“In the American military, these kinds of things get provided. The night vision and thermals, those are things I can’t afford,” said Chris, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be disclosed, citing the sensitivity of his work in Ukraine. “Without it, it was just difficult. … It’s pretty terrifying to be at the front and you can’t aim your weapons systems about half of the time.”
The Washington Post interviewed Chris in May and verified his military credentials through official service records. He’s part of a small, shadowy network of former military personnel and small-scale contractors aiding Ukraine’s war effort by providing advanced, commercially available combat gear to front-line units engaging Russian forces at close range. Such efforts, they say, enable Ukraine to exploit the vulnerabilities of what is generally a larger, more technologically advanced Russian military by targeting and taking out forces as they approach.
It’s a delicate venture, one that involves close scrutiny of U.S. laws governing the sale and distribution of sensitive military equipment, people familiar with the effort say. At least three members of Congress have been approached by groups seeking guidance on how to speed applications for government approval to export materiel that is closely regulated.
While aerial bombardment continues in select parts of Ukraine, the ground campaign in the east has become the central focus now. U.S. defense officials say the fight for Donbas especially has become an artillery war, fueling the trend toward sending heavier, long-range systems to buttress the local resistance. Ukrainian troops, aided by Western weapons and volunteers, have mounted a potent resistance, destroying Russian tanks and aircraft, and taking potentially tens of thousands of troops off the battlefield.
Weapons and other equipment have been flowing into Ukraine in recent weeks from a host of NATO countries. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the U.S. government alone has provided almost $4 billion in security assistance to Kyiv, with billions more authorized for use in the coming weeks and months. According to the Pentagon’s accounting, the equipment sent to Ukraine includes more than 50,000 sets of body armor and helmets, 2,000 optics and laser range finders, night-vision devices, thermal imagery systems and more.
“The Ukrainians have told us repeatedly that they do not need additional small arms from the United States,” Navy Capt. Mike Kafka, a Pentagon spokesman, said in response to questions about these private efforts to supplement Ukraine’s arsenal. “We remain in constant communication with Ukraine about their capability needs. … Once the equipment is delivered to the Ukrainians, how they distribute it inside Ukraine is up to them.”
Ad hoc groups working to help the Ukrainians say certain Western military aid is not getting where it needs to be fast enough or in sufficient supply. “There is a massive disconnect from the very top to the guy on the front lines,” said Ryan Gisolfi, co-founder of Delta Level Solutions, a security firm established this year that is helping move military equipment obtained independently of Western governments to special operations units in Ukraine.
Hunter Ripley “Rip” Rawlings, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, went to Ukraine at the start of hostilities and has been working through his group, Ripley’s Heroes, and with other foundations and vendors to transfer nonlethal military gear and medical equipment. “The military aid packages that are moving through, they are … not night-vision goggles and they’re not body armor,” Rawlings said in an interview from Kyiv. “So we’ve filled a niche — and the niche is large.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
A few weeks ago, Chris, the former Army Ranger, acquired advanced night-optical devices and thermal-optics devices from one of the groups in Rawlings’s network, Project SIRIN. The organization formed this year and counts Chris among its on-the-ground network, helping to identify where there are needs for such equipment.
Project SIRIN is a small group of Americans and Canadians, almost exclusively veterans like Chris with special operations experience, that raises money largely through crowdfunding and donations from other veteran-backed organizations. Neither its business model nor its motivation is unique: In the past three months, several such groups have sprung up in the United States and Europe to source and send materiel to support Ukrainian fighters. They bankroll their efforts through appeals for donations or the sale of Ukraine-themed merchandise.
To date, most groups that have managed to do this work successfully have focused on things like medical supplies, vehicles and communications equipment. Project SIRIN’s attempt to move military materiel brings a series of extra hurdles. Military-grade weapons are tightly controlled, so while the group waits for the U.S. government to approve its export license, it buys specialized equipment from domestic and foreign distributors, including firms that cater to dedicated hobbyists with high-end gear.
Delivering the goods to Ukraine — which also happens without government sponsorship — depends on personal connections forged through the often cryptic ties that bind the community of special operations troops and veterans. Secrecy is hard-wired into the organization’s culture: Despite wanting to draw attention to their work and the need that inspired it, the organizers of Project SIRIN refused to disclose their full names, fearing direct reprisals from Russia and its supporters. The organization is a subsidiary of the Ukraine February Fund, which was registered in Pennsylvania this year and is awaiting approval of nonprofit status. Its officers are not identified in public records.
Patrick, a nonveteran who handles communications for the group, said the decision to focus on night vision and thermal optics came after extensive discussions with special operations units in the Ukrainian military, police and national guard.
“We were reaching out to them, going: ‘What are you guys missing right now?’ And that was the No. 1 answer: night vision, night vision, we need night vision,” he said. “We all know that antitank and MANPADS have proliferated in this conflict … and that’s been a game changer. It hasn’t been the case for NODs. … There’s just not enough for the number of qualified people.”
MANPADS is shorthand for man-portable air-defense systems — or shoulder-fired weapons. NODs are nighttime observation devices.
Chris said the night-vision equipment and thermals, which are used to detect an enemy’s presence in darkness through its heat signature, have benefited not only the unit to which he’s assigned but also those operating nearby. The information on Russian movements they are able to glean with the equipment improves the Ukrainian side’s broader ability to conduct strikes accurately and safely, he said.
“Having the ability to conduct reconnaissance at night, that’s huge,” he said, “because not every Russian has night capability.” He estimated that 1 in 4 people in his unit now have the equipment.
Shipping any military-grade equipment from the United States requires approval from the State Department and adherence to export controls established in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Project SIRIN’s application is being evaluated, a process that has taken months, even with support from Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), whose staff has advised the group on how to navigate the process, his office confirmed. Kinzinger has also indirectly supported the group’s efforts financially, via a donation to Rawlings’s group from funds collected through the congressman’s political action committee, Country First.
Other lawmakers have been approached by groups seeking help with providing Ukraine night-vision equipment, drones, secured communications equipment, cybersecurity systems and body armor. Thus far, congressional efforts to help expedite the application-review process have been unsuccessful.
For now, those organizations trying to help say they are buying high-end civilian products that mimic the functionality of military-grade equipment, while plumbing European suppliers to source and ship equipment legally through other means.
Project SIRIN organizers say they have given Ukraine nearly a quarter-million dollars’ worth of gear this way, including 22 night-optical devices, eight thermal-vision units and one drone. Rawlings said he has brought into Ukraine about 60 sets of night-vision goggles and about 20 sets of thermals, relying on U.S., Polish and Ukrainian groups.
Such efforts may change the fortunes of an individual unit, experts say, but they’re not a permanent fix.
“As a Band-Aid, this can be helpful. This is not a broad solution,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program. “In any large enterprise, there are always going to be gaps. … You can’t send people down to every platoon or squad to find out what they need and bring it to them.
“Long-term,” Cancian said, “the Ukrainians have to build a system where they can [meet] these needs.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.