Kate McKenna starts her days much like the other parents on her street. She drives her kids to school and returns to her bungalow on a cul-de-sac south of Vancouver.
But once she sits at her kitchen counter, pours coffee and opens her laptop, she becomes part of a global network helping the Ukrainian military fight off the Russian invasion.
A volunteer with United24, a non-profit organization established by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, McKenna is one of many supporters around the world working to arm Ukraine.
She has tracked down armoured vehicles, missile defence systems and drones – whatever Ukraine needs to repel President Vladimir Putin’s forces.
“Kate is doing an incredible job for Ukraine,” said an advisor to Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. Global News is not naming the advisor, who was not authorized to speak.
“She is an ambassador, helper, supporter and contributor.”
Her neighbours have no idea.
“It is very weird,” McKenna said in an interview at her home in North Delta, B.C. “I’m a suburban mom, and I’m planning Russian death. I do have moments like that.”
Since Russia launched its invasion one year ago this week, an international network has come together to make sure Ukraine is properly outfitted for victory.
They are not all like McKenna. Many are veterans with military expertise and contacts. But as civilians, they have proven able to get things done, and fast.
While Western governments have walked a fine line, supporting Ukraine’s armed forces without becoming directly involved, volunteers have no such constraints.
Arming Ukraine Through Donations and Bargain Hunting
A former drone-company employee, McKenna focuses on filling the gaps governments aren’t, like finding the parts to develop the drones that have become a central weapon in the war.
McKenna was born in Zimbabwe and came to Canada in 2008 after working as a banking executive in Tokyo and Singapore.
She was employed at a Vancouver-area drone firm, and raising two children, when Russian troops launched their full-scale invasion.
“I was born in Africa during civil war so I really understand what it’s like to lose your home and to live, as a child, scared,” McKenna told Global News.
“So it really resonated with me.”
She started out by helping Ukraine with commercial drones, something she knew well. Easy to use, they require little training and have become invaluable observation tools and weapons for Ukrainian forces.
She also looks for mothballed military equipment. One of her successes was locating hundreds of armoured vehicles that were sitting unused in an Alabama warehouse after they proved ineffective for their intended mission in Alaska.
Another challenge was finding drones that could work in the Black Sea, where the Russian navy launches its ship-based missiles at Ukraine. The solution was to fit a jet ski engine onto a kayak, she said.
The result was a fleet of makeshift marine surface drones that can target Russian ships. McKenna called it “a beautiful Ukraine story,” and typical of the way the country is defending itself.
“A lot of what we do is a lot of duct tape and putting things together and finding unique ways to achieve the mission,” she said.
“They’re fighting a war against Russia by donation and bargain-basement hunting. It’s ridiculous, but they’re succeeding.”
In August, she left her job and began to devote her full attention to the cause.
Recently, she learned that Canada had a cache of counter-rocket, artillery and mortar systems, known as C-RAMs, that had been put in storage during a naval refit, and she began trying to get them to Ukraine.
Since she has no military background, she relies on a network of veterans for their advice. They talk on messaging applications like Signal. Working with contacts in Ukraine, she tries to locate the parts and gear they need, reaching out to manufacturers.
Now that Russia has begun launching swarms of Iranian-made Shahid attack drones at Kyiv, she has shifted to finding equipment that can detect them and shoot them down.
“Right now we’re focused on counter-UAVs,” she said, referring to technology that allows Ukrainians to destroy Russia’s unmanned aerial vehicles.
The advantage of the non-profit sector is that it can move more speedily than the bureaucracy, said Ruslana Velychko, who works with the Ukrainian Veteran Fund and Come Back Alive, which equips the country’s armed forces.
“We can work faster than government and we are more dynamic,” she said. As an example, she said her group had imported armoured vehicles that Ukraine’s ministry of defence had been unable to buy.
While immediately following the invasion volunteers were searching for helmets and body armour, now they are in pursuit of drones, radio gear and de-mining equipment, Velychko said in an interview.
“We need to be creative all the time.”
“Our creativeness gives us results and impact.”
On a farm northeast of Kyiv, a white van followed frozen ruts before coming to a stop in a pasture. Three men got out and unloaded hard black cases like the kind roadies haul around when bands tour.
The patches on their uniforms said they were with Aerorozvidka, a non-profit developing attack drones for the Ukrainian armed forces, and one of the groups that McKenna works with from Canada.
They had come to the remote spot to test the “night hunter,” an eight-rotor octocopter they have been building at a nearby workshop, using money and parts provided by foreign supporters.
After attaching three wooden dummies that looked like bombs to a drone, they flew it up above their mock target. The operator sat in their van, staring at a screen. “Let’s go,” he said. He flipped a switch and the bombs plunged into the brown grass.
The AR18 drones they were testing will allow the Ukrainian armed forces to attack Russian tanks and armoured vehicles — a relatively low-tech method of self-defence.
“They are very important in this war,” said Oleh, who is in charge of drone testing. Global News is not publishing his full name for security reasons.
“The person who dominates in the air is winning the war.”
Before the war, Oleh was a sales manager at a car-parts company. Now he is one of a team of civilians working on the AR18 drone, modifying it “on a constant basis” amid the urgency of Russia’s invasion.
Each kit costs about $45,000, and they get shot down so have to be replaced, he said. But Oleh believes Ukraine is winning the drone war, thanks partly to money and parts coming from abroad.
“It really helps,” he said.
McKenna’s said she got to know Aerorozvidka when the non-profit was looking for drones. Working through United24, she helped them find parts and “test all the new technologies,” she said.
“Generally, once a drone, antenna or electronic warfare gun is delivered to United 24 in Kyiv, it’s sent to them to test. If it’s complex, I set up a group chat on Signal,” she explained.
“They share any issues with the manufacturer’s engineering team, and I monitor the conversations to make sure each team is understanding the other.”
When the military jargon goes over her head, McKenna consults her network, which includes a retired U.S. general, she said. “He explains a lot of things.”
She is confident Ukraine will win, and when the war is over, she hopes to help the country rebuild. Until then, she is approaching companies and asking if they have anything to offer.
In May, she will give a presentation at a conference in Washington, D.C. on counter-drone technology. In the audience will be senior members of the military and industry.
McKenna’s speech begins: “Hi, I’m a Canadian mom with internet access.”