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Sunflower Financing

  • Published
  • By Dr. Margaret Sankey

“Putin, Say Hello to My Little Friend”—The Sebren’s [sic], USA/2022[1]

Bombs with messages chalked on the side aren’t new. World War II soldiers loading munitions on planes signed off their contributions with sarcastic holiday wishes to Hitler, while Task & Purpose documented French missiles bound for Syria with “From Paris, with Love” written on them after 2015 terror attacks.[2]  What reporters John Hudson and Kostiantyn Khudov found remarkable was that the messages weren’t from soldiers, but from civilian donors far off in the U.S. and Europe, using a web site called “Sign my Rocket” to transfer funds via Venmo or PayPal, and receiving photos of their message on the weapon of their choice (even a tank), with snarky and heartfelt message pouring money, at $30 a pop, into the Ukrainian military and charities.[3]  Twitter observers found this astonishing, “That you can Venmo another country to support its artillery habit is an aspect of modern warfare that I don’t think anyone could have predicted,” gushed one.[4]  Similarly, the winner of the CIMSEC fiction contest week in 2020 was dystopian speculation of a platoon crowdfunding their ammunition via streamed “warporn” and promises of dates to the Marine Corps ball---set in a futuristic 2038.[5]

Civilian crowdfunded acquisition and logistics is neither astonishing nor unpredictable for armed forces, especially as a way to harness the goodwill and fervor of civilian supporters who can’t participate directly. In 1780, Loyalists in New York, particularly women, raised money to purchase the privateer Fair American for use against their rebellious neighbors.[6]  Famous in WWII Soviet propaganda, Mariya Oktabrskaya, widowed in 1941, sold her belongings to donate the price of a T-34 tank she named “Fighting Girlfriend,” which she then drove into battle until her death in 1944.[7] Amping up the feeling of connection between the home front and battlefront was a staple of war bond salesmanship and care package assembly, epitomized by the fictional patter of Captain America: “Not all of us can storm a beach or drive a tank, but there's still a way all of us can fight. Series-E defense bonds; each one you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy's gun.”[8]

Since World War II, though, this kind of crowdfunding has been largely the province of Violent Non-State Actors (VNSA), part of sophisticated financial management that pairs cold hard cash with the warm, fuzzy benefits of nurturing a parasocial relationship with the cause using the same techniques as a charity offering sponsorships for starving children or adorable shelter pets. In the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), Biafrans even hired American PR firms to shape their image, as did Joseph Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader, to lobby Congress and cultivate private donors.[9]  In the 21st century, the low cost and low barriers to entry of offering websites and providing photos and video recordings makes connecting donors and combatants even simpler and more emotionally satisfying—money transfers at the push of a virtual button.

The results of the heart-tugging hands-out might be “angel investors” like Mustafa Ahmed al-Hasnawi was to the 9/11 hijackers, or the cumulative generosity of Qatari or Kuwaiti socialites who use social media to document selling their jewelry to send to the proceeds to Syrian militias.[10]  Control of traditional media allows for the spectacle of old-school Tamil Tiger or Hezbollah telethons with variety acts and celebrity hosts extolling the direct effect of the funds on the group being sponsored, set to cheesy music montages.[11] Fundraising campaigns eerily echo the tried and true methods of mainstream licit charity drives—publicized gold, silver and bronze level status tiers,  the choice of sponsoring boots, a sniper rifle or a single grenade (for those on a tight budget).[12]

While groups can reap a significant windfall from this kind of fundraising, donors with pronounced entitled feelings of “ownership” come with their own hazards. In the case of Syrian militias, the most “hawkish” reaped the rewards, but had to take risks that were driven by their patrons’ desire for thrills, not their own strategy, and were forced to tolerate incidents like the VIP who went out to see “his” militia and promptly tweeted their location and cool activities.[13]  This paradoxical sense of closeness on the part of people enjoying conflict in the same way they watch sports, vicariously from safety, also warps the perception of the costs—human and material--of the conflict itself, and can affect the way these patrons lobby their governments for state-level intervention and participation in the negotiations and arrangements ending violent conflict.  Benedict Anderson described this as one of the most dangerous facets of “long distance nationalism,” using examples of Irish-Americans dropping money in the Derry cans for the IRA and Sikh-Canadians funding bombs in Khalistan but keeping their kids safe in Toronto while becoming more and more out of touch with the realities of the conflict on the ground but feeling entitled to dictate them through money, “politics without responsibility or accountability.”[14] 

“Sign my Rocket” is only the most recent move in Ukraine and its supporters’ extremely clever use of parasocial fundraising on behalf of a Westphalian state and its military. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, former FIFA public relations executive Anna Sandalova, among others, has been collecting donations for Help the Army of Ukraine via Facebook, buying supplies in Germany and carefully documenting for donors the reception and use of “their” drones, socks and watches.[15] As the conflict has moved from one of sponsored independent militias to a sovereign nation’s response to an invasion, these tactics have swelled to coordinated efforts by Ukrainian MOD communications to build emotional bonds by highlighting the individual efforts of attractive, sympathetic people and their actions.  One of the smartest, and most striking tactics has been for Ukrainian soldiers to send video to U.S. and NATO colleagues they know from partnership exchanges and training, who, confident in the veracity of their schoolmates’ or friends’ accounts, share the clips on social media.[16]

This upswell of sympathetic good feelings has spawned a huge wave of opportunities for European and American donors to literally show the Ukrainian flag and symbols like the sunflower, “St. Javelina,” flower crowns and blue and yellow in every imaginable soft good. How, exactly these, like the bomb-naming, are connected to the Ministry of Defense, an official charity, or funds flowing to people the humanitarian entrepreneur knows is…a detail few if any donors have pursued. Official aid from the U.S. and European governments offers a blanket approval for individuals to pour money into the conflict, although with little accounting for how much goes where, and to whom.

Under other circumstances, like an angry Somali-American teenager donating via an online portal to VNSAs designated on the Foreign Terror Organization list—such as al-Shabaab, the donor is subject to prosecution under the Providing Material Support to Terrorists Act (18 U.S. Code 2239A, 1994) and provisions of the PATRIOT Act, backed up by the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2009 case Holder v. The Humanitarian Law Project.[17]  The far-right background of and extremist behavior by the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian military has raised sufficient concern in the U.S. that Congress withdrew aid in June 2015, then reversed course in November, but passed bills blocking training and aid in 2018. After another Congressional inquiry and requests from anti-extremism groups in 2019, the Azov Regiment narrowly avoided being placed on the FTO list and, as of right now, remains blocked from U.S. aid under the recent Consolidated Appropriations Act (2022) but not banned as an individual’s donation recipient, should any law enforcement agency get interested in the flow of money.[18]  In the fog of conflict, the general consensus seems to be that money possibly getting to extremist factions—or flowing into the pockets of whatever entrepreneurs, grifters and dubious charities are collecting is worth the money that DOES make it into the hands of Ukrainian forces and organizations we do want to support.  How all of this shakes out when the smoke clears remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it’s worth thinking about why spending $30 to put a jaunty, US-pop culture-centric message like “Welcome to Flavortown!” on a bomb feels so satisfying—a chance to reach out from your living room and vicariously punch a bully in the nose, to feel connected to a conflict in a generation-or-more-ago homeland, to show your support for an underdog, because filmed explosions are cool, and divorced from the damage done by the actual munition on the ground? What do donors expect in return? A country that emerges from the war showing what we think of as proper gratitude and deference in their settling of affairs? One that is more willing to listen to our political demands? And how will donors react when those expectations don’t square with what the U.S. government wants, or the behavior and interests of a country that has its own culture and biases? What is certain is that this kind of parasocial fundraising is neither unprecedented nor surprising, and that myriad examples exist for policy and military planners to draw from as they formulate responses to the conflict’s sure to be messy end state.

Dr. Margaret Sankey
Dr. Margaret Sankey earned a PhD at Auburn University in European military history, and taught military history, security studies and political science at Minnesota State Moorhead before joining the staff at the USAF Air War College as the director of research and electives. Currently, she is Air University's research coordinator in the Office of Sponsored Programs (“The Hub”) matching and supporting Air University assets with DAF research problems. Her previous publications include Jacobite Prisoners of the 1715: Preventing and Punishing Insurrection in Early Hanoverian Britain, Women and War in the 21st Century, and the soon to be released Blood Money: How Criminals, Militias, Rebels, and Warlords Finance Violence.



[1.] John Hudson. Twitter Post. August 17, 2022, 11:04 AM.

[2.] James Clark. “America’s Tradition of Writing ‘Love Notes’ on the Sides of Bombs.” Task & Purpose, November 17, 2015.

[3.] John Hudson, and Kostiantyn Khudov. 2022. Review of Americans Are Paying for Slogans on Bombs Aimed at RussiansWashington Post, August 17, 2022.

[4.] “Tony Stark.”  Twitter Post. August 18, 2022, 10:26 PM.

[5.] Mike Burke and Nicholas Nethery, “Crowdfunded,” CIMSEC December 4, 2020,

[6.] Jay Feyerabend. 2019. “For Prize or Patriotism: The Understood Role of Privateers in the American Revolution.” James Blair Historical Review 9 (1): 21.

[7.] Henry Sakaida. Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45 (Oxford: Osprey, 2003), 45.

[8.] Joe Johnson, dir. Captain America: The First Avenger. Paramount Pictures, 2011.

[9.]  Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media and International Activism (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 25.

[10.] Matthew A. Levitt, “The Political Economy of Middle East Terrorism,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 6, no. 4 (December 2002): 5; Elizabeth Dickinson, “Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home,” Saban Center, Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute, December 2013), 12.

[11.] Maurice R. Greenberg, “Update on the Global Campaign against Terrorist Financing” (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, June 15, 2004), 33.

[12.] “Salafi-Jihadis Conduct Online ‘Equip Us’ Campaign To Raise Funds For Jihad In Gaza,” The Cyber & Jihad Lab (blog), December 16, 2015,

[13.] Dickinson, “Playing with Fire,” 12.

[14.] Benedict Anderson, “Long-Distance Nationalism,” Wertheim Lecture, Center for Asian Studies, Amsterdam, 1992, 11.

[15.] David Patrikarakos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 107.

[16.] Brad Duplessis. Twitter post. February 28, 2022, 5:55 AM.

[17.] Aaron Tuley, “Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project: Redefining Free Speech Protection in the War on Terror,” Indiana Law Review 49 (2016): 588.

[18.] Michael Colborne, “U.S. Congress Accidentally Boosted Ukraine’s Far-Right,” Foreign Policy November 1, 2019,

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