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Russians are crowdsourcing for their army in Ukraine


Natalia Abiyeva is a real estate agency specializing in renting apartments in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow. But lately, she’s learned a lot about battlefield medicine.

Packets of haemostatic granules, she found, can stop catastrophic bleeding; decompression needles can relieve pressure in a perforated chest. In a military hospital, a wounded commander told him that a comrade had died in his arms because there were no breathing tubes available for him to breathe.

Ms. Abiyeva, 37, decided to take matters into her own hands. On Wednesday, she and two friends set off in a van for the Ukrainian border for the seventh time since the war began in February, bringing onions, potatoes, two-way radios, binoculars, first aid equipment and even a mobile dentistry kit. Since the start of the war, she says, she has raised more than $60,000 to buy food, clothing and equipment for Russian soldiers serving in Ukraine.

“The whole world, it seems to me, supports our great enemies,” Ms Abiyeva said in a telephone interview. “We also want to offer our support, say, ‘Guys, we’re with you. “”

Across Russia, grassroots movements, led largely by women, have sprung up to bring aid to Russian soldiers. They signal some public support for President Vladimir V. Putin’s war effort – but also growing recognition among Russians that their army, touted before the invasion as a world-class fighting force, is proved woefully underprepared for a major conflict. .

The aid often includes candies and inspirational messages, but it goes far beyond the care packages familiar to Americans since the war in Iraq. The most sought-after items include imported drones and night-vision goggles, signs that Russia’s $66 billion defense budget has failed to produce essential equipment for modern warfare.

“No one expected there to be such a war,” Tatyana Plotnikova, a business owner in the Volga town of Novokuybyshevsk, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think anyone was ready for that.”

Ms Plotnikova, 47, has already traveled the 1,000 mile journey to the Ukrainian border twice, carrying a total of three tonnes of aid, she says. Last week, she posted a new list of urgently needed items on her page on VKontakte, the Russian social network: bandages, anesthetics, antibiotics, crutches and wheelchairs.

Medical equipment is in high demand, partly due to the growing firepower of the Ukrainian military as the West increasingly fortifies it with powerful weaponry. Aleksandr Borodai, a separatist commander and Russian member of parliament, said in a telephone interview that equipment to treat shrapnel wounds and burns was needed “in large quantities” on the Russian side of the front. More than 90% of Russian casualties in some areas, he said, were recently caused by artillery fire.

Mr Borodai said his units had noted the use of 155mm shells fired from US howitzers, and that Russian leaders may have underestimated the West’s resolve to support Ukraine.

“It doesn’t speed up the military operation from our point of view – it makes our situation more difficult, I don’t deny that,” Borodai said, referring to Western arms shipments. “It is possible that our military leaders were not ready to receive such massive support from the West.”

The Ukrainian military, leveraging Western support for its cause, benefits from a much larger crowdfunding campaign that provides millions of dollars in donations in the form of items such as drones, night vision goggles, guns and consumer technologies.

Most groups collecting donations for Russian soldiers appear to operate independently of the Russian government. They mainly rely on the personal contacts of volunteers in individual units and in military hospitals who pass on lists of what they need most urgently.

In Russian state media, these groups are rarely mentioned, perhaps because they undermine the message that the Kremlin has the war firmly in hand. But sometimes the message filters down to the Russian public.

“Our servicemen keep saying they have everything they need,” explained an April TV report of these volunteers, “but a mother’s heart has a will of its own.”

Outside of state media, however, war supporters point to private donations as the key to victory. Pro-Russian military bloggers, some of whom are embedded with Russian troops, are urging their followers to donate money to buy night vision equipment and basic drones.

“Our guys are dying because they don’t have this equipment,” wrote one blogger, while “all the West is supplying the Ukrainian side.”

The necessary equipment, much of it imported, can be purchased at Russian sporting goods stores or ordered online. Starshe Eddy, a popular military blogger, wrote that consumer drones made by Chinese giant DJI “have become so entrenched in combat operations that it’s become hard to imagine war without them.”

Ms. Abiyeva, the real estate agent, showed on her Telegram account a rangefinder equipped with a Nikon Prostaff 1000 laser which she bought for $400. Nikon says the article “makes seeing – and teleporting – deer 600 yards a reality”.

“With this kind of technology, everything is better and faster, right? Ms Abiyeva wrote, adding a winking emoji and a heart emoji.

Ms Abiyeva says she started asking for help after her husband, a captain, was deployed to Ukraine and she felt “powerless” to influence the course of events. She visited the hospital attached to her husband’s local military base and obtained contact details for surgeons deployed to the war. Since then, they have been sending him inquiries directly and forwarding his contacts to colleagues.

When a surgeon at a field hospital requested arterial embolectomy catheters to treat blockages in the arteries, Ms Abiyeva found another volunteer in St Petersburg to make the 700-mile journey to deliver 10 immediately. Ms Abiyeva said when she met the surgeon on his own trip to the area a week later, he told her that six of the catheters had already been used.

“We may have saved six lives,” she said.

The Russian military’s seemingly urgent need for essential medical equipment and basic consumer devices made abroad has led some Russians to question how the Kremlin has spent its massive military budget, more than 3% of economic output. total of the country. On the VKontakte page of Zhanna Slobozhan, a donations coordinator in the border town of Belgorod, a woman wrote that talking about raising funds for drones and sights “makes me think that the army is totally left at the mercy of the fate”.

“Let’s make sure that at least we won’t abandon our guys,” Ms Slobozhan replied. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr Putin visited a military hospital on Wednesday for the first time since the start of the war. He then told officials that although the doctors he had met had assured him that “they had everything they needed”, the government must “respond quickly, quickly and efficiently to all needs” in military medicine. .

Yet the idea that Russian soldiers in Ukraine are under-equipped is increasingly seeping into Russian public discourse – among opponents and supporters of the war. In a documentary about soldiers’ mothers aired last weekend by Russian journalist Katerina Gordeyeva, viewed some three million times on YouTube, a woman described her son using wire to tie the soles of his boots.

An association of retired Russian officers published an open letter on May 19 noting that the public was raising money for equipment the army was sorely lacking “even though the government has a lot of money.” The letter condemned Mr Putin’s war effort as lukewarm, urging him to declare a state of war, with the aim of capturing all of Ukraine.

But on the ground, concerns are more prosaic. As summer approaches, Lyme disease-carrying ticks are out, and volunteers from Belgorod make homemade insect repellent, put it in spray bottles, and deliver it to the front.

A group of women collecting donations in the region learned that some of the Russian-backed separatist forces were so ill-equipped that they used shopping bags to carry their belongings. In their Telegram account with around 1,000 subscribers, the group issued an urgent appeal for backpacks, as well as shoes, Q-tips, socks, headlamps, lighters, hats, sugar and Battery.

“It’s for them to understand that they are not alone,” said one of the Belgorod group’s coordinators, Vera Kusenko, 26, who works at a beauty salon as an eyelash extension specialist. . “We hope this ends soon.”

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