After Russia invaded Ukraine, a US non-profit organization shifted its mission
WASHINGTON — Jim Hake began working in Ukraine in 2015, a year after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. His nonprofit organization, Spirit of America, provided medical kits to the Ukrainian military and supported US programs to counter Russian propaganda.
But when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the group put those efforts aside and focused on providing basic, non-lethal military supplies — and figuring out how to get the items into the country quickly.
A variety of groups have sent millions of dollars in non-lethal aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded. In addition to Spirit of America, some, like Direct Relief, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children, have years of experience in the country. Others, including some of the veterans’ organizations that helped evacuate Afghans after the US pulled out of Afghanistan, are more recent and have just started working in Ukraine.
But Spirit of America’s deep contacts with the Ukrainian military and American diplomats in the region set it apart.
On Wednesday, a second Boeing cargo jet carrying Spirit of America supplies landed in Poland en route to Ukraine as the group readjusts to help a society placed on a full wartime basis overnight. Since the invasion, Spirit of America has shipped $7.2 million worth of medical supplies, Kevlar vests, drones and communications equipment.
The US government does not prohibit nonprofit organizations from providing assistance in conflict zones. But any group that provides firearms, ammunition, or other military equipment is subject to international arms trade regulations and must obtain a license from the State Department before shipping such arms.
Because of these regulations, and to avoid accusations that they make a conflict more deadly, most groups leave the delivery of deadly aid and weapons to the US government and its allies. Instead, they focus on aid aimed at saving lives, not taking them.
Getting the right tool to the right place is also crucial. Clothing and toys shipped after a disaster are sometimes of little use and can do more harm than good if they overwhelm the relief efforts. Spirit of America works directly with Ukrainians to determine the specific needs of frontline troops and civilian volunteers.
Originally an entrepreneur and CEO, Mr. Hake founded the group in 2003 to support US military operations. It began by providing relief supplies that soldiers and marines could distribute to local people in Iraq and Afghanistan, but later took on more ambitious projects.
Many nonprofit groups that provide aid in wartime situations adhere to a form of battlefield neutrality in the hope that this will provide some form of protection for their workers. But Spirit of America states that it is “not neutral”. When working in conflict zones, the group says it openly chooses sides and supports American foreign policy goals. In Ukraine, that meant supporting the Ukrainian government and rolling back Russian aggression.
In most conflict zones where Spirit of America has served, the US Embassy or the US military has helped direct their donations. But in that war, Mr. Hake has worked with Ukrainian contacts, including the Territorial Defense Forces.
Much of Spirit of America’s help flowed through Ruslan Kavatsiuk, who helped the group start a radio station in Ukraine called Army FM in 2016 to counter Russian propaganda. He also assisted the group in setting up mobile communications teams that helped Ukrainian front-line units identify and counter disinformation. At the time, Russia covered eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists were fighting government forces, with disinformation intended to induce Ukrainian soldiers to defect.
After resigning from his advisory role in the Ukrainian military, Mr. Kavatsiuk became deputy director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv. Like many Ukrainians, he expected Russia to intensify its war in eastern Ukraine but not launch a full-scale invasion.
Shortly after Russian forces crossed the border, his home in a Kyiv suburb was destroyed and many of his neighbors were killed in the fighting. In early March, a Russian airstrike hit an older memorial building.
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While his country was at war, Mr. Kavatsiuk set up what he calls a training center for highly motivated but unskilled Ukrainians in western Ukraine. Working with military instructors from the United States and Britain, he helped create crash courses in basic military tactics and battlefield medicine. Battle truck driving classes and slightly more advanced infantry classes were added later.
Mr. Hake directed his group’s first deliveries to Mr. Kavatsiuk. Some of the equipment has remained at the training center for new recruits, but Mr. Kavatsiuk has started driving more of it to army brigades at the front.
“I brought the first shipment to Kyiv, which distributed relief supplies, and then we took the wounded back to hospitals in western Ukraine,” he said.
Prior to the invasion, Spirit of America had been considering new projects to counter mounting Russian disinformation, which falsely claimed Ukraine was allied with Nazism and plotting genocide against ethnic Russians. But those plans had to be put on hold, Mr Hake said, as his team faced the urgent task of getting vehicles, body armor and tourniquets to Ukraine.
“Right now it’s not so much about the narrative, it’s about helping people stay alive,” said Mr. Hake.
But the earlier initiatives are still ongoing. Army FM continues to broadcast and the cellular communications teams are still on duty with the force.
Improving supply lines to Ukraine and across the country has been a focus of Spirit of America’s recent efforts. Working with Mr Kavatsiuk and others, the group is setting up a new logistics center to route future supplies and handing over vehicles and body armor to Ukrainian organizations trying to get relief supplies to the cities.
Spirit of America has a third cargo flight planned and hopes to continue raising enough funds to send one flight every 10 days.
“This is the moment our organization was built for,” said Mr. Hake.