images to direct their fire in real time. 

“This is a war of technology,” said Britanets, who was killed days later by a land mine.

The accuracy of the drone-directed artillery helped Ukraine hold off and wear down Russian forces in the eastern Kharkiv region over the summer, despite a huge Russian artillery advantage.

After a lightning Ukrainian thrust to the north in September cut their supply lines, the exhausted Russians hastily withdrew.

“This is where we destroyed them,” said Skala later as he surveyed the area. “The tanks would appear and, bang bang, they’d be gone.”

The damage the unit wrought on the Russians was visible at a church in a nearby village that the Russians had turned into a field hospital.

Stretchers were piled in front of a wall of icons near a pool of rainwater that had fallen through a hole in the cupola. Glass jars of cabbage soup stood next to the lectern where a grimy copy of the New Testament lay. A copy of a Russian army gazette lay on a chair, claiming devastating victories by Russian forces. Pictures piled nearby, apparently sent to soldiers by Russian schoolchildren, read, “Thank you for peace.”

Mr. Zhlutenko’s website provides insights into the activities of some of the 20 or so groups he equips. Donors—who come mostly from abroad—can give money to specific units. Money and equipment has come from a bar in Berlin and a woman in Florida who says she sold a rocking chair and blender to raise funds.

One popular twist is allowing donors to write their messages on shells or vehicles and equipment they paid to have fixed.

“Peace through superior firepower,” reads one message scrawled in Norwegian on a howitzer that one unit captured from the Russians recently. A Norwegian man put up $1,000 to fix its wheels, and now it fires back at its former owners.

Mr. Zhlutenko prepared Christmas gifts for top donors including Ukrainian folk art: a ceramic bowl and an embroidered tablecloth.

Mr. Zhlutenko recently expanded his activities, renting an office and assigning a full-time salary for himself and three others in his team of more than a dozen.

He still dreams of opening that bike shop—once the Russians are ousted from Ukraine.

“I don’t want anything to do with war,” Mr. Zhlutenko. “But the Russians have to leave. Or be killed.


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