Under the vaulted brick arches of a contemporary art center in central Kyiv, a soldier in army green read his own poetry, far from the front lines of the war he has been fighting since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Like many other soldiers, Pavlo Vyshebaba, 37, a platoon commander with the 68th brigade, has long collected donations to provide supplies for his unit, in his case using his poetry as an appeal.
But donations that once flooded the web have lagged recently as the war drags on. Mr. Vyshebaba recently took two weeks off from the war to give readings around the country in a push to increase contributions personally.
“I saw that the fundraising on the internet at the beginning of 2023 stopped being effective, that maybe my audience was exhausted and we didn’t have wins for a long time,” he said. “But we still needed all this stuff.”
In the last two weeks, he has raised more than $100,000, which will go directly to supplying soldiers on the front lines, to which he will return days after this final poetry reading at a Kiev book festival.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, many Ukrainian military units have relied heavily on donations and charity funds to provide their troops with much-needed supplies such as first aid kits, body armor, vehicles and even drones.
People and groups from around the world rallied to Ukraine’s cause, providing valuable aid that could find its way to the front lines much faster than goods coming through often cumbersome government channels.
Sixteen months later, that enthusiasm seems to have waned, based on interviews with charities and soldiers who were fundraising. Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines say that donations are now less common, and that people seem to be moving on from the war, even though the conflict is as harsh and bloody as ever and casualties continue to rise.
This left some soldiers trying to raise money on their own, often through unconventional means: selling paintings or memorabilia from the front lines, such as pieces of downed Russian drones; offering to add personalized messages to artillery shells for a fee; and, in one case, a soldier collecting money from a viral video he made of himself almost single-handedly repelling a Russian advance.
The wartime meditations of Mr. Vyshebaba, who had been writing poetry since childhood, proved popular. He has raised enough money so far for his brigade to buy drones, radios, Starlink communication devices and anti-drone weapons, among other supplies, he said.
“When large batches of drones, Starlinks, pickups started arriving – the guys from those units came to thank me or the commanders wrote to me,” he said of earlier funding drives.
Now, however, in the back of a supply sergeant’s pickup, whose name was withheld for security reasons, were the usual military armaments: an anti-tank guided missile launcher, rocket launchers and ammunition boxes.
But the weapons no longer worked and the boxes were empty. This once deadly material, explained the sergeant, had another purpose, directed not to the front lines but to the Academy of Contemporary Art Salvador Dalí in the city center of Kyiv. There, it would be decorated and auctioned to raise money for his conflict brigade. He said he hopes a celebrity like Bon Jovi will buy the missile launcher for an exorbitant fee.
“Most people are already tired of this war,” said Ruslan Zubariev, a soldier with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade who became a one-man fundraiser after he used a helmet camera. to film himself stopping Russian advance almost alone. “The civilians don’t realize that if they are tired and stop donating, it doesn’t mean the war is over.”
Mr. Zubariev, 21, was in a unique position in February after his video, which showed him killing several Russian soldiers and stopping an armored vehicle with a rocket launcher near the Russian-held town of Svatove, went viral. His troop, up to that point, had relied mostly on outside volunteers bringing in equipment. After uploading his video he gained thousands of Telegram and Instagram followers almost overnight.
So Mr. Zubariev monetized his battlefield bravery, a move he saw as necessary because the military seemed unable to provide much of the equipment they needed to fight, he said in an interview.
“We fix cars, we fix equipment, we fix weapons. We fix this, this, this, this, this — generators, fuel, all of it. Everything breaks,” he said. “We don’t get those things to ourselves. We buy everything with our own money.”
Fundraisers typically purchase the goods directly from suppliers, sometimes using intermediaries overseas. They can often bypass the slow bureaucracy and send them to specific units or soldiers, allowing them to be more agile than the military’s own distribution system.
Even the big, established charity and aid groups are struggling with a flickering interest in the war effort. Oleh Karpenko, the deputy head of the Come Back Alive foundation, one of Ukraine’s biggest donors to the military, said fundraising is becoming more and more difficult.
Come Back Alive was the first charity in Ukraine that had a license to buy military goods, including lethal weapons, directly from manufacturers.
Last year, the charity raised almost $177 million and supported 580 military units with hundreds of vehicles, thousands of pieces of thermal imaging equipment, drones, radio stations and weapons, according to the organization’s annual report.
Mr. Karpenko said that while they don’t yet have figures for this year, they expect to miss that mark, due to a decline in international interest and a more challenging landscape at home.
“Also the economic situation in the country is becoming more difficult than a year ago,” he said.
The charity communicates directly with soldiers to assess their needs and expedite supplies to them.
“The state is a big bureaucratic mechanism that moves very slowly, but some needs are very urgent. Our advantage is speed,” he said. “We can provide without hundreds of approvals from 15 different offices. We can get an agreement today, sign it and have a truckload of machine guns in three weeks. The state cannot do that.”
In the hallway of the foundation’s new office on the outskirts of Kyiv, the remains of downed Russian drones sit wrapped in plastic, ready to be shipped to partners eager for a front-line token, Mr. Karpenko said.
Smaller donors are also feeling the pinch. Les Yakymchuk, 30, has been collecting first aid supplies since the start of the war with his charity, UA First Aidbut he said it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain interest.
“If you raise funds for a year, or more than a year, and you talk about the same things in the same way, people start to get tired of this, to get tired of sending money,” he said. His group tried to revive interest in various ways, like sending tokens from the battlefield, like flags signed by the members of a battalion.
He said many requests for supplies still came directly from soldiers hoping to bypass the often complicated logistics of official government channels.
“Everybody’s still calling us,” he said. “But this is war, and during war nothing can be perfect.”
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv, and Natalia Yermak from Kharkiv.