In a workshop in western Ukraine, a technician adjusted a metal bracket that had been attached to a racing drone so that it could carry a grenade, turning an aircraft sold in hobby stores into a lethal weapon.
Standing nearby were two American entrepreneurs, who had arrived at the workshop bearing gifts of a dozen other drones, a small installment in what has becoming a torrent of military aid to Ukraine. But this is not part of the state-sponsored arms shipments being raced into Ukraine to help the country fight a more powerful Russian army in the east.
Instead, the drones are part of a multifaceted, multimillion dollar crowdfunding campaign that is producing millions of dollars in donations, as well as a bounty of smaller weapons and other military equipment for the Ukrainian military. To drive donations, Ukrainian officials and private companies are making direct online appeals to sympathetic foreign citizens, even as they continue to press governments for heavier weaponry, too.
One of the American entrepreneurs, Chad Kapper, said his trip began with a call to a Ukrainian racing drone friend.
“I said ‘Listen, what do you guys need if you need anything? You know, can we supply parts or whatever?’” recalled Mr. Kapper, the founder of a racing drone company. “And he said ‘yes, whatever you can do’.”
For many of the donors involved, this conflict has unusual moral clarity.
“We made a mistake with Iraq, just like we made a mistake with Vietnam. We got ourselves into places we shouldn’t have been,” said the other American entrepreneur who brought the drones, a Tennessee businessman who asked to remain anonymous because of safety concerns. “These people are not asking us to show up, they’re just asking for our support. The least we can do is support them.”
Even as Ukraine receives major shipments of heavy weapons from the United States and other governments, the online campaign has tapped into widespread Western sympathy and produced meaningful donations for the country’s war effort. Included in the donations are dual-use items such as the hobby drones; military equipment such as night vision scopes; body armor, rifles and ammunition; and free lobbying services by American firms.
The biggest campaign, a social media appeal for donations by the Ukrainian embassy in Prague, raised almost $30 million from 100,000 donors less than three weeks after it was launched, including donations from around the world, according to Czech officials.
“We call on all to financially support the fund-raiser for immediate assistance in procurement of military equipment for the Ukrainian Army and citizen self-defense units,” the embassy said in February on its Facebook Page.
The Czech government, which also benefits from sales of its own weapons, said it would provide fast-track approval for the purchases.