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'Absolutely critical': Ukraine's wartime supply chain essential to its defense

Roads and bridges are damaged, some routes are dangerous, and the movements of Russian troops and bombings mean that no corridor is guaranteed.
Volunteers unload supplies received from across the country at a center set up to oversee the distribution of humanitarian supplies to service members and civilians in need in Dnipro, Ukraine, on March 2. Emre Caylak / AFP - Getty Images

Serhiy Prytula, a beloved television and radio show host in Ukraine, dreamed he would make an office building in downtown Kyiv into the headquarters of his new political party. From a table in front of a backlit cutout of Ukraine, he would help mold his country's future.

Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, his goal has shifted. Instead of a center for politics, the building has become a center to organize and coordinate supplies for military volunteers.

Inside, there are no politicians or leaflets featuring candidates or talking points. There are only soldiers and volunteers picking up boxes full of medicines, canned food, bulletproof vests, helmets, uniforms and remote control drones that are used to surveil and drop bombs on the Russian military.

Serhiy Prytula.
Serhiy Prytula.Courtesy Serhiy Prytula

“We don’t care about politics in Ukraine now,” Prytula said over the phone. “We are all soldiers or volunteers now, and we have only one question: How can we save our state?”

Leveraging his fame and social media reach, Prytula has organized a major supply network. He is taking in donations, negotiating the purchase of bulletproof vests and helmets from manufacturers in countries like Turkey, pressuring car dealers to provide vehicles to the territorial defense at steep discounts, operating warehouses from Poland to Kyiv, and moving numerous buses and trucks full of supplies throughout the country.

His work is just one example of the largest supply effort since the Cold War and the Berlin airlift. As millions of Ukrainians flee across the borders, numerous groups are coordinating how to move in humanitarian, medical and military aid to assist in the country's defense.

Government agencies, NATO partners and philanthropic groups are amassed just outside the country helping refugees and boxing up supplies that will soon be taken into Ukraine.

"This is a really intense situation where you have literally millions of people flowing out while you're trying to push supplies in — so you can imagine immediately the logistical issues here," said Sarah Mendelson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and as a deputy at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Obama administration.

"This is a very extreme high-wire act," she added.

USAID said it had deployed its team of disaster experts to Poland to work with partners there and "assess needs, identify assistance, and determine viable routes into Ukraine to determine assistance."

People cook outdoors for Ukrainian service members and civil defense members serving in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 7.Vadim Ghirda / AP

"The situation on the ground in Ukraine is rapidly changing," an agency spokesperson said. "Ongoing hostilities continue to damage and destroy roads and bridges, as well as impacting train infrastructure, complicating relief operations. If humanitarian access does not improve, the already devastating situation will get even worse."

Multiple supply groups said the six-hour drive between Kyiv and Lviv, on the Polish border, takes about a day now. The situation has grown more difficult as Kyiv is increasingly encircled. Roads and bridges are damaged or destroyed, some routes are considered dangerous, and the movement of Russian troops and bombings mean that no corridor is guaranteed.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, told Reuters on Friday that the city had enough supplies to last for two weeks. Though the Russian forces are pressing in on Kyiv's edges, he said, supply lines remain open for the 2 million people who remain in the city.

“We have right now electricity, heating, gas, we have water,” he told the news service.

Moving supplies into occupied regions of the country — particularly near Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson — is nearly impossible, though Prytula and others said they had some luck in the past week. Meanwhile, finding space in warehouses near Lviv is growing difficult as they fill up with supplies for the war effort.

Kseniya Kvitka, who works for the State Enterprise Medical Procurement of Ukraine, said over the phone that her agency is coordinating with the Ukrainian Ministry of Health to create a list of more than 300 items, from medicines to medical equipment, that they have asked suppliers and manufacturers inside the country to donate or sell at a steep discount. They also work with outside groups to ensure those supplies continue to move into the country.

Meanwhile, using a central database the agency repurposed in the early days of the war, local hospitals and nearby military garrisons constantly upload the status of their reserves and insert requests when something begins to run low. Kvitka's agency then moves its supplies to 31 warehouses stationed throughout the country that the hospitals and military can access.

The logistical challenges remain, she said, though it's not as "ad hoc" a process as it was at the start of the war. They are getting better at tracking and moving items throughout their network via trucks and outside contractors ensuring medicines don't get stuck in any one location.

To reach harder-hit areas, they move some shipments via the Ukrainian railway service or just try to get it as close as possible, where locals may have a chance to pick them up.

"We try to have a bigger and clearer picture of all the warehouses and all the hospitals in all the regions, so they have all the needed medicines and equipment for the war wounded or the regular citizens," Kvitka said.

Volunteers work at a donation and distribution center for medical supplies to be delivered throughout the country, in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 2.Daniel Leal / AFP - Getty Images

Ukraine's boundary line with Poland has provided essential entry points for support from the West, allowing the country to sustain its fight against Russia.

Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military think tank, said the 332-mile land border with Poland was "absolutely critical" to Ukraine's defense, though the borders with Slovakia, Romania and Hungary also have some supplies running through them.

"There are multiple routes from Poland into Ukraine, there's not one single road, so there are all sorts of other ways in, which probably they're using already," he said, explaining that the size of the border would be difficult for Russia to police even if it made its way west. "It gives the Russians a real challenge."

Nevertheless, Russia has given stiff warnings to Ukraine's partners in the West that are providing aid — particularly military equipment.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Thursday that foreign governments helping Ukraine “will be responsible for their actions.”

That level of vitriol has made Poland nervous, experts said, and it is perhaps one reason why it wanted America to operate as a middleman and send Polish jets earmarked for Ukraine from a U.S. Army base in Germany.

That is not the only tension point.

Royal Australian Air Force personnel load pallets of critical military equipment and medical supplies bound for Ukraine at RAAF Base Richmond, Australia, on March 1. Cpl. Kylie Gibson / Australian Defence Force via AFP - Getty Images

The Polish government has been tracking a Russian military column in Belarus that has come to a stop near the Polish and Ukrainian border, just north of where many of the supplies are flowing through, said Michal Baranowski a senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund and the director of its office in Warsaw.

That threat, a Russian missile that dropped within miles of the Polish border and the strategic significance of the Ukrainian supply line are also why the NATO ally has pushed for the U.S. to provide it with two batteries of Patriot anti-missile systems, he said.

"Both here in Poland and in NATO headquarters, we take the possibility — perhaps intended or unintended — some level of escalation or spillover seriously," Baranowski said, noting that NATO allies in Eastern Europe noticed when Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wanted to push the border of the alliance back. "We think it unlikely, but so many unthinkable things have already happened."

Unthinkable to Ukrainians, however, is that their war effort could fizzle out without that steady stream of supplies. It's a concept as difficult to consider as the immense need within the country.

While Prytula has created a powerful supply center in Kyiv that moves equipment in bulk to soldiers, he still gets hundreds of individual calls every day pleading for equipment. Sometimes, it's a wife of a soldier asking for a bulletproof vest, other times it's an elderly person begging for a helmet.

They are tough calls to field, but he said he and his growing team of volunteers remain focused on their mission.

"Everyone understands what they need to do," Prytula said. "That's why it's become a bit easier for me: I can share the responsibility and in this way we help each other."