The communist soldier using charity sites to fund his war

By Sam Bright
BBC Trending

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Image source, Russell Bentley/Indiegogo

Charity donation websites, often used to support victims of violence, are being employed by a number of Westerners to finance their personal war efforts.

Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, as pro-Russian separatists battle Ukrainian government forces. More than 10,000 people have died since the conflict erupted in April 2014, and recently a rebel leader declared a state called "Malorossiya" (Little Russia) in Donetsk.

Among the separatists are a number of Westerners, drawn to the country by the conflict and financing their adventures using charity crowdfunding websites - sometimes in apparent violation of website rules and Ukrainian laws.

One of the most prominent is Russell Bentley, a Texas native who describes himself as a pro-Russian communist. When the conflict started, Bentley was working as an ordinary lumberjack in Austin. Yet by December 2014 he had reached the epicentre of the conflict - armed with a rocket propelled grenade launcher and tasked with repelling Ukrainian forces at Donetsk airport, a key strategic position.

From the start, Bentley has relied on crowdfunding websites to finance his exploits. Crowdfunding websites such as GoFundMe, JustGiving and Indiegogo are typically used for charitable purposes - including to raise money for the victims of tragedies. People can donate money in exchange for small gifts or 'perks'. For example, the Manchester Evening News raised over £2.5 million through JustGiving for the families of those killed and injured in the recent Manchester terror attack in the UK.

However, Bentley and others have been using these crowdfunding websites to fund their own personal war efforts in Ukraine. In November 2014, Bentley launched a GoFundMe page to finance a "fact finding mission" to Donbas, the conflict zone that includes the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Bentley raised $2,000 and hasn't returned to the United States since.

After spending six months fighting with separatists on the front line, Bentley was reassigned and now works, he says, as an "information warrior" - producing regular pro-separatist propaganda videos on the Ukrainian war.

Bentley is affiliated with the Essence of Time movement - a Russia-based communist group which seeks to create "USSR 2.0", involving the break-up of Ukraine. Bentley's videos are hosted on the group's YouTube page, which has 25,000 subscribers.

In the videos, Bentley encourages fellow Americans to join him in eastern Ukraine. One of his recommendations is for volunteers to raise money via crowdfunding before they travel. Bentley states in one video: "Don't show up here broke… You can do a crowd fundraiser - a GoFundMe or an Indiegogo. Say you're coming here to help. Say you're coming here to find the truth. Don't say you're coming here to fight."

Image source, GoFundMe
Image caption,
Russell Bentley has spent nearly three years in Donbass after crowdfunding his initial journey to Ukraine

But most crowdfunding websites - including GoFundMe and Indiegogo - strictly prohibit campaigns designed to raise money for violent purposes.

Despite the site's rules, Bentley's most recent campaign, hosted on Indiegogo, features a video of him touring the conflict areas with an automatic weapon - at one point firing at a Ukrainian military drone. He talks about his time on the front line, while encouraging armed resistance against "Ukrainian Nazis".

Bentley's current crowdfunding effort is raising funds to publish a self-authored book about his war experiences in Donbas. The Texan offers military shoulder patches and T-shirts for donations of between $100 and $999. Before BBC Trending contacted Indiegogo about Bentley's campaign, "secret" perks were offered for larger donations.

These perks could only be revealed by emailing Bentley directly, though he did disclose that a donation of $15,000 would have earned contributors a tour of Odessa and Kiev "after we liberate them". Bentley is asking for a minimum of $9,000 for the book project, and at the time of writing has raised more than half that amount.

BBC Trending approached Bentley for an interview and he declined to talk to us, but after contacting him and Indiegogo, all mention of the secret perks on his campaign have now been removed.

Image source, Essence of Time/YouTube
Image caption,
Bentley broadcasts his videos on YouTube via Essence of Time, a communist group

The UK native

Bentley isn't a one-off. Other Westerners have been using online crowdfunding to finance their activities in eastern Ukraine since the conflict started.

Among them is 38-year-old Graham Phillips from Nottingham in the UK. Since November 2013, Phillips has been covering the conflict, broadcasting amateur videos from Donbas, often in the midst of tearing bullets and toppling buildings. His daredevil style has drawn the attention of audiences, and he boasts 86,000 subscribers on YouTube. From 2014 to 2015, Phillips was employed by Zvezda - a media channel run by the Russian Ministry of Defence, and he also freelanced for the state-operated TV channel RT.

Phillips is highly critical of the Ukrainian government and appears to back the break-up of the country. Speaking on camera to Bentley in September 2015, Phillips accuses the Ukrainian government of "lies and propaganda", before adding: "I absolutely believe that we'll win in the end."

Since May 2014, Phillips has been forbidden from entering Ukraine, on the grounds of "national security". The Ukrainian government even took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to UK authorities, condemning Phillips' actions.

Phillips says that he's an independent journalist and claims that he has financed his activities entirely through crowdfunding from January 2016 onwards - although existing records indicate he's raised less than £7,500 through crowdfunding campaigns during that time.

Image source, Indiegogo
Image caption,
Graham Phillips is currently crowdfunding for a new period of reporting in eastern Europe

At least three of his campaigns have been created to fund work in Donbas, and despite being banned from the country, he's travelled to the region frequently since May 2014. On his blog, he says he enters the region via Russia, although travelling to the area via separatist controlled border crossings is currently illegal under Ukrainian law.

Because of his actions, the crowdfunding website JustGiving removed one of Phillips' appeals in July 2015. After the company was notified that Phillips was unable to legally re-enter the region, JustGiving refused to release the £2,000 that Phillips had raised through his campaign.

Although Phillips also declined to speak to BBC Trending, he has disputed the company's actions, and his campaigns remain active on Indiegogo.

Unlike Bentley, Phillips has not engaged in combat, although he has been filmed navigating a drone with the help of soldiers in Donbas and has interviewed Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Image source, @GrahamWP_UK
Image caption,
Graham Phillips on Twitter

Phillips is not the only Brit who has travelled to the Ukraine conflict region. Earlier this month, Benjamin Stimson, from Manchester in the UK, was sentenced by Manchester Crown Court to five years and four months in prison for assisting separatist forces in Donbass.

Shrapnel on offer

Phillips works with a third pro-separatist video maker - American-born Patrick Lancaster. Lancaster also describes himself as an independent journalist, and says his work is entirely funded through crowdfunding. Despite this, he seems to have raised less than $6,500 in the past eight months.

Lancaster's videos have been featured by mainstream media outlets and he has contributed to The Telegraph and Sky News.

However, some of his reporting has been openly hostile towards Ukraine and the West. Speaking on RT in February 2015, Lancaster said that the Ukraine's current president, Petro Poroshenko, is an enemy of the people.

In November 2016, Lancaster set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise $2,000 for his reporting in eastern Ukraine. Donation incentives included a guided trip from Russia into the battle zone, which would have violated the Ukrainian border crossing law, although there's no evidence that anyone took up the offer. Lancaster recently removed this perk, after BBC Trending contacted both him and Indiegogo.

On the same crowdfunding page, Lancaster offered military souvenirs from the Ukrainian war, including pieces of shrapnel or rubble from Donetsk airport. Yet, in an email to Trending, Lancaster distanced himself from Bentley, and said that he is not a fighter or an activist in the conflict.

Indiegogo released a statement on the campaigns of Bentley, Phillips and Lancaster, telling Trending: "Indiegogo's Trust and Safety team has reviewed these campaigns in detail and has taken steps to ensure they comply with our terms of use."

Blog by Sam Bright

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