A Ukrainian National Guard soldier guards a checkpoint outside of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, May 4, 2014.
KIEV, Ukraine — “What you have to understand is that the state as a European or an American understands it, doesn’t exist in Ukraine,” Yuri told me on a sunny afternoon in Kiev two weeks ago.
As Ukraine continues to grapple with insurrection within its own borders, its military has become the most visible and important instrument of the new government — and it's failing badly.
Despite the launch of an anti-terror operation last month, its army has yet to clear pro-Russia separatists from the buildings they occupy in cities across eastern Ukraine. But this is hardly surprising because soldiers are woefully underprepared. They lack basic equipment, medicine and even food.
That's partly why Yuri, a 40-year-old IT investor, turned to Facebook when he wanted to help give his country a fighting chance.
Wings of Phoenix
Shortly after Ukraine's ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s forces began to kill protestors in Maidan Square on Feb. 19 and 20, Yuri and his wife traveled to Sri Lanka to get away from the violence that gripped Kiev.
“My mistake was to take my computer with me,” Yuri tells me, sipping a glass of water. Instead of relaxing on the beach, Yuri spent his time checking Facebook and Twitter for news on Ukraine. When he came across a guy looking to raise money in order to buy food for Ukraine's army, Yuri made a $250 bank transfer to help.
A seedling of an idea had been sown. Yuri, who is originally from Mykolaiv, still has family in his native city in eastern Ukraine. So, Yuri had his father visit the army base there and ask if the soldiers needed anything. He returned with a request for portable radios and medicine. Luckily, Yuri had both left over from the Madian protests, and he arranged for delivery.
But it was the start of something bigger.
Shortly after that, Yuri set up a Facebook group called Wings Phoenix that would eventually raise thousands to help fund and equip the Ukrainian army.
"It just grew from there," Yuri says. "I only wanted to help."
Rising from the ashes
Ukraine inherited an army with significant manpower and equipment on independence from the USSR in 1991, but it has gradually deteriorated under systemic corruption and inadequate funding. Over the past two decades, every Ukrainian government has failed to allocate enough money to fund the armed forces, and those administrations have provided even less funding than the insufficient amount budgeted.
On March 17, Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, mobilized military and National Guard units and approved emergency funding of around $600 million — a significant amount of its $2 billion annual defense budget. However, the effect has been negligible on the ground, something Yuri and other volunteers like him hope to change.
Throughout our meeting, Yuri’s phone beeps nearly every 10 seconds. “Each beep is another donation arriving in our account,” he cheerfully informs me.
The group, which started collecting money on March 27, gets 20 to 30 donations per day. So far, they've raised nearly 2 million Hr ($167,000). “Next week we will hit three million,” he says. “We have raised almost half of our total in one week because people are watching developments in the east and want to help our soldiers fighting there.”
Most of the money is spent on bulletproof vests — something the army desperately needs and still lacks — and Yuri has purchased almost 1,000 since March. Also in heavy demand are bulletproof helmets and military standard walkie-talkies.
"You can see the results," Yuri says. "Every night on the news, I see our bullet-proof vests on soldiers in the east."
Yuri isn't the only Ukrainian to step up and help the new government's army. The crisis has prompted several people to start online campaigns in an effort to fill the state-shaped hole that now exists in the country. That Facebook is the activists' most powerful tool is instructive: It's American. It's largely in English. And it's almost entirely absent in Ukraine’s poorer eastern region, even amongst the youth, most of whom use VKontakte, Facebook's Russian equivalent. Ukraine's urge to rebuild itself is driven by the country's most international and cosmopolitan members, drawn overwhelmingly from the middle classes.
And though each group has its own identity, they all seemingly work together for one cause.
"But why do you call it 'Wings of Phoenix'?" I asked. Yuri smiled broadly before rolling up his sleeve to reveal a muscular arm matted with hair and a tattoo of a phoenix splayed across it.
“I had this done a while ago,” he says. “Like the phoenix, Ukraine will rise from the ashes."
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