Ukraine-Russia: A Glasgow university graduate has paused his PhD to source bulletproof vests for Ukrainian army

Glasgow University graduate Oleksii Rudenko was travelling back to Ukraine to volunteer for his country’s army after war broke out, when he stopped in Warsaw and was asked to help source equipment for the military.

Now, along with four friends, he is running a volunteer operation to raise funds to source and supply equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets for Ukrainian forces.

Mr Rudenko, who finished his masters degree in Glasgow in 2020, had been studying in Vilnius, Lithuania, when Russia invaded Ukraine. He immediately began his journey home towards the Ukrainian-Polish border.

"It was not my intention to join the volunteer movement, but rather the resistance movement,” says Mr Rudenko, a PhD student at the Central European University.

“Me and my friends from Poland were on our way to join the Territorial Defence. We had to stop over for a night in Warsaw and while we were here, we received a lot of requests for help from our friends [in Ukraine] – over the internet.”

Glasgow University graduate Oleksii Rudenko with some boxes of equipment.

The response to the request for Ukrainians living abroad to return and volunteer to help protect the country was so great that some regiments quickly closed to new recruits. As a result, Mr Rudenko and his friends decide to use their skills from the Polish side of the border.

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“There was such a large amount of number of men and women who wanted to join the Ukrainian army that at some point – on the first day of the Russian invasion – the records centre stopped accepting new people and new volunteers because they were full, no one could actually join anymore,” he says.

Mr Rudenko quickly realised a lot of the requests for help were for supplies for the military. Most volunteer army recruits have arrived without any protective combat equipment and the Ukrainian armed forces are struggling to keep up with demand.

Military helmets are packed into a car before being transported to Ukraine.

"A lot of people recently joined the Ukrainian army,” he says. “And, of course, this was unexpected. Our country didn't have enough supplies of things like bulletproof vests and helmets to protect them.

“We figured that probably this is the place where we are also needed and where we can be of largest help and support. We both speak Polish and we had some military experience – he did more than I did. So we decided to stay. We can find things and help and co-ordinate from here.”

In the past two weeks, they have already raised more than €12,000 (£9,900) for the cause.

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He says while inexperienced, the Ukrainian volunteer soldiers are highly motivated.

“They have a very strong sense of commitment to protecting their land and their people, especially those who have already evacuated their families or if their family was somehow injured because of Russia,” he says.

"So their commitment and spirit to defend our land and our country and our people is the greatest motivation for Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers.”

Mr Rudenko estimates it costs around €5,000 (£4,100) to fully kit out just one soldier. A helmet alone can cost around €200, while a good quality military vest can cost between €400 to €1,000.

"It depends on the contract supplier,” he says.

Some equipment is bought directly from Polish military shops, while the group has also built up contacts with larger suppliers across Europe.

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"It is extremely expensive,” Mr Rudenko says. “It can cost up to €5,000 to equip a soldier – without the arms – for things such as the helmet, uniform, shoes, night goggles etc, as well as things like a medical kit.”

Once the equipment is sourced, the group then begin the difficult task of transporting it to soldiers fighting on the front line. The items are transported across the border and out into storage, before being sent to cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv, which has come under heavy attacks from Russian forces.

"There are people who cross the border almost every day, even several times sometimes,” Mr Rudenko says. “And once we have packed everything, we just send it to Ukraine and from our storage there. It is disseminated across the entire Ukraine, depending on needs."

The group is so new it does not yet have a formal name, but has launched a website as a method of donating funds, as well as keeping fundraisers up to date with their progress.

"At the moment, we are just called something like International Corps of Volunteers,” Mr Rudenko says. “But I think that name is probably already taken, somewhere else. So we will try to find a more original name, probably something that will be connected with something to do with Ukraine.”

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Until the day of the invasion, Mr Rudenko, who turned 25 five days after the war began, had been writing his PhD thesis and applying for fellowships.

"We have never before had to deal with something like this,” he says. “So we had to stop our jobs, or our studies and be there for other people.”

Lecturers and students from his alma mater, the University of Glasgow – as well as the University of St Andrews, where he has friends who have publicised his cause – have donated to the scheme.

“We have received money from my former professors and lecturers who are are based in Scotland,” he says. “I want to give thanks to all people of Scotland and the UK for supporting Ukraine. This is crucial for us today."

A version of this article first appeared on our sister site, The Scotsman