AP

In Baltics, Poland, grassroots groups strive to help Ukraine

Feb 18, 2023, 12:56 AM | Updated: 1:07 am

A volunteer welds a heating stove from old car rims in workshop in Siauliai, some 230 km (144 miles...

A volunteer welds a heating stove from old car rims in workshop in Siauliai, some 230 km (144 miles) north-west of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. In a dusty workshop in northern Lithuania, a dozen men transform hundreds of wheel rims into potbelly stoves to warm Ukrainians huddled in trenches and bomb shelters. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — In a dusty workshop in northern Lithuania, a dozen men are transforming hundreds of wheel rims into potbelly stoves to warm Ukrainians huddled in trenches and bomb shelters. As the sparks subside, one welder marks the countertop: 36 made that day. Hours later, they’ve reached 60.

People from across Lithuania send old wheel rims to the volunteers gathering weekly in Siauliai, the Baltic country’s fourth-largest city. Two cars loaded with wood stoves wait outside the workshop ahead of the long night drive south.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — three states on NATO’s eastern flank scarred by decades of Soviet-era occupation — have been among the top donors to Kyiv.

Linas Kojala, director of the Europe Studies Center in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, said Ukraine’s successful resistance “is a matter of existential importance” to the Baltic countries, which share its experience of Russian rule.

“Not only political elites, but entire societies are involved in supporting Ukraine,” Kojala told the AP.

In Siauliai, Edgaras Liakavicius said his team has sent about 600 stoves to Ukraine.

“Everybody here … understands the situation of every man, every soldier, the conditions they live in now in Ukraine,” Liakavicius, who works for a local metal processing plant, told the AP.

Jaana Ratas, who heads an effort in Tallinn, Estonia to make camouflage nets for Ukrainian soldiers, echoed his words.

“My family and most Estonians, they still remember (the Soviet occupation),” she said.

Ratas chose a symbolic location for her project. Five days a week, Estonian and Ukrainian women gather at Tallinn’s Museum of Occupations and Freedom to weave the nets from donated fabrics.

Lyudmila Likhopud, a 76-year-old refugee from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, said the work has lifted her out of depression.

“I started feeling that I can be useful,” she told the AP.

In Latvia’s capital of Riga, Anzhela Kazakova — who ran a furniture store in the Black Sea port of Odesa — is one of 30 Ukrainian refugees working for Atlas Aerospace, a drone manufacturer that has supplied more than 300 kits to the Ukrainian army.

Ivan Tolchinsky, Atlas Aerospace’s founder and CEO, grew up in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, held by Kremlin-backed separatists since 2014. He had long petitioned both the EU and Ukraine to supply drones to Kyiv’s forces fighting the separatists. Final permission arrived a day before Moscow’s full-scale invasion, he said.

Atlas Aerospace has since increased production 20-fold, Tolchinsky said, and is planning to open a site in Ukraine despite withering Russian strikes on infrastructure.

Tolchinsky’s drones are just some of the weapons flowing to Kyiv from its Baltic allies. Together with their southern neighbor Poland — another NATO and European Union member with a history of Soviet oppression — the three small states rank among the biggest donors per gross domestic product helping Ukraine.

Lithuania, with a mere 2.8 million inhabitants, was the first country to send Stinger air defense missiles, according to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.

One of the latest Lithuanian initiatives is a crowdfunding drive to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian drones and missiles. Launched in late January, it initially aimed to raise 5 million euros by the Feb. 24 first anniversary of the invasion. That goal was reached within weeks, and organizers have since doubled it as donations keep flowing.

One fundraising group has grown into a major player that participates in international tenders purchasing military equipment for Kyiv.

“We have expanded 10 times in less than a year. (We used to supply) five drones in one batch, but now it’s 50 or more,” said Jonas Ohman, founder of the nongovernmental organization Blue/Yellow. The group recently won a bid for military optics, edging out rivals including the Indian military, and clinched a contract with an Israeli company for multi-purpose high sensitivity radars for Kyiv.

“It’s entirely another level now,” Ohman said.

In Poland, millions of zlotys have been raised to fund everything from advanced weapons to treating the wounded. Backed by over 220,000 contributors, journalist Slawomir Sierakowski was able to gather almost 25 million zlotys ($5.6 million) to buy an advanced Bayraktar drone for Ukraine.

Ohman, the head of the Lithuanian NGO, drew parallels between his compatriots’ readiness to help Kyiv and local partisan movements fighting Soviet rule after World War II.

“It is about personal responsibility in tough times,” he said. “Just like in 1945 when (the) Soviets returned, the government was gone, but the struggle for freedom continued in the woods for years.”

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Associated Press writer Joanna Kozlowska contributed to this report from London.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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In Baltics, Poland, grassroots groups strive to help Ukraine