This story was originally published on on February 8, and has been updated to include events following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Cryptocurrency may never have fulfilled its promise as the quotidian currency for buying a cup of coffee. But it's proven to be a powerful, regulation-resistant means of sending large amounts of money anywhere in the world—including the war zone of Ukraine.
Cryptocurrency payments to military and hacktivist groups in Ukraine aimed at countering Russian aggression against the country rose sharply in the second half of 2021, according to cryptocurrency tracing and blockchain analysis firm Elliptic. Crowdfunded payments to those organizations in bitcoin, litecoin, ether, and other cryptocurrencies the company tracks reached a total value of around $550,000 last year, compared with just $6,000 or so in 2020 and less still in previous years, even at the height of Russia's 2014 incursion into the country.
And now, in the days immediately following Russia's full-blown military offensive into Ukraine, those numbers have spiked sharply, with more than $4 million sent to a single Ukrainian military support organization in just two days.
That $4.6 million dollars may be just a small fraction of the total funds Ukrainian defense and hacktivism groups have raised by more traditional means. But the sudden rise of cryptocurrency within these global donations demonstrates how borderless, often unregulated crypto payments could fund organizations engaged in future conflicts, says Tom Robinson, Elliptic's founder. “Crypto is censorship-resistant, so there's no chance they're going to get their funds seized or their account shut down, like might happen with PayPal, and it's also more amenable to cross-border donations,” says Robinson. “It’s proved itself to be a robust way to fund wars.”
One Ukrainian group called Come Back Alive, for instance, raised $200,000 for Ukrainian troops in just the second half of 2021, according to Elliptic, but doubled that amount on February 24, the day of Russia's invasion. The following day it received $3.4 million in crypto donations, including $3 million sent by a single individual. The group originally solicited donations for military equipment like bulletproof vests, but it has since expanded into funding the purchase of reconnaissance and targeting systems.
A more controversial group called the Myrotvorets—Ukrainian for "Peacemaker"—Center has publicly named and shamed alleged supporters of Russia or pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine—at least two of whom were subsequently assassinated. Myrotvorets raised $268,000 in cryptocurrency prior to Russia's invasion, Elliptic says, of which $237,000 came just in the second half of last year.
Pro-Ukrainian hacktivists, too, have increasingly funded their digital resistance through cryptocurrency. Elliptic traced around $100,000 worth of crypto donations to a hacker group called the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance, which has been responsible for numerous hack-and-leak and web defacement operations targeting Russians and Russian government agencies. Cyber Partisans, a Belarusian hacktivist group that gained global attention by launching a politically motivated ransomware attack on Belarus' rail system, has also raised around $84,000 in cryptocurrency. (Elliptic included that number in its $550,000 2021 total, despite the group self-identifying as Belarusian rather than Ukrainian, due to the hackers' support for Ukraine and demand that Belarusian Railways cease transporting Russian troops in preparation for any invasion of Ukraine.)
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Payments to Ukrainian war-effort organizations or even pro-Ukrainian hacktivists aren't necessarily illegal or in violation of any sanctions. But donations to those groups have nonetheless been frozen or banned by some payment platforms. Patreon, for instance, suspended a page for Come Back Alive this week, citing a policy against campaigns that involve "violence or purchasing of military equipment." That suspension denied $250,000 in funding that had been earmarked to support Ukraine’s defenses, according to a message the group posted on Facebook. Previously, the Myrotvorets Center has said that at least one of its PayPal accounts, intended to fund a facial recognition program, was seized due to the complaints about “terrorists and Russians.”
Cryptocurrency exchanges that convert donated bitcoin into dollars or Ukrainian hryvna, on the other hand, are often far less closely regulated. And Elliptic's Robinson argues that cryptocurrency offers advantages to donors, who may not want their banking records to show that they sent money to organizations that might be perceived as paramilitary groups. “If I were going to make a donation of this kind, I’d be much better off using crypto than a bank transfer,” Robinson says.
The disadvantage of cryptocurrency, of course, is that in some respects it's even less private than the traditional banking system—as Elliptic's own ability to track the Ukrainian groups' donations through blockchain analysis shows. Elliptic competitor Chainalysis, for instance, identified a software developer in France who donated $500,000 to many participants in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. (Robinson says that Elliptic didn't attempt to identify individual donors to the Ukrainian groups, though it might be possible to do so with "some legwork," especially if a government agency demanded identifying information from cryptocurrency exchanges.)
Nor are international cryptocurrency donations intended for military operations always immune to seizure. In another group of cases announced in August of 2020, the US Justice Department traced and confiscated about half a million dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency donations from a collection of designated terrorist organizations, including the militant wing of the Palestinian group Hamas known as the al-Qassam Brigades.
Elliptic says that each of the recipients named in its analysis had publicly posted cryptocurrency addresses to receive donations—addresses that rarely changed, or didn't change at all in some cases. That sort of "static address" makes cryptocurrency tracing trivial, compared to cases in which the recipient generates a new address to every donor. "This is very bad operational security and by this point, not really excusable," says Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer for Human Rights Foundation and a long-time advocate of using bitcoin in democratic resistance movements. "It's not that difficult to receive bitcoin payments without address reuse," he says.
But Gladstein also points out that privacy likely isn't the priority for organizations that are potentially fighting for survival. Aside from Ukraine, he points to Belarusians' struggles with the country's pro-Russian dictatorship, in which millions of dollars in bitcoin donations have helped keep striking workers afloat. "It's really been a lifeline for the resistance," Gladstein says.
The rise of cryptocurrency to fund Ukraine's resistance against the Russian threat points to a growing awareness of the same phenomenon, he says: a tough-to-censor form of finance for truly borderless fundraising. “It's definitely a sign of the times,” says Gladstein. “People are figuring out that if their bank accounts get shut down, that they have another option.”
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