In just nine hours, the Prytula Foundation raised $5.5m from private donors to buy 50 FV103 Spartans used by the British Army
By Christmas, 50 hardly used FV103 Spartan armoured personnel carriers (APCs), until recently the property of the British army, and currently in warehouses in secret locations across the UK, will arrive on the frontline in Ukraine’s war with Russia in time for the toughest winter conditions.
The transfer, the largest of such APCs to Ukraine, is not due to British munificence nor to procurement by the Ukrainian ministry of defence.
It is instead just the latest example of the extraordinary scale and indeed speed of the crowdfunding campaigns that have been powering the Ukrainian military since the early days of the war.
The fundraising appeal for the armoured vehicles – tagline “Grab them all” – had only been launched on Wednesday by the Serhiy Prytula charity foundation, named after its founder, a popular comedian and TV presenter with a sizeable online following.
It had been hoped that the $5.5m (£4.8m) required for the major purchase would be secured within a week.
Within nine hours, half of the funds had been pledged by donors, ranging from private individuals to big Ukrainian corporations and smaller high street firms, such as the bedding company World of Mattresses.
By lunchtime on Thursday, there was no need to continue pumping out the calls for cash, and the social media memes that had made much of the conceit of the coming battle between Spartans and Persians, a wry nod to the Iranian kamikaze drones that have been plaguing Ukrainian cities in recent months.
The money was secured, and the logistics of getting the tracked vehicles on to the muddy plains of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine was being put in motion.
The British army has been using FV103 Spartans since 1978 but they are being phased out for newer designs. The 50 on sale are in private hands and each is said to have fewer than 10,000 miles on the clock.
Prytula himself had visited the UK to check them out. A previous official donation of 35 Spartans by the British government had proven to be a great success on the battlefield. When approached by the Prytula Foundation about gaining more, the generals were said to have been keen.
“We are the first organisation that is going to actually procure them, not as a state, as a country, but as an NGO who would give them to the ministry of defence of Ukraine,” said Maksym Kostetsky, the transport direction coordinator at the Prytula Foundation.
“The base is tracked and due to that fact it can move around in bad weather conditions because we have rain almost every day right now during the autumn season. It’s going to start snowing soon, and the Spartans will be very good on the frontline on south of the country and especially in Donbas where the heaviest fighting is going on right now.”
The idea of citizens and corporations chipping in to arm the fighting forces is hardly new. A BBC documentary in 2020, Crowdfunding: A lesson from World War II, chronicled the extraordinary success of a campaign launched by the press baron Lord Beaverbrook in 1940, at the time of greatest peril, to fund the purchase of Spitfires. A £13m Spitfire Fund – one fighter plane cost £8,000 – was accumulated thanks to doorstep collections, a little regional competition as to who could secure the most and even a hit song to get everyone in the giving mood.
The Ukrainian effort, however, comes in a digital age, said Maria Pysarenko, media manager at the Prytula Foundation, when it is easier to both donate and for donors to see how their money is working in the field. “We see every thing online – we can reach people sitting in the trenches via messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp,” she said.
The campaigns are sometimes long in the planning and complicated. The Prytula Foundation sources cash for cars, drones, communication systems and medical kits but the largest fundraising appeal secured $16m for three Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles bought from Turkey.
At other times, the campaigns simply react to events by channelling a sudden surge of anger or frustration. When Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, tweeted his ideas about how to end the war in Ukraine, there was widespread outrage at the suggestion that the country’s territory should be bartered away.
“We decided, OK, people are so angry and we can convert this anger into something helpful,” said Pysarenko. “And we announced a fundraiser to buy a history textbook for Musk on Twitter. And you know, in an hour, we had 1m Ukrainian hryvnia (£24,000) donated to our accounts, and we’re like, OK, so we have enough money, literally to buy textbooks but also to buy a supply of radio stations for one unit.”
It is not only volunteer organisations raising the cash. The Ukrainian government has also got in on the act through its United24 platform for charitable donations.
This week, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, became the government-backed charity’s second ambassador after Mark Hamill, the Star Wars actor, as part of an effort to encourage foreign donors in particular to contribute towards buying an anti-drone system after the widespread attacks on Ukraine’s energy system and civilians.
The volunteer organisations are not seeking to take over from the government’s efforts, Pysarenko said, but to augment them. They are, she suggested, able to act more nimbly and to drop the diplomatic niceties that might make certain suppliers out of bounds to Kyiv.
And by responding to the popular mood in a way that the government might struggle, peculiar avenues for fundraising open up, at least locally. About 80% of the cash coming to Prytula is from Ukrainian donors.
Last month, hundreds of thousands of dollars was raised by a volunteer organisation headed by young activist Serhiy Sternenko for a bounty to be placed on the head of Igor Girkin, a notorious Russian nationalist who led the Kremlin-backed separatists during Vladimir Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
“It’s almost a joke which went out of control,” laughed Pysarenko. “But that it is how Ukrainians are now living. We’re living on the brink of a joke and tragedy. Jokes are trying to offset the scale of the tragedy. Joking is a way to survive this tragedy. Yeah, the lines are really blurred.”