Some of the “aid supplies” in Ukraine is being stolen – traffickers are selling the goods straight from buses, on markets, in shops, even in supermarkets. Dishonest bureaucrats, activists, businessmen, customs officials, military officers are making a fortune out of this practice. And the crooks who spotted the opportunity. Ukraine has tightened their law to curb this pathology.
THE SCALE of this phenomenon is confirmed by numerous media reports. Almost each Polish volunteer we talked to, who delivers aid buses to Ukraine, also had experience with such pathology. “I have heard about it from hundreds of people. It is a nightmare. Sometimes everything gets trafficked” – says Krzysztof Koza, a voluntary worker who spent two months in Ukraine delivering aid far to the east of the country.
A bus worth PLN 15,000
It is unclear whether cars are a favourite commodity of humanitarian aid embezzlers, or whether it is relatively easy to prove the perpetration of this type of crime – at the state border, the customs officers register the reason for importing a given vehicle. Indeed, it is a fact that cases of trafficking in humanitarian cars are often detected by the authorities and reported by the Ukrainian media.
Back at the beginning of April, the Ukrainian media covered a certain scandal, which apparently reverberated more widely in Ukraine, as several Ukrainian citizens told the author of the article.
An official from the Lviv region, Andriy Lukiv, first deputy mayor of the city council in Pustomyty – a small town near the border with Poland – was detained by agents of the DBR, the State Investigation Bureau.
The mayor tried to “sell” a bus which Finland had donated to the city as part of its humanitarian assistance.
He demanded a bribe of 100,000 hryvnias (i.e. ca. PLN 15,000) from a volunteer who wanted to hand over the vehicle to the Ukrainian army. The DBR apprehended Lukiv’s accomplice red-handed while he was accepting the bribe.
The court set a high bail in this case – more than one million hryvnias (PLN 150,000). Yet already on 13 April the Lviv Regional Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that Lukiv – a representative of the Samopomich party – was released after his bail was paid. And it was this information that most engaged the public’s interest.
Similar incidents have occurred in another part of western Ukraine – Bukovina of Chernivtsi region. In mid-May, police detected that cars arriving from the West as humanitarian aid for the army were being resold for US dollars. Officers apprehended the woman who was in charge of the business, together with her husband. They demanded USD 4,500 from the buyer for a Volkswagen LT28 mini bus which they received free of charge as part of humanitarian aid for use by the military. The woman was a civil servant too, she was a member of the local municipal council.
Slightly earlier, i.e. on 6 May, Serhiy Brodovsky, head of the regional hospital, was detained in the town of Chernivtsi. The man was suspected of misappropriating five ambulances donated by Italian philanthropists for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The head of hospital was arrested and removed from office. He was released from custody after posting bail of 200,000 hryvnias (ca. PLN 30,000).
On 30 May, Suspilne TV reported on the detention in the Kirovohrad region of men who were also trafficking in cars originally earmarked for the military. The SBU – Security Service of Ukraine – revealed that among those detained is a member of one of Ukraine’s major NGOs. The man produced fake documents for the transfer of cars to other organisations. The detained persons were charged with the trafficking of three vehicles. They earned USD 16.4 thousand on this transaction.
The majority of the accused face three to seven or even up to 10 years’ imprisonment if they carried out their activities in an organised group and on a large scale.
On 13 March, there was a draft of legal amendments tightening the legislation on this matter, and on 24 March the Supreme Council passed law number 147146, which added a new provision to Article 201-2 of the Criminal Code: “The use of humanitarian aid, charitable donations or free assistance under martial law for other purposes, namely for gain or personal enrichment”. Previously, the sale of humanitarian aid was deemed as ‘fraud’ (cf. Article 190 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine) and punished more leniently.
“They seek to make money on the war”
Refugees from Ukraine crossing the border in Medyka told the author of this article in April that aid supplies, instead of being distributed to the ones in need, sometimes end up in shops and are sold there. For example, expensive Italian pasta, which they had not previously seen in rural shops, suddenly showed up there at pocket-friendly prices.
However, the media present relatively few accounts of the marketing of food or hygiene products sourced from humanitarian aid supplies. For example, on 1 April, Rivne TV Channel reported that in Olexandriya in the Rivne region, people working at a humanitarian aid station were caught in the act of selling hygiene products, blankets, clothes, nappies and baby food.
It appears that this phenomenon is more widespread than suggested by the Ukrainian services or media reports – this is what Polish volunteers think. Sobol – one of the activists travelling with humanitarian aid – on more than one occasion he has seen people selling humanitarian aid items straight from their cars. “They parked their cars usually in city centres where there was a large circulation of people. Such motherfuckers have always been, and will always be. Luckily, the SBU arrived and caught them” – he says.
Tomek Sikora, Obywatele RP, who got highly involved in transporting aid to the east, recounts how on one trip just over the border, already in Ukraine, they were repacking the goods in buses. Suddenly someone pulled up.
“Have you got anything for sale?”
“This is just humanitarian assistance”.
“Well, it doesn’t matter”.
Being in Lviv, Tomek Sikora often saw merchandise in shops which, as he suspected, came from humanitarian aid. Warehouses in the western Ukrainian capital are crammed full with free products from the West. Tomek recounts that in Poltava, volunteers were running around the shops looking for aid supplies. If they found such products, they passed on the information to the military so that they could respond accordingly.
Krzysztof Koza delivers goods to the most remote and dangerous places on the country’s map. He has spent two months in Ukraine since the onset of the war. He recently received the “Courage” medal for civilians from the military in Brovary district near Kyiv. Krzysztof told me about the warehouses in the west of Ukraine where the aid from the convoys goes and is not further transported east.
“Lviv, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Uzhhorod – the local inhabitants of these areas are rather unaffected by the war and are simply trying to profit from”
– says Krzysztof Koza.
Oleksandr Kulikowskyj, politician and founder of the Foundation for the Reconstruction of Ukraine, alleged in his interview with i-ua.tv that he knew of many cases where goods arrived in Lviv from abroad and were then sent to fictitious FOPs (i.e. one-person businesses) instead of the people in need. “There is a lot of human scum who pose as volunteers” adds Kulikowskyj.
Some of the aid items come inland, but even there they are sometimes trafficked. Krzysztof Koza mentions his friend, a volunteer from Chernihiv, who got a mental breakdown. “She simply meant to help people, but recently she has had to reassess to whom this help should be offered. Unfortunately, it turned out that people take things from her and then these products end up in the shop,” Krzysztof recalls.
He himself has met some Ukrainian volunteers in whose case he is convinced that they are peddling what they get. “The girl used to tell us outlandish stories just to get the goods. She once said they were going to visit soldiers from Voinovich. They set off with her in four vans. I told them – the Russians are already there, no military men from Ukraine will come to you and the volunteer will tell you to unload the goods at a friend’s yard. And this is what happened then in Zaporizhzhia,” he adds.
The fact that the sale of food or hygiene products from aid is a fairly common phenomenon is also confirmed by a large number of online guides for Ukrainians on what to do when they see such products in a shop/on sale. Lawyers also warn against trafficking in humanitarian aid supplies on social media and the criminal liability that may ensue.
And the victims of fraud? Territorial defence units.
Sikora, Koza and Sobol say the same thing – a small part of the aid goes to those who need it most, the ones close to the front line. “When I was sitting in the trenches with the boys in Sumy, the commanding officer joked that we should go to Lviv with our rifles and get two trucks of humanitarian aid. So that his soldiers would at least see this aid,” Sikora recalls. The army, especially the territorial defence troops, is a victim of such fraud – they often ask for food and personal protective equipment.
In the Cherkasy region, two bogus volunteers showed extreme arrogance. First, they submitted sham documents to the city council of Smila – allegedly a request for humanitarian aid from one of the military units. The council facilitated the purchase and donated nearly 2,000 tins of stew to the purported activists. They, in turn, tried to sell this commodity to the soldiers for 200,000 hryvnias (approx. PLN 30,000). The suspects were detained by the SBU.
Meanwhile, in the Lviv region, Roman Matis, a former official of the Lviv Regional State Administration, and Yevhen Szpytka, editor-in-chief of the economic magazine Mind.ua, were caught red-handed. They raised funds to help the military and bought bulletproof vests and helmets. They then tried to sell them for 550,000 hryvnias (ca. PLN 82,000). The ammunition was also found in their warehouses.
And the BBC reported perhaps the biggest humanitarian aid embezzlement scandal in Ukraine – bulletproof vests sewn by volunteers for the army were sold in the shops of the largest construction megastore chain Epicentr. They appeared in the chain outlets in May, priced at 12,500 hryvnia (ca. PLN 1,830) each.
When a photo of this merchandise hit social media, it quickly became apparent that the bulletproof vest, intended for the army, had been produced by volunteers from the Lviv Defence Cluster. This fact was confirmed by the leader of this organisation, Maksym Plekhov, who recognised the cut and material of the vest. “The vest was sewn with three types of thread. Nobody does that any more”. A barcode affixed to the vest put a period on it – it indicated who made it and when.
It has even been possible to retrace the route the product has taken. From the Lviv Defence Cluster, the vests were delivered to officials of the Cherkasy Regional Military Administration. The administration, after topping up the vests with armoured plates, was to hand them over to the frontline. But instead they handed them over “for responsible safekeeping” to Veneto – the company of Mykhailo Brodsky, a former people’s deputy and current chairman of the Basketball Federation of Ukraine. However, instead of ‘responsibly storing’ the merchandise, the company sold it to the Epicentr network owned by Olexander and Halyna Gereg – Olexander being a deputy and his wife being the secretary of the Kyiv city council.
The Veneto company tried to whitewash itself in a naïve way: it was claimed that the vest was mistaken for another “visually similar” product, as if overlooking the fact that each of them has a barcode that does not allow for such a mistake. The investigation material shows that Epicentr tried to sell a thousand such vests for 12.5 million hryvnias (ca. PLN 1.8 million).
Officials from one of the municipalities in the Pidhajets’kyi district of Volyn were involved in a similar procedure – the prosecution did not disclose which one. They are suspected of selling bulletproof vests, helmets and other goods that went to Ukraine as humanitarian aid. They earned USD 18,000 on such items.
In Ternopil, brothers named Ivan and Andriy Kozak were arrested while collecting donations to help the Ukrainian army. They were very popular in the region and raised as much as 13 million hryvnias, but instead of spending it on helping the army, they bought themselves expensive gadgets – a Land Rover and an Audi Q 5, iPhone 13 Pro Max phones and other valuable things. They spent 2 million hryvnias on their personal needs.
A chat bot at fraudsters
Łukasz Krencik, who at the Open Dialogue Foundation is in charge of the production of bulletproof vests and the logistics of aid supplies (i.e. helmets, drones, food, etc.) to Ukraine, has relatively little experience of theft/embezzlement. “Once some 6-7 of our vests disappeared at the border. Ukrainian border guards took them away claiming they had to check something. Then another officer came and told us to go away” – he says.
In order not to lose this valuable equipment, the ODF has mobilised its contacts in Ukraine. “Call us, if it happens again” – they heard. And it happened. They called us. The SBU detained a border guard. Another person – who prefers to remain anonymous – also carrying vests, tells me the same story. “But I don’t know if they took them to be traded or to be used by their friends” – says our interlocutor.
To prevent embezzlement, Sobol delivers the aid collected in Poland directly to people in need: hospitals, army units and local residents. Several of our other interlocutors are trying to do the same. After the outrage over the sale of their vests in hypermarkets, the Lviv Defence Cluster also decided to deliver its aid supplies directly to the frontline.
In the Luhansk region, Tomek Sikora and his volunteers prefer to drive the humanitarian straight to the front line to the soldiers in the trenches, because their commander did not release the goods to them. “He was hoarding all that stuff his warehouse and did not pass it on to others. I don’t know why” – explains Sikora.
Koza tells me about a volunteer from Lviv who had suspicions that much of what he distributed to people – nappies, food and baby chemicals – was being sold. So this volunteer started writing on product packs with an impermeable marker “допомога” which means: help, support. Immediately, many people stopped taking the products from him. The same idea was applied by a volunteer from Chernihiv, with the same positive results.
Ukrainians also came up with another idea – on 23 May, a special chat bot “Stop Ostap” was launched on Telegram. The name itself was inspired by the name of the fictional conman Ostap Bender, the protagonist of the novel by Ilf and Petrov. The chat bot is designed to help identify fraudsters “who intend to profit from people’s charity and willingness to help our army at such a difficult period for Ukraine
“The enemy that won’t sleep.”
Tom Sikora believes that the activists and volunteers who carry humanitarian aid themselves are partly responsible for this embezzlement. Most of them do not want to go further than Lviv, and there is plenty of such goods there.
He has seen quite a few announcements on social media such as: “We have a car full of humanitarian aid items. We are touring our fourth warehouse and they don’t want to take our items. Help!”. And he explains: “With such abundance, as if, as a poor person, you were given a truck full of goods, wouldn’t you be tempted? We create these opportunities for them ourselves,” Sikora says.
This is aggravated by the fact that organisations do not usually keep track of what happens next with the aid they have collected.
Oleksandr Kulikowskyj, on the other hand, believes that embezzlement is facilitated by a system in which so many intermediaries are involved. Besides, law enforcement bodies now have more serious problems on their minds, as many are involved in war crimes investigations, so they lack the strength and personnel to prosecute fraudsters. The latter are aware of this – war and its bestiality creates an umbrella of impunity.
The war also feeds an enemy that Ukraine has long struggled with – corruption. After all, it is often government officials who commit the biggest frauds.
According to Transparency International, 23.9 per cent of applicants at public offices have
paid a bribe over the past year. In the world TI ranking, Ukraine ranks a distant 122 nd out of
180, which looks really poor.
Kulikowskiyj gives me more examples of corrupt practices:
● smuggling a conscript soldier across the border into the EU: USD 10 thousand
● leaving out children of influential, wealthy people from military mobilisation: USD 5 thousand
He says that in Chernihiv, international partners sent funds to glaze the city’s windows. Local officials were reluctant to do so – because they couldn’t make any money from it. He adds that officials also prey on people who have lost their homes, flats as a result of shelling – offer to adequately describe the damage suffered in return for a suitable bribe. The idea is that the state should pay out as much compensation as possible.