After Russia invaded Ukraine, an American non-profit organization changed its mission

WASHINGTON — Jim Hake began working in Ukraine in 2015, a year after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. His non-profit organization, Spirit of America, has provided medical kits to the Ukrainian army and helped American 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 how to get in quickly. the items in the country.

Various groups have donated millions of dollars in non-lethal aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Several in addition to Spirit of America, such as 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 pullout from Afghanistan, are newer and have just started working in Ukraine.

But Spirit of America’s close contacts with the Ukrainian military and US diplomats in the region set it apart.

A second Spirit of America Boeing cargo plane touched down in Poland on Wednesday, en route to Ukraine, as the group readjusts to help a society that has fallen overnight into war. Since the invasion, Spirit of America has delivered $7.2 million worth of medical equipment, Kevlar vests, drones and communications equipment.

The US government does not prohibit nonprofit organizations from providing aid in conflict zones. But any group supplying firearms, ammunition or other military equipment is subject to international arms trafficking regulations and must obtain a license from the State Department before shipping such weapons.

Because of these regulations, and to avoid accusations of making a conflict more deadly, most groups leave the supply of lethal aid and weapons to the US government and its allies. Instead, they focus on assistance that aims to save lives, not take them.

Getting the right help to the right place is also of crucial importance. Clothes and toys sent after a disaster are sometimes of little use and can do more harm than good if they overwhelm relief efforts. Spirit of America works directly with Ukrainians to identify the specific needs of frontline troops and civilian volunteers.

Originally an entrepreneur and business executive, Mr. Hake founded the group in 2003 to aid US military deployments. He began by providing supplies that soldiers and Marines could distribute to local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but later took on larger projects.

Many nonprofit groups that provide wartime aid adhere to a kind of battlefield neutrality, hoping to provide some kind of protection for their workers. But Spirit of America says it’s “not neutral.” When working in conflict zones, the group says it openly chooses sides and supports US foreign policy goals. In Ukraine, this means supporting the Ukrainian government and repelling Russian aggression.

In most conflict zones where Spirit of America has operated, the US embassy or military has helped direct its donations. But in that war, Mr. Hake worked with Ukrainian contacts, including the Territorial Defense Forces.

Much of Spirit of America’s help has come through Ruslan Kavatsiuk, who in 2016 helped the group found a radio station in Ukraine called Army FM to counter Russian propaganda. He also helped the group set up mobile communications teams that helped Ukrainian frontline units recognize and combat disinformation. At the time, Russia was covering eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists were battling government forces, with disinformation aimed at driving Ukrainian soldiers into desertion.

After leaving his role as adviser to the Ukrainian army, Mr. Kavatsiuk became deputy director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv. Like many Ukrainians, he expected Russia to escalate its war in eastern Ukraine, but not to launch a full invasion.

Shortly after Russian forces crossed the border, his house in a Kyiv suburb was destroyed and many of his neighbors were killed in the fighting. In early March, a Russian airstrike hit an old memorial building.

With his country at war, Mr Kavatsiuk has set up a training center in western Ukraine for what he calls highly motivated but unskilled Ukrainians. Working with military trainers from the United States and Great Britain, he helped create crash courses in basic military tactics and battlefield medicine. Slightly more advanced combat truck and infantry driving classes were later added.

Mr. Hake led the first expeditions of his group to Mr. Kavatsiuk. Some equipment remained at the training center for new recruits, but Mr Kavatsiuk began to ship more to army brigades on the front lines.

“I took the first shipment to Kyiv, distributed the supplies, then we took the injured back to hospitals in western Ukraine,” he said.

Prior to the invasion, Spirit of America had considered new projects to counter growing amounts of Russian disinformation falsely claiming that Ukraine was aligned 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 into Ukraine.

“Right now it’s not so much about the narrative, it’s about helping people stay alive,” Hake said.

But the first initiatives are still in progress. Army FM continues to broadcast and mobile communications teams are still working with the troops.

Improving supply lines to Ukraine and throughout the country has been a focus of recent Spirit of America efforts. Working with Mr. Kavatsiuk and others, the group is setting up a new logistics hub to direct future supplies and providing vehicles and body armor to Ukrainian organizations trying to get aid to cities.

spirit of america has planned a third cargo flight and hopes to continue raising enough money to send a flight every 10 days.

“This is the moment our organization was built for,” Mr. Hake said.

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