Somewhere near the front lines in eastern Ukraine, SUVs and ambulances are blasting along dangerous supply and access roads, sometimes travelling into the fight itself. There is nothing unusual about the vehicles’ presence, except that a few of them, oddly, carry British licence plates and hastily applied camouflage paint.
The yellow plates make Kristina Voronovska smile. When the war started 20 months ago, she gave up her career as an entrepreneur to join the war cause. Today, she runs a global network of volunteers who buy equipment, including SUVs and other vehicles, medicine and non-lethal military equipment, and delivers it to soldiers and civilians whose lives were torn apart by the war.
“I felt I had to do anything and everything for my country,” she told The Globe and Mail in Kyiv, where she was making a brief appearance before heading back to Kramatorsk, near the fighting in the East. “I feel I can change some things for the better even in my country’s darkest times.”
Ms. Voronovska, 34, is one of many thousands of Ukrainians who reinvented themselves as war-effort volunteers the moment Russian invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. They work for little or no pay as medics, drivers, technicians, caterers, builders and in dozens of other jobs.
In the remains of an enormous, Soviet-era factory near Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s northeast, farmers in their 60s and 70s are repairing the Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers that were seized in Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive last autumn. The farmers’ skills are prized because they know how to repair diesel engines and hydraulic systems – their old Russian or Soviet tractors and harvesters use similar technology.
In a secret location near Kyiv, civilian technicians are building and testing an array of surveillance and attack drones that are crucial to Ukraine’s fight, as this is the first mass drone war.
Dmitry, who imported cars before the war, works in the factory and is part of a team that is developing a drone that can carry a 12-kilogram bomb, theoretically big enough to cripple a tank. (The Globe is not using his full name out of fear for his security.) “Our job is impossible to do unless we are invisible to the enemy,” he said, explaining that the factory would be at risk of being bombed if its location were known.
Ms. Voronovska, who has a law degree, was working at charities and building a meal-delivery business in Kyiv in the years ahead of the war. She was born in Odesa, Ukraine’s port city in the south, and lived in Kharkiv most of her life before moving to the capital in 2019. When the war began, she tried to join the military but was rejected. “So I started to volunteer immediately,” she said.
Since she had experience in meal deliveries, she decided to broaden the concept and built, in effect, a small logistics service with a global supply chain. After delivering medicine and meals to the shattered villages along the Russian invasion route to Kyiv, she shifted her operation to Kramatorsk, in Donetsk Oblast, to be near the front lines, where the supplies she procured through her volunteer network would be needed most.
She launched an Instagram account to raise funding and hooked into an ever-widening network of volunteers in Ukraine and overseas to buy and deliver supplies. At first, the focus was meals for soldiers. “The trenches are awful,” she said. “Sometimes all they eat are nuts and Snickers bars.”
Gradually, the supply line grew more diverse and sophisticated as the fundraising and the volunteer network expanded. Many of the items were bought on Amazon, eBay or at equipment auctions. In came Chinese-made recreational drones that could be adapted for military surveillance missions; SUVs and ambulances from Britain, which were driven all the way to Ukraine; military uniforms; sleeping bags; night-vision goggles; gasoline-powered generators; and old, army-surplus mine detectors that were still effective (two of them cost US$950). “For about a thousand dollars, I can buy the kind of equipment that allows soldiers to survive,” she said.
The work is not without personal risk. In Vuhledar, the largely destroyed battleground town southwest of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, bombs were hitting a few hundred metres away from her and her delivery team. At one point, she looked up and saw a drone with a grenade slung underneath it. “We did not know if it was a Ukrainian or Russian drone, so we ran.”
Michael Tory, a Canadian investment banker who lives in London, met Ms. Voronovska through a friend of hers when he was visiting Ukraine in July to support a charity that made plastic windows to replace the glass ones shattered by explosions. He was impressed by her energy and bravery.
“Kristina’s courage and selfless commitment exemplify for me why we need to continue helping defend Ukraine for as long as it takes,” he said. “After last year’s full-scale invasion, Kristina and her fellow citizens across the country simply dropped everything to put their lives on the line for Ukraine’s freedom.”
As the war drags on and equipment of every description becomes in short supply, Ms. Voronovska has every intention of expanding her network and purchases. “I still want to join the army and become a medic,” she said. “But I was raised as a Ukrainian patriot and I know what I am doing now is helping my country win the war.”