Ex-Military Crowdfunds Training for Ukrainian Troops

May 28, 2014 at 8:25 AM ET

One day after Ukrainians elected as the new president billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who promises to end the “terrorism” of pro-Russian separatists in the east, the Ukrainian army launched an assault on rebels attempting to seize the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk. At least 50 rebels were killed in the fighting, according to representatives of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, while Ukraine’s interior minister claims government forces suffered no losses.

The battle marks the first time in months that the Ukrainian government could claim a solid victory over the separatists. Ever since armed pro-Russian rebels first forcibly took over eastern cities in early 2014, the Ukrainian army has suffered setback after setback: Pro-Russian forces took over Black Sea ships in Crimea when Russia annexed it in March, and rebels in the east have seized several armored vehicles from Ukrainian troops. The army’s resources and funding are so low that last month the Defense Ministry launched a fundraising drive, which allowed people to donate five Ukrainian hyrvnia (or about 42 cents) via text message.

Alexey Arestovich plans to support Ukraine’s beleaguered troops by improving their ability to fight. A former Ukrainian intelligence officer, Arestovich, 40, announced two days ago that he’s organizing a crowdfunded training course for reservists in the capital of Kiev called The Civilian Reservists.

The project comes a week after at least 16 Ukrainian soldiers, many of them reservists, were killed during clashes in the Donbass region where Donetsk is located, and two weeks after eight reservists were killed in the eastern city of Mariupol. Most reservists have limited combat skills. “We saw the price of inexperience in Donbass and Mariupol,” says one post on The Civilian Reservists Facebook page. “Unskilled soldiers paid the price. Due to the urgency of the crisis in the east, reservists are now receiving very limited training…that, in part, leads to the death of many of them in the battlefield.”

The group aims to train both reservists, all of whom were mobilized in March by the Ukrainian government, and volunteers who might join the military. But even if the course’s graduates don’t enlist, Arestovich believes their newfound skills could bolster local self-defense groups, which have surfaced in the wake of pro-Russian victories in the east. “By providing this training, we’re also planning ahead—taking into account a [possible] war with Russia in the following years,” writes Arestovich on Facebook.

There was an immediate outpouring of interest in the program, with more than 600 people signing up in just two days, according to Arestovich. The full training lasts two months, but organizers say it’s structured so that after the first two days, “volunteers already know more than the average Ukrainian soldier.” (An hour-by-hour breakdown of the program’s first couple of days can be found here.)

The two-day introductory course costs anywhere from 500 to 2000 Ukrainian hryvnia ($42 to $168), and the project is being funded by volunteers, Arestovich and his fellow organizers, including former military experts and instructors. It begins at month’s end.

“We are in a very difficult position, but we are full of patriotism and a willingness to fight for our country,” reads the group’s Facebook page. “Together we will defeat the Putin regime.”