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'I'll keep doing this until we win': On the road with Ukraine's aid suppliers

A man carrying boxes containing humanitarian aid walks through a crowd of people.
A man carries boxes of humanitarian aid outside Mykolaiv on Tuesday amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a cold and rainy morning as Yahoo News arrives at an anonymous industrial estate somewhere outside of Kyiv. We are here to meet the volunteers of Ukraine Aid Ops, one of a growing number of civilian organizations that supply Ukrainian troops and civilians with humanitarian and nonlethal military aid.

Over the next four days they have more than 10 deliveries to make to Ukrainian troops spread across the east of the country, supplying them with vital protective equipment.

Ukraine Aid Ops is run by a former Estonian soldier named Harri (he asks that Yahoo News not use his full name for security purposes) who originally arrived in Ukraine as a foreign military volunteer. He later realized he could make more of a difference by sourcing and distributing protective gear for a hastily mobilized and poorly equipped Ukrainian army. Harri’s organization began acquiring, and then even manufacturing, NATO-standard ballistic plates — heavy body armor that protects a soldier’s vital organs from bullets and artillery shrapnel.

“In the beginning I told myself that even if our plates could save one life it would be worth it,” he says.

Over 30 Ukrainian soldiers have reached out to his organization via text message and said their lives had been saved by the group’s protective equipment, according to Harri, who showed Yahoo News some of the texts on his phone.

Armed Ukrainian troops walking down a narrow road.
Ukrainian troops in the small town of Sievierodonetsk in February. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier in October footage even emerged on Telegram of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries testing a captured example of the plates Ukraine Aid Ops had supplied. “Our opponent’s plate is not penetrable,” the mercenary in the video affirms with clear disappointment, after firing several rounds from an assault rifle into it from close range.

“Their volunteers did their job, what else can I say?” Harri says, watching the video in the presence of Yahoo News, aglow with pride.

His organization is a registered charity in both the United States and Ukraine, which means unlike other groups whose fundraising and expenditures are opaque, Ukraine Aid Ops has to account for all the money it raises and spends. About a third of its donations now comes from the organization’s Amazon wish list.

“It’s very transparent,” Harri says. “It makes some of our donors feel more comfortable. They can buy an item on Amazon, it gets shipped to us and then we send them a picture of the item being delivered.”

The wish list has kits of all varieties, from DJI Mavic 3 drones priced at nearly $2,000, to thermal socks at $8.99. “It’s all needed by the troops at the front,” he says. “And people can spend as little or as much as they want.”

That accountability is important. While the majority of volunteer organizations and fundraising campaigns are genuine, there are inevitably some profiteers and scammers. Harri tells Yahoo News about one unscrupulous supplier who sent worthless airsoft helmets to a group of families who saved up money to buy their relatives ballistic helmets. Ukraine Aid Ops ultimately fulfilled the order, providing the much-needed “FAST” helmets, the same type used by U.S. Special Forces, for free.

But it’s dangerous work. The Toyota Hilux pickup that Yahoo News escorted Harri and his team in was nearly destroyed by a Russian S-300 missile that hit a hotel in Zaporizhzhia they were staying in a few weeks ago. The strike nearly killed Harri and another of his volunteers. It was only pure luck — and Harri’s smoking habit — that saved their lives.

Destroyed cars seen on the street from a window on an apartment block that was hit by a Russian missile.
Destroyed cars on an apartment block that was hit by a Russian missile on Oct. 28 in Zaporizhzhia. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

“They had originally put us in two of the rooms that took a direct hit from the missile, but I asked to change them so I could be closer to the smoking area,” Harri says. “I’m living proof that smoking is good for you!”

Ukrainian mechanics in Zaporizhzhia repaired the damage to both of their vehicles at no cost. Harri believes his group was deliberately targeted, as his activities have put him in the sights of both the Russian military and the small but still significant number of Ukrainians that harbor pro-Russian sympathies. On more than one occasion, they have found GPS trackers on their vehicles. As a result, the volunteers sweep the cars for such devices at every other stop.

The first delivery is in Kharkiv, 255 miles away. As we drive toward the city, Harri starts confirming the drop-offs with the Ukrainian units he’s been in contact with over the previous days. The two-vehicle convoy would normally be driving faster, but the Mitsubishi Pajero behind us is old and has already broken down on several runs.

At the first stop, Harri hands over a light commercial UAV and several plate carriers, the tactical vests into which ceramic or steel body armor is placed, to a Ukrainian reconnaissance team. Their commander, who goes by the nom de guerre “Dimon,” tells Yahoo News how important these light civilian drones have been for his soldiers to spy on possible Russian ambushes. “Without them we’d have been killed many times,” he says.

Ukrainian troops posing with Harri of Ukraine Aid Ops in Kharkiv.
Members of the 127th Brigade, 229 Battalion Territorial Defense Forces, posing with Harri in the center of Kharkiv after receiving a donation of 20 plate carriers and ballistic plates. (James Rushton for Yahoo News)

Next is a delivery of 30 plate carriers and ballistic plates to the 127th Territorial Defense Brigade, Ukraine’s wartime militia. We meet in the center of Kharkiv. The commander of the unit, Ruslana, is a slight woman who arrives driving a donated British Land Rover Freelander, one of many vehicles sourced from the United Kingdom. “There are a lot of British vehicles in Ukraine. They’re cheaper because you drive on the wrong side of the road,” Harri says.

On the way to our next drop-off near Izium, a city Ukraine recently liberated, we drive past a corpse on the road, surrounded by Ukrainian police. A pair of smashed civilian cars nearby shows this wasn’t the result of enemy action. It’s a sobering reminder that even in war, in a city under regular Russian bombardment, the most mundane of activities can still be the most dangerous.

As we approach Izium, the road is lined on both sides with signs warning of mines. The area we’re driving through was taken back from the Russians during Ukraine’s recent Kharkiv counteroffensive, but the mines will take years, probably decades, to clear. We meet our next two Ukrainian units and hand over the promised equipment. The convoy drives slower as it’s now getting dark and the road is lined by destroyed Russian tanks on both sides. Occasionally we have to drive around massive craters in the middle of the road. “That was made by a FAB-500,” Harri points out, referring to a type of unguided 500-kilogram bomb dropped by a Russian fighter jet.

We reach an area just outside of Slovyansk. But it’s not a straightforward route; we drive down the main road between Slovyansk and Izium, through a valley that used to be the frontline. Harri had once fought here as a volunteer soldier.

“The Russians were on one side of the valley, the Ukrainians on the other side,” he says. The destruction is near complete: Villages on either side of the valley have been completely destroyed by heavy artillery. Not a single house remains intact.

A vehicle near destroyed apartments in Izium.
A vehicle near destroyed apartments in Izium. (James Rushton for Yahoo News)

Near the villages is the Svyatogorsk Lavra monastery, where Ukrainian soldiers used to barrack. Harri has several packs of dog food in the vehicle that he wants to leave for the animals he and his cohort befriended during their time fighting in the area. “Follow in my footsteps. Don’t step off the path,” he says. Mines and unexploded ordnances are likely everywhere.

A pitiful meowing stops us in our tracks. To our left, a small, limping kitten hobbles over to us. It’s holding its right paw in the air and is clearly desperate for help. Fearing that it will be unable to escape the monastery’s resident dogs in its condition, Harri decides to bring the kitten back to Kyiv with us. For the next 1,000 miles, we have an additional passenger.

It is very friendly and seems house-trained and fully socialized. Like many strays in eastern Ukraine, the injured animal is probably someone’s pet that was lost during the chaos of the war, shell-shocked from the loud bangs of artillery. As we leave the city, Harri receives a video call from Calum, another American volunteer in the same line of work. He has also rescued a kitten, which is perched on his shoulders. “Mine’s bigger!” Harri says.

The next day’s first stop is in Kryvyi Rih, a heavily industrial town north of Kherson, also Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown. We deliver an assortment of plate carriers with ballistic plates, a range finder and a drone to a Ukrainian unit in the city. The drone has been supplied by Finnish donors, and members of the Finnish media meet us there to take pictures and interview the Ukrainian troops. We also hand out thermal vests to two elderly women sitting nearby. They’re both from Kherson, in the south, having fled from the Russian occupation.

Ukrainian servicemen ride on armored personnel carriers along a highway.
Ukrainian servicemen make their way along a highway on the outskirts of Kryvyi Rih in April. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Eight of the women now live in a small communal apartment in the building next to us. One pulls out her phone and shows us pictures of a happy-looking young woman and man. “They’re pictures of her son and daughter,” Harri says, translating. “She sent them out to go shopping, but the Russians blew up their car.” Against her protests, he pushes 2,000 hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency, into the old woman’s pocket. It’s about $55.

As we exit Kryvyi Rih, massive antitank earthworks scar the Ukrainian landscape like a gigantic open wound. Villagers, sitting by the side of the road with blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags smile and wave at us as we drive closer to the frontline. Checkpoints get more frequent and more serious: What would previously be manned by just a few Ukrainian police with assault rifles now frequently includes dug-in armored vehicles, heavy weapons and multiple defensive trench lines.

We complete the handoff and head back to Dnipro. The next morning we’re up early and head off to Zaporizhzhia. We are rendezvousing with other volunteers and traveling together in a convoy to supply Ukrainian units fighting in the Donbas, near Donetsk. After meeting the other team, the convoy refuels at a service station on the road outside of the city, and we feed the cat some chicken nuggets.

As we drive out of the city we head northeast, driving roughly parallel to the frontlines. The now devastated and largely abandoned city of Mariupol, now under Russian control, is a little over 30 miles to the south. It’s a somewhat surreal experience to be so close to the city that dominated the world’s attention for weeks, while it is still completely inaccessible.

An aerial view of the city of Mariupol on April 12 during Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.
An aerial view of the city of Mariupol on April 12 during Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)

We fly through the checkpoints even quicker than normal; Lucy, the leader of the other group of volunteers, knows all the soldiers manning the roadblocks along the way.

The landscape of Donetsk stretches before us. It’s incredibly flat, apart from the frequent slag heaps left over from decades of mining. We’re now only a matter of miles from the Russian frontlines, and the road carves through vast open fields, relics of Soviet-era collectivized farming. “These fields give good sight lines for enemy [antitank guided missiles (ATGM),]” Harri says. It’s not an idle comment; Russian recon units have been known to penetrate Ukrainian lines at night and pick off traffic driving down these same roads with long-range antitank missiles.

“I prefer when it’s overcast when I’m driving to Donetsk,” he says. “It gives us more cover from Russian drones.” Apart from cloud cover, the other best protection from Russian fire is speed. They typically struggle to hit anything moving, but staying in one position for too long is dangerous.

We head toward Avdiivka. The last two drops are closest to some of the heaviest fighting in all of Ukraine, and therefore the most dangerous. We meet our first contact near a checkpoint and quickly hand over the supplies. The crump of incoming artillery can be heard quite clearly. It’s landing around 1 to 2 miles away. Ukrainian artillery can be heard answering the Russian fire with their own shelling.

DJI Matrice 300 reconnaissance drones during test flights in the Kyiv region.
DJI Matrice 300 reconnaissance drones during test flights in the Kyiv region in August, prior to being sent to the frontline. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Our final drop is to a Ukrainian artillery unit. Its temporary base of operations is close to the Russian lines, and we have to drive down another road roughly parallel to the trenches to get there. “The Russians are over there,” Harri says, pointing to a tree line roughly 2 miles away — well within ATGM range.

We drive as fast as the vehicles will manage on the road, which is peppered with small craters and potholes. Artillery lands in the distance, but we arrive safely and hand over the equipment — the usual assortment of plate carriers and medical supplies, but also active hearing protection for the artillery crews — which overjoys the Ukrainian commander. The thunderous blast of heavy weaponry can make you deaf. It is one of the many small items of aid that seem trifling but make a critical difference on the front.

Progress back to Kyiv is slow because the Mitsubishi Pajero ahead of us has been having mechanical problems. The turbo has failed, and we have to stop more frequently to refuel. “It’s from 1996,” Harri says with a sigh. It’s nearly as old as he is.

The Pajero’s engine blows up as we are 80 miles outside the capital. Had this happened closer to the frontlines, it could have cost the team their lives.

We limp the final miles at 40 miles per hour. When we arrive in Kyiv, we calculate the distance covered over four days: more than 1,500 miles. Harri and the rest of his volunteers will rest for a few days and then load up the vehicles and set out again.

“I’ll keep doing this until we win,” he says.