Ukrainian Fighters Using Crowdsourced Ford Rangers Armored-Up for Battle

Ukraine has deployed an underappreciated weapon in its fight against Russia's invasion: civil society. While foreign aid in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles and HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems have made headlines in America and Europe, ordinary Ukrainians' efforts to make sure that their undersupplied soldiers have access to the equipment they need have garnered less attention.

One of the independent groups taking up this fight is Car4Ukraine.com, a crowdsourced startup that buys used pickup trucks in Europe and upgrades them for use on the front lines. While the finished product might not be up to the standards of a NATO army's armored vehicle fleet, the improvised alternatives are filling a need among Ukrainian troops.

Since the start of the war, the group has delivered 76 refitted pickups to the front lines, with 29 more already in progress.

"Our funding comes from donations," founder Roman Hapachylo told Newsweek. "Donations from Ukrainians here in Ukraine, from Ukrainians outside Ukraine, from IT companies in my network. One company even donated ten cars."

Hapachylo, who maintains a full-time job as the vice president of a software development firm and also stars as one of Ukraine's most popular YouTube sketch comedians, performs his Car4Ukraine duties voluntarily. So do the organization's 40 or so other team members, whose tasks include searching for used trucks on the European market, driving the trucks all the way to western Ukraine, performing any necessary maintenance on the vehicles, and welding steel plates into the trucks' doors.

French Caesar gun in Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen fire a French self-propelled 155mm Caesar cannon toward Russian positions on the front line in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region on June 15, 2022. While big-ticket Western military aid has attracted much more attention, Ukraine is still using stop-gap measures like crowdsourced pickup trucks in order to meet basic military needs. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

On the territory of a scrap yard on the outskirts of Lviv, a volunteer named Yaroslav Diman demonstrated some of the merchandise to Newsweek. Diman, a metalworker who volunteers his evenings and weekends to Car4Ukraine while maintaining a full-time job as a construction design specialist, said that Ford Rangers are the most convenient make and model to convert.

"There's more room under the hood, which makes it easier to insert steel plating around the battery," Diman told Newsweek. "And with a Ford, the frame is always solid. Even if the body is rusted, the frame remains sturdy. We don't need the trucks to be beautiful; we only need them to be able to continue to run after the explosion of Russian shells."

The average lifespan of a truck on the front is an unknown statistic. Diman told of instances in which armored pickups were knocked out of commission during their first week in action. One vehicle, however, was still operating three months after its initial delivery.

"It's the testimonials from the guys in the field that keeps us motivated to continue doing this work," Diman explained. "We get messages with photographs from the soldiers saying, 'See, this is what the truck looks like after shelling, but we are still alive thanks to you.' When I get tired, that's what keeps me going."

"Of course, in cases in which no one survived, it is impossible for us to collect information," he added.

Figuring out which parts of the trucks require steel plating has been a process of trial and error. Diman and the other seven volunteers involved in the hands-on work of armoring the vehicles have come to focus on the grille and on the front doors.

Two "Banderamobiles"
Two "Banderamobiles" ready for delivery from Western Ukraine to the Donbas front lines. Michael Wasiura

"You need to protect the engine, but since any shell that hits near the truck is going to be throwing shrapnel upwards from its point of impact on the ground, the hood is not important. We put plating over the front grille, because if a piece of shrapnel pierces the radiator or cuts the timing belt, the car will not run, and the soldiers will not be able to escape," Diman said.

Likewise, unless the truck features an extended cab large enough for kitted-out soldiers to squeeze into the back seat, the only part of the body that needs armoring is around the front doors.

"The more weight you put onto the vehicle, the worse its performance will be. In the beginning we armored too much, and I almost killed myself. I had to drive the truck from one garage to another, but it was so heavy, the brakes gave out," he said. "So we have to prioritize what to protect and what to leave alone."

At first, gathering all of the necessary materials was relatively cheap and easy. When local company Metal Holding found out about the project, they donated lightweight high-strength steel made by Mariupol factory AzovStal for use in the trucks. However, after active battles cut off the supply of metal from the south of the country, Car4Ukraine had to start buying materials on the open market.

Founder Hapachylo explained the basics of the business side.

"Even using all volunteer labor, it costs between $7,000-$9,000 to get a vehicle from Europe to the fron," Hapachylo said. "First, it has to be purchased, then it has to be transported to Ukraine. If there are any problems with the engine, those need to be repaired. And then, after the plating is inserted, it is necessary to find and purchase diesel fuel."

Car4Ukraine is emblematic of the Ukrainian war effort, which has seen thousands of men and women volunteer for service on the front lines, while millions more devote their free time and energy to making sure that those doing the actual fighting are well-fed and adequately equipped.

Hapachylo said that he started the company due to the lack of vehicles in the Ukrainian military.

"I am not trained as a fighter, and so when the war broke out, I asked a friend in the Territorial Defense battalions what I could do to help," Hapachylo said. "He said, 'Give me your car.' I had just purchased a new Jeep Wrangler, and I did not want to give it up, so I used my YouTube channel to fundraise for a used car. We bought it and sent it to him."

The organization grew from there, as more military units expressed their need for an improvised armored vehicle capable of functioning in the vicinity of Russian shell strikes.

"We aren't the only group that's doing this, and yet, we are absolutely overwhelmed with requests," Hapachylo said. "The great thing about Ukrainians though, is that they don't wait around for the state to take care of their problems. When there is an issue, we mobilize and find a solution ourselves using whatever we have."

In addition to serving as an example of Ukrainian civil society's grassroots mobilization in support of the current war effort, Car4Ukraine also demonstrates Ukrainians' capacity to make fun of their Russian invaders at every opportunity.

"Our cars are decorated with portraits of Stepan Bandera," Hapachylo said, "because when I was preparing to buy that first truck for my friend, the official spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense made the claim that Ukrainian fighters were driving around in 'Banderamobiles.'"

Stepan Bandera, a controversial WWII-era anti-Soviet partisan leader, is seen as a hero among Ukrainian nationalists and as a Nazi collaborator by Russian state propagandists. One of Russia's stated goals for its invasion of Ukraine was the "denazification" of its neighbor, this despite the fact that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian of Jewish heritage, was elected in 2019 with 73% of the vote.

"We are not a far-right organization, and Ukraine is not a far-right country," Hapachylo clarified. "But when I made my first YouTube video for crowdfunding, I included the words of the Russian official in the clip and explained that we were going to make a real-life Banderamobile."

"So in a way, we have Russia to thank for the name of these cars," he said, "which are being used to destroy Russian tanks."