NEW YORK (AP) — Bulletproof vests and drones. Pickup trucks, walkie-talkies and tourniquets. These are just some of the items that individuals and nonprofits have donated to buy and ship to Ukraine, where sometimes they are then used by those fighting Russia's invasion.
“We’ve had these discussions countless times,” said Igor Markov, a director of the nonprofit Nova Ukraine, about where to draw the line between what aid is humanitarian versus that which supports the active defense — the fighting — in his home country.
His San Francisco-based organization, which delivered some $59 million in aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded a year ago, decided ultimately not to support volunteer fighters.
“We realized there’s a significant amount of money that would be ruled out,” he said, pointing to platforms that facilitate matching employee donations, like Benevity, and some major companies, like Google, that require nonprofits to promise their aid does not support active fighting as a condition of receiving contributions.
Throughout the past year, U.S. and European companies, individuals and organizations have navigated local and international regulations to provide aid and grappled with similar moral questions about whether or not to donate to an allied nation’s defense.
Markov said he contributed to buying equipment for Ukraine's frontline defenders as an individual. And he points out that items like drones and pickup trucks may not usually be considered military equipment before asking, “Guess how they’re used?”
“It could be used to just carry food. It could be used to carry munitions,” he said of the vehicles, adding that Ukrainian fighters have been creative in using whatever equipment they have. Drones, meanwhile, have become an essential tool in the fighting.
Under U.S. laws, nonprofits are not allowed to donate to people in combat, said New Yok attorney, Daniel Kurtz, a partner at Pryor Cashman.
“You can’t support war fighting, can’t support killing people, even if it’s killing the bad guys," he said. "It’s not consistent with the law of charity.”
But he doubts that the IRS will examine donations to Ukraine — in part for reasons of capacity, but also because of the political support for Ukraine's government.
“While I’m sure some of them are carefully lawyered, there’s enormous pressure to provide this support,” he said of nonprofits. “So my guess is probably a lot of people are just going ahead and doing it.”
The reality, as described by some nonprofit leaders, is that everyone in Ukraine is fighting to defend the country, from children to an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor.
“It’s better to call them people who defend our state with weapons and people who bring them the bullets,” said Serhiy Prytula, founder of the Prytula Charity Foundation, a Ukraine-based organization that calls itself a charity but does not offer a tax advantage to donors.
He was testifying in front of a federal commission that includes members of Congress in December, along with nonprofit leaders including Dora Chomiak, president of Razom for Ukraine, a nonprofit based in New York that has seen the contributions it receives jump from around $200,000 a year to at least $75 million in 2022.
“We’re open. Our aid and our medical equipment and our communications equipment are going to people who are defending the country,” Chomiak said in a recent interview, speaking from Lviv, Ukraine.
Though it has delivered more than a thousand drones, her organization ruled out fundraising for military equipment because it did not fit into the organization’s charitable mission, Chomiak said. Changing that mission and getting the necessary licenses would have detracted from more immediately impactful actions, she said, such as delivering tens of thousands of specialized first aid kits to the frontlines and lobbying Congress to support Ukraine’s government. A Razom spokesperson said all its new work is in line with its charitable mission.
Companies too, which have given some of the largest publicly known donations to Ukraine, must also consider to what extent their donations are directly supporting Ukraine's war effort. Microsoft Corp. has donated at least $430 million in services and cash in 2022. That doesn't include the cybersecurity services it has provided to Ukraine’s government and some private sector groups.
Tom Burt, a Microsoft vice president, said he set up direct, encrypted communication channels with senior cybersecurity officials in Ukraine before the war began and continues to communicate with them regularly. At the start of the war, Microsoft helped move all the government’s digital infrastructure from physical servers in the country into the cloud. The company also helps protect Ukrainian devices and software from Russian cyber intrusions and attacks that are often coordinated with physical military campaigns.
“It’s possible, of course, that some of those devices are being used by the military or by logistics organizations, both government and private sector, to provide both humanitarian aid and military supplies and equipment,” Burt told The Associated Press. “That’s not really our role to get engaged in that.”
While supporting the Ukrainian government, Microsoft has learned a great deal about malware used by Russian-aligned groups.
“That’s helping us build even more secure products and services for all of our customers. But the fundamental reason that we’re doing this is because we think it’s the right thing to do,” Burt said.
So far, the company has agreed to continue providing its services at no cost to Ukraine through 2023. But it's possible that, at some point, Ukraine will turn into a paying customer when the war ends.
Dana Brakman Reiser, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who has co-written a recent book about changing trends in corporate giving, said there are many examples of companies using philanthropic activity for business development, to market their brand or as a motivation for employees.
“They’re saying, ‘This is philanthropic.’ And that’s a very subjective assessment. It may be largely philanthropic. It may have some business development and benefit for the company, especially in a very long-term sense,” she said. “We’ll have to look back and know in the future.”
As a case in point, SpaceX initially donated Starlink satellite systems, which Ukraine now relies on for internet connectivity. But, in October, CEO Elon Musk complained about the $20 million monthly cost of operating the system. Recent security assistance approved by Congress likely includes funding for Starlink.
Earlier this month, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the company had taken steps to limit the Ukrainian military's use of the satellite internet service saying, "It was never intended to be weaponized."
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment about whether it was still donating its services or whether it had restricted the Ukrainian military's use of Starlink.
Individuals in the U.S. have fundraised or even fought in conflicts in which the government was not a party, said Andrew Morris, who teaches history at Union College. Before the U.S. entered World War II, Japanese-Americans were one among several immigrant groups that fundraised and sent aid back to their countries of origin, including packages directly to Japanese soldiers.
“It’s not guns but it’s going directly to the military," he said. "Is that a distinction without a difference?”
The U.S. government eventually saw such relief efforts as evidence of Japanese disloyalty when they interred whole communities after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At a similar time, the U.S. government tolerated the work of another group that shipped weapons to Britain's home guard, who were ill-equipped, despite the U.S. being formally neutral at the time, Morris said.
“I think that makes it a lot easier for this private sector, voluntary donations to flow in the direction that U.S. foreign policy is,” he said, though in general the government has discouraged individuals from pursuing their own foreign policy objectives.
Other major public donations to Ukraine appear entirely humanitarian, like the $103.5 million gift from Nobel Peace Prize winner and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov to UNICEF to support children displaced by the war.
Similarly, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which has a mission to support around 10,000 Holocaust survivors in Ukraine, many of whom are now in their eighties and nineties, said it took great care to track the food, water and medicine it has sent into the country since the war.
Because of its special mission and obligations, the organization pre-positioned supplies and set up contacts with Ukrainian Holocaust survivors before Russia’s invasion, Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference said.
“Most of the funding comes from the German government through us. So, we get the money and then, we have to report,” he said. “So, it’s very clear to us that it doesn’t cross over into any non-humanitarian efforts.”
Nova Ukraine is preparing its tax filings to submit to the IRS, which Markov said was difficult and complicated because of the breadth of activities that the organization had undertaken. Nonprofits like his are able to pivot more quickly than larger organizations or the Ukrainian government to meet rapidly changing needs, he said, which is why they chose to take on everything from caring for animals to food aid to sourcing medicines.
“Because, you know, these things are not done otherwise,” he said.
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