Natalia Abiyeva is a real estate agent specializing in rental apartments in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow. But lately, she has been learning a lot about battlefield medicine.
Packets of hemostatic granules, she found out, can stop catastrophic bleeding; decompression needles can relieve pressure in a punctured chest. At a military hospital, a wounded commander told her that a comrade died in his arms because there were no airway tubes available to keep him breathing.
Abiyeva, 37, has decided to take matters into her own hands. On Wednesday, she and two friends set out in a van for the Ukrainian border for the seventh time since the war began in February, bringing onions, potatoes, two-way radios, binoculars, first-aid gear and even a mobile dentistry set. Since the start of the war, she said, she has raised more than $60,000 to buy food, clothes and equipment for Russian soldiers serving in Ukraine.
“The whole world, it seems to me, is supporting our great enemies,” Abiyeva said. “We also want to offer our support, to say, ‘Guys, we’re with you.’”
Across Russia, grassroots movements, led in large part by women, have sprung up to crowdsource aid for Russian soldiers. They are evidence of some public backing for President Vladimir Putin’s war effort — but also of the growing recognition among Russians that their military, vaunted before the invasion as a world-class fighting force, turned out to be woefully underprepared for a major conflict.
The aid often includes sweets and inspirational messages, but it goes far beyond the care packages familiar to Americans from the Iraq War. The most sought-after items include imported drones and night vision scopes, a sign that Russia’s $66 billion defense budget has not managed to produce essential gear for modern warfare.
“No one expected there to be such a war,” said Tatyana Plotnikova, a business owner in the city of Novokuybyshevsk on the Volga River. “I think no one was ready for this.”
Plotnikova, 47, has already made the 1,000-mile drive to the Ukrainian border twice, ferrying a total of 3 tons of aid, she said. Last week, she posted a new list of urgently needed items on her page on VKontakte, a Russian social network: bandages, anesthetics, antibiotics, crutches and wheelchairs.
Medical gear is in high demand in part because of the growing firepower of Ukraine’s military as the West increasingly fortifies it with powerful weapons. Alexander Borodai, a separatist commander and a member of the Russian parliament, said that materials to treat shrapnel wounds and burns were needed “in great quantities” on the Russian side of the front. More than 90% of Russian injuries in some areas, he said, have recently been caused by artillery fire.
Borodai said that his units had noted the use of 155 mm shells fired by U.S. howitzers and that Russia’s leadership may have underestimated the determination of the West to support Ukraine.
“It’s not making the military operation go any faster from our point of view — it’s making our situation more difficult, I don’t deny it,” Borodai said, referring to Western weapons deliveries. “It’s possible that our military leaders were not ready for there to be such massive support on the part of the West.”
Ukraine’s military, tapping into Western support for its cause, is benefiting from a far more extensive crowdfunding campaign that is delivering millions of dollars worth of donations in items like drones, night vision scopes, rifles and consumer technology.
Most of the groups collecting donations for Russian soldiers appear to be operating independently of the Russian government. They mostly rely on volunteers’ personal contacts in individual units and at military hospitals that pass along lists of what they most urgently need.
In Russia’s state media, these groups are rarely mentioned, perhaps because they undermine the message that the Kremlin has the war firmly in hand. But sometimes the message filters through to the Russian audience.
“Our service members keep saying they have all they need,” a television segment in April about such volunteers explained, “but a mother’s heart has a will of its own.”
Outside state media, however, supporters of the war are pointing to private donations as a key to victory. Pro-Russian military bloggers, some of them embedded with Russian troops, are urging their followers to donate money to buy night vision equipment and basic drones.
“Our guys are dying because they lack this equipment,” one blogger wrote, while “the entire West is supplying the Ukrainian side.”
The needed equipment, largely imported, can be bought at Russian sporting goods stores or ordered online. Starshe Eddy, a popular military blogger, wrote that consumer drones made by the giant Chinese company DJI “have become so firmly entrenched in combat operations that it’s become hard to imagine the war without them.”
Abiyeva, the real estate agent, showed off on her Telegram account a Nikon Prostaff 1000 laser-equipped range finder that she bought for $400. Nikon says the item “makes seeing — and ranging — deer out to 600 yards a reality.”
“With this kind of tech everything goes better and faster, wouldn’t you say?” Abiyeva wrote, adding a winking emoji and a heart emoji.
Abiyeva said she started crowdsourcing aid after her husband, a captain, was deployed to Ukraine and she felt “powerless” to affect the course of events. She visited the hospital attached to her husband’s local military base and got the contact information for surgeons deployed to the war. Ever since, they have sent requests to her directly and passed her contacts along to colleagues.
When one surgeon at a field hospital asked for arterial embolectomy catheters, for treating clogs in arteries, Abiyeva found another volunteer in St. Petersburg, Russia, to make the 700-mile trip to deliver 10 of them immediately. Abiyeva said that when she met the surgeon on her own trip to the region a week later, he told her that six of the catheters had already been used.
“It’s possible that we saved six lives,” she said.
The Russian military’s apparently urgent need for essential medical equipment and basic, foreign-made consumer devices has led some Russians to wonder how the Kremlin has been spending its enormous military budget, more than 3% of the country’s total economic output. On the VKontakte page of Zhanna Slobozhan, a coordinator of donations in the border city of Belgorod, a woman wrote that talk of raising money for drones and gun sights “makes me think that the army is totally being abandoned to the mercy of fate.”
“Let’s make sure that at least we won’t abandon our guys,” Slobozhan wrote back. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Putin visited a military hospital Wednesday for the first time since the war began. He later told officials that while the doctors he met had assured him that “they have all they need,” the government should “promptly, quickly and effectively respond to any needs” in military medicine.
Still, the notion that Russian soldiers in Ukraine are underequipped is increasingly seeping into Russian public discourse — among opponents and supporters of the war. In a documentary about soldiers’ mothers released last weekend by Russian journalist Katerina Gordeyeva, seen some 3 million times on YouTube, one woman describes her son using a wire to reattach soles to his boots.
An association of retired Russian officers published an open letter May 19 noting that the public was raising funds for equipment that the military sorely lacked “even though the government has plenty of money.” The letter excoriated Putin’s war effort as halfhearted, urging him to declare a state of war, with the aim of capturing all of Ukraine.
But on the ground, the concerns are more prosaic. With the approach of summer, Lyme disease-bearing ticks are out, and volunteers in Belgorod have been making homemade insect repellent, putting it into spray bottles and delivering it to the front.
A group of women collecting donations in the area learned that some of the Russian-backed separatist forces were so badly equipped that they were using shopping bags to carry their belongings. In their Telegram account with about 1,000 followers, the group put out an urgent call for backpacks, along with shoes, Q-tips, socks, headlamps, lighters, hats, sugar and batteries.
“This is so they understand that they are not alone,” said one of the coordinators of the Belgorod group, Vera Kusenko, 26, who works at a beauty salon as an eyelash extension specialist. “We hope this ends soon.”