“The War Will End When Everybody Makes an Effort for That”
War has put some Russian citizens against a tough moral choice: if you’re against the aggressive acts of Russian authorities, may you support the Ukraine Army? “Important Stories” spoke to Russians, who send drones to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Russian military aggression toward Ukraine caused rejection in many Russians. Some have been shielded away from the news, considering themselves powerless to do anything, others refused to participate in war, left the country, and stopped paying taxes, and the third portion of them started providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians. But there are also those who decided to help the Ukrainian army directly.
A scientist Natalia Zotova, a software engineer Viktor Gorlov, a sociologist Gleb and one participant, whose name was changed per his request, are all members of a volunteer project called UA Drone Forces which supplies civilian drones to the Ukraine Armed Forces. They told “Important Stories” about why, in their opinion, in current circumstances, it’s unacceptable to only provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
About pacifism and army assistance
Gleb, 30 y.o.: Most Russians, that I’m speaking to, aren’t ready to give money to Ukrainian Armed Forces. Thank God, they’re not sending money to the Russian army, at least. The weirdest thing for me personally is when people fence off with pacifism: “I’m a pacifist. I won’t give money to the army”. But in reality, it’s scary, because a man not involved in a fight between the weak and the strong, is automatically on the side of the strong. I will use a metaphor that's in use by Ukrainians. Imagine if a maniac appeared in your city, that is capturing a new pupil every day, and rapes them. And you can find this maniac and stop him. Or you can go and give the kid a cup of cocoa, wrap him up in a blanket, advise him to a therapist. New day — new pupil, you can go to them for twenty years. But that won’t stop the maniac.
Natalia, 48 y.o.: The position of pacifism in a fight of good and evil, darkness and light, is unacceptable.
Viktor, 50 y.o.: I guess, this pacifistic attitude hides the fact that these people have a strong association with Russians, and in particular with those who are at war. Associating themselves with them, these "pacifists" don't want to [contribute to] their deaths.
Andrey, 33 y.o.: You can treat the military differently. But people [in Ukraine] didn’t want to wage war, they didn’t attack anybody. We have a lot of contacts with Ukraine soldiers: among them are teachers, professors, and businessmen. They are regular people, who saw what Putin’s army is doing and couldn’t stay away – they went to protect their country. They are victims of aggression so we need to help them in any way possible.
Natalia: For example, the first drone we bought for a doctor of philosophy. He’s still fighting. The best people in Ukraine fight and die in the army. For example, the three of us, giving you an interview, belonged to an alpinism community. And in Ukraine, the deputy head of the Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing of Ukraine has just died near Soledar. A great man, his wife is a Master of Sports in climbing. And we both saw them in the mountains. He has left four children. All of these people stood up to protect their country from invaders and we want to help them defend and withstand.
Andrey: They went to war because their crazy neighbor forced them to. And because we associate ourselves with the country, where this crazy neighbor was born, grew up, and gained dictatorial power, then it’s our moral duty to help his victim. On another hand, we won’t achieve anything with Putin’s regime if Ukraine doesn’t win this war. And as democratic Russians, we want to change Russia as well.
About the mobilized people and protests in Russia
Natalia: As a Russian, I don’t accept the totalitarian regime victim narrative. As they say: If you were eaten, there are still two ways out. So, the victim narrative refuses people their own will and their own choice. Have your hands been tied up, have you been chained to the radiator? Even the mobilized — they’re going to the recruitment office on their own legs. And they’re going there with their weird thoughts: “to kill khokhols [Russian ethnic slur for Ukrainians]”, “to win” or whatever’s in their heads. And the victim's narrative is about “we’re not deciding anything, we were made, so we went”.
Viktor: At the same time, it’s obviously clear that there are separate cases where people were actually [forcibly] taken from work or other places. We understand that people like that exist, but what are we supposed to do? We have to stop the murdering of those who they came to kill. That is more important. If we pity those who were taken, mobilized, this war will not be stopped, there will be more victims.
Personally, I have taken part in street protests in Russia since 2008. I was at Bolotnaya Square [on 6 May 2012]. I participated in election observations and saw how they are falsified. In 2014 I left with my family because it became clear that there is no future for my children there. I didn't want my children to be subjected to all this propaganda, which is infused into a person unnoticed starting in kindergarten and school.
Natalia: I went to the protests too, I was arrested by the police twice. I and my family left after Crimea was occupied [in 2014] and now we live in the United States. Since the start of the war, I've been in a tough mental state, but the activity I’m in — buying drones, it’s supporting me, giving me strength. The war will end when everybody makes an effort for that.
About the work of the volunteer group
Andrey: Initially our group was formed by two volunteers from Canada and Kyiv in April 2022: they asked to buy a drone for Kharkiv's homeland defense. We bought one, then another one. Then we got to know what drones are needed, started establishing tighter connections with Ukrainian soldiers, and worked out logistics routes.
Natalia: In our group, there’re more than a half Russians, and we’re working together with Ukranians. Ukrainians’ trust in us is very valuable. There are no communication problems in our group. We have correspondence in both Russian and Ukrainian in our chat. We asked a question, how do you feel [about the fact we’re Russian], to our Ukrainian volunteers. Everyone invariably responded that we are not divided here by ethnicity, not by citizenship — Russians and Ukrainians — but by our tasks and goals, by our vision of the situation.
Andrey: I spoke to Ukrainian soldiers personally. They all treated me kindly and with gratitude (after the full-scale war began in Ukraine, there were different attitudes towards help from Russians, part of society doesn’t accept it — Ed.note).
Our Ukrainian volunteers collect requests for drones from frontline units. Then we buy drones in Europe, from where our Ukrainian volunteer takes them to Kyiv. There, drones are reprogrammed and volunteers take them to different frontline segments. After receiving the drone, Ukrainian defenders film a video and take a photo with it with our sticker visible. That way we can make sure that drones reach their destinations, exactly the one unit that requested it. We saw how useful and necessary it is – drones save lives. And we started finding friends who financially helped and started working with us on finding and buying drones. In 8 months we grew into a volunteer group and more than 40 of our drones work on the frontline.
Viktor: We buy civilian drones, often already used, to save money, the most common one is DJI Mavic Air 2. The biggest limitation we have is the funds. If we could buy more, we would supply more.
Natalia: We have already collected more than 25 thousand euros in donations. And we get donations from completely different places: there were even transfers from Russians, who are in Russia, through other people for safety reasons.
About the use of drones
Viktor: Generally the military uses drones for reconnaissance, so the soldiers could see what kind of situation they’re in, what’s going on on the opposing side, what the enemy's movements are, and what to be ready for. Or, for example, we were told there were situations, when there are no communications between the first and second line, and the enemy could slip through blocks at the first line. And the drones made it possible to see that an attack deep into the second line was being planned. So this awareness allows people to save their lives and successfully defend themselves.
Gleb: Apart from reconnaissance and artillery correction, drones help in finding injured after the battle, so Ukrainian soldiers could run there in time and get people out. Or you can attach some medicine to a drone and it can bring them to the injured.
Natalia: Also drones fly up to Russian soldiers and help them surrender safely. There is an official Ukraine Ministry of Defence instruction: Russian arranges his surrender on the hotline, comes to the specified spot, and from there a drone leads him along a safe route into the rear.
We have strict accounting and control over who we deliver drones to. Our Ukrainian volunteer oversees several directions and takes requests from units situated on them. Requests are written in letters by commanders, it's quite an official thing. There’s always a waitlist, sorting according to needs: for example, somebody’s drone is out of order and it was their last one. That's the kind of equipment that lives around one-two months on the frontline.
Andrey: We can’t divulge information about specific units, which we helped. But we can say that our drones participated in the Kherson liberation and the liberation of territories in the Kharkiv direction. Also, our drones are now working around Bakhmut and Donetsk.
Viktor: In June our drones participated in the battle of Sievierodonetsk. Five ZSU soldiers sent us a video report about getting our drone and a week later we were told that only one of the guys on that video is still alive.
Natalia: It’s important to highlight that drones are not a weapon. They’re “the eyes” of soldiers. And they’re too valuable as “eyes” to strap grenades to them. But still, because of different “barriers”, I guess, psychological ones, there aren’t a lot of Russian volunteer groups that can help Ukrainians defend themselves. We know of only three such projects, one of them is our UA Drone Forces. Mostly, Russians help with humanitarian aid.