WASHINGTON — Jim Hake began working in Ukraine in 2015, the year after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. His nonprofit Spirit of America supplied medical kits to the Ukrainian military and assisted US programs to counter Russian propaganda.
But when Russia launched a large-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.
Several groups have given millions of dollars in non-lethal aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Several besides 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 veteran organizations that helped evacuate Afghans after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, are newer 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 plane carrying supplies from Spirit of America landed in Poland en route to Ukraine as the group adjusts to help a society that has gone completely into wartime overnight. Since the invasion, Spirit of America has supplied $7.2 million worth of medical equipment, Kevlar vests, drones and communications equipment.
The US government does not prohibit non-profit organizations from providing aid in conflict zones. However, any group supplying firearms, ammunition or other military equipment is subject to international arms trade regulations and must obtain a permit from the State Department before such weapons can be shipped.
Because of those regulations, and to avoid accusations of making a conflict more deadly, most groups leave the supply of deadly aid and weapons to the US government and its allies. Instead, they focus on aid aimed at saving lives, not taking it.
Getting the right tool in the right place is also critical. Clothing and toys sent in after a disaster are sometimes of little use and can do more harm than good if they exceed the relief effort. Spirit of America works directly with Ukrainians to identify the specific needs of frontline troops and civilian volunteers.
Originally an entrepreneur and businessman, Mr. Hake founded the group in 2003 to support the deployment of the United States military. It started out providing supplies for soldiers and marines to distribute to locals in Iraq and Afghanistan, but later took on more ambitious projects.
Many nonprofit organizations that provide relief in wartime adhere to some sort of battlefield neutrality, hoping it will provide some sort of protection for their employees. But Spirit of America declares that it is “not neutral”. When working in conflict zones, the group openly says it chooses sides and supports US foreign policy goals. In Ukraine, that meant supporting the Ukrainian government and curbing Russian aggression.
In most conflict areas where Spirit of America operates, the US embassy or military has assisted in sending the donations. But in this war, Mr. Hake has cooperated with Ukrainian contacts, including the territorial forces.
Much of Spirit of America’s help has flowed through Ruslan Kavatsiuk, who helped the group establish a radio station in Ukraine called Army FM in 2016 to counter Russian propaganda. He also helped the group set up mobile communications teams that helped Ukrainian frontline units identify and combat disinformation. At the time, Russia covered eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists battle government forces, with disinformation to lead Ukrainian soldiers to defect.
After resigning from his advisory role with the Ukrainian military, Mr. Kavatsiuk became deputy director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kiev. Like many Ukrainians, he expected Russia to intensify its war in eastern Ukraine, but not launch a full-scale invasion.
Shortly after Russian troops crossed the border, his house in a Kiev suburb was destroyed and many of his neighbors were killed in the fighting. In early March, a Russian airstrike struck an older building near the monument.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
With his country at war, Mr. Kavatsiuk set up a training center in western Ukraine for what he calls highly motivated but uneducated Ukrainians. He worked with military trainers from the United States and Great Britain and helped establish crash courses on basic military tactics and battlefield medicine. Battle truck driving classes and slightly more advanced infantry were added later.
Mr. Hake sent the first shipments of his group to Mr. Kavatsiuk. Some of the equipment has remained in the training center for new recruits, but Mr. Kavatsiuk has begun to bring more of it to frontline army brigades.
“I brought the first shipment to Kiev, distributed supplies, and then we returned the wounded to hospitals in western Ukraine,” he said.
Before the invasion, Spirit of America had considered new projects to counter rising levels of Russian disinformation, which falsely claimed Ukraine aligned with Nazism and plotted genocide against ethnic Russians. But those plans had to be shelved, said Mr. Hake, as his team faced the urgent task of getting vehicles, body armor and turnstiles into Ukraine.
“Right now it’s not so much about the story, it’s about helping people stay alive,” said Mr. hake.
But the previous initiatives are still ongoing. Army FM continues to broadcast and the mobile communications teams are still working with troops.
Improving supply lines to Ukraine and the entire country has been a focus of Spirit of America’s recent efforts. In collaboration with mr. Kavatsiuk and others, the group is setting up a new logistics hub to direct future supplies, and is giving vehicles and body armor to Ukrainian organizations trying to move aid into cities.
Spirit of America has planned a third cargo flight and hopes to raise enough money to send a flight every 10 days.
“This is when our organization was built,” said Mr. hake.