“Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.” General Pershing’s oft cited maxim of warfare is once again proving itself out in Ukraine. Thankfully, from the outset of Russia’s ill-conceived war of aggression, its progress has been hampered by poorly maintained equipment, fragile supply lines, and dwindling war stocks; weaknesses that Ukraine has deftly exploited. However, despite its poor logistics, Russia still has a decided numerical advantage in combat forces, munitions, and heavy weaponry. And while Ukraine’s military has achieved stunning tactical victories—repeatedly defying odds and exceeding expectations with incredible skill, dexterity, and heroic determination—they are a long way from attaining the strategic objective of expelling Russian forces and restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As the recent decisions to provide Ukraine main battle tanks attests, the ultimate outcome of this fight will rise or fall on Ukraine’s ability to sustain, if not enhance its combat power.

Much has been written on this blog about the international law implications of the substantial military aid that the United States and other countries have and should continue to provide to Ukraine (see, e.g., herehere,here). These financial and materiel contributions have no doubt been a critical lifeline to Ukraine. But they have not furnished the full array of supplies and capabilities needed to sustain its forces and win. Just as with other aspects of its operations, Ukraine has adeptly leveraged technology and the private sector to address some of its logistics shortfalls.

Crowdsourcing in Support of Ukraine

In myriad ways, Ukraine has turned to the Internet, and the power of crowdsourcing that it enables, to offset Russian military advantage. Not only has Ukraine crowdsourced intelligencecyber operations, and evidence gathering to support war crimes investigations, it has similarly “democratized” logistics. This should come as little surprise; concerned civilians have been crowdsourcing needed medical and other supplies since Russia initiated hostilities in 2014.

More recently, a Wall Street Journal article detailed how hundreds of small, decentralized, global networks operating “outside regular military procurement channels,” are delivering vital equipment, like small commercial drones, encrypted radios, and Starlink terminals, to Ukrainian military units. The article profiles one Ukrainian civilian, Dmytro Zhlutenko, who has crowdfunded over $700,000 that he uses to procure and deliver drones and other supplies from an international network of suppliers, intermediaries, and transporters. As a further example, Daan Nielander in the Netherlands has knowingly and willingly contributed to these unofficial supply chains, keen to see Russia fail.

Participating in these crowdsourced, cross-border logistics operations does not come without risk, both legal and practical. Of course, the degree of risk presented by each individual’s involvement is fact dependent and varies widely. Overgeneralizations provide limited and potentially distorted insights. But, as set out below and in a follow-on post, civilians contributing to crowdsourced supply chains implicate individual and collective risks in at least two interrelated ways under international law.

At an individual level, civilians participating in crowdsourced logistics operations can jeopardize both their life and liberty. Not only might their actions run afoul of the domestic criminal regimes of their own and intermediary States (e.g., arms export regimes or neutrality-based laws prohibiting support to belligerents), Russia might also consider their actions unlawful and prosecutable. Alternatively, and perhaps of greater consequence, Russian forces might target them lethally. Setting aside separate jus ad bellum constraints to targeting these civilians outside of Ukraine, materially supporting Ukraine raises, at least facially, the possibility of those participating in these supply chains forfeiting their general protection under the law of armed conflict (LOAC) from being made the object of attack.

Of course, at a practical level, weighing the risk of being lethally targeted must account for the low likelihood that Russia will invest the time and resources to track and target these individuals; especially those outside of Ukraine. Besides, if Russia were to do so, given its demonstrated lack of regard for the civilian protection regimes of LOAC, one might question whether crossing the legal line into direct participation even matters.

At a collective level, under principles of State responsibility, Russia might assert that States owe a duty to prevent or disrupt these activities as a matter of neutrality law or the principle of due diligence. Again, as discussed in my next post, these would be tenuous assertions as a matter of law.

That is not to say that Russia would not make such claims; its track record in this regard is also suspect. One need look no further than its specious claims that it is justified in using force against Ukraine in the first place. Nevertheless, its reluctance thus far to broaden the conflict indicates that the actual risk to civilians assisting Ukraine, at least from outside its borders, is low.

Direct Participation in Hostilities