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Ukraine's secret weapon: Funding from the country's millionaires

By Will Ripley, CNN
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1112 GMT (1912 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many of Ukraine's mega rich making massive military contributions
  • Of Ukraine's 100 richest people, according to Forbes, seven have publicly donated to the military
  • But prosecutors are also investigating others for financing pro-Russian rebels

(CNN) -- A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.

In a quiet oasis, huge mansions sit on lush lawns behind gilded gates. Private security guards stand watch over quiet, tree-lined streets.

You'd never know you're in a country in the midst of a violent conflict, with near daily reports of intense battles killing soldiers, pro-Russian separatists, and civilians -- including children.

These are the mansions that rose when the Soviet Union fell. And this is where many of Kiev's new rich are riding out the crisis, far from the front lines of eastern Ukraine.

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Pro-Russian rebels fire artillery Tuesday, October 14, at Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport, which is on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels in the country has left more than 3,000 people dead since mid-April, according to the United Nations. Pro-Russian rebels fire artillery Tuesday, October 14, at Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport, which is on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels in the country has left more than 3,000 people dead since mid-April, according to the United Nations.
Crisis in Ukraine
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Photos: Crisis in Ukraine Photos: Crisis in Ukraine

Here, we find Kiev millionaire Vyacheslav Konstantinovsky sitting nervously on his grandiose outdoor patio. He is surrounded by the spoils of a successful construction business and restaurant chain.

Konstantinovsky -- with a shaved head, tattoos, and muscled physique -- doesn't look like your stereotypical fat cat millionaire. He looks tough, rugged -- and fearful for his country. "If we sit and enjoy life here the [the war] will come to us also," he tells me.

Konstantinovsky worries about the struggling Ukrainian military. For years it had been ill equipped, untrained, and underfunded. Now, he and his twin brother are part of a growing group of Ukraine's mega rich making massive military contributions.

Konstantinovsky has donated $450,000 -- a figure funded, in part, by the sale of his Rolls Royce Phantom -- to the military to supply soldiers with weapons, uniforms, and supplies. "I can live without [my] Rolls Royce. But now it's difficult to live without enough arms," he says.

According to Forbes, seven of Ukraine's 100 richest people have publicly donated to the military. Prosecutors are investigating others on the Forbes list for financing pro-Russian rebels.

The United Nations says more than 2,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since mid-April. Many are civilian volunteers, who left their families and jobs to join the fight.

What sets Konstantinovsky apart from other wealthy Ukranian donors is the 53-year-old's background as a Soviet soldier. Now, he is a member of Ukraine's volunteer battalions.

"If we don't fight, than we will be humiliated and we will live in the same country as it was before, when there was corruption. [The old government] was robbing businesses, they were putting people in jail for nothing," he says.

He's already done one rotation in Donetsk, and plans to return to the front lines. He knows that each day, volunteers like him die -- yet is ready to send his wife and children abroad, leave his mansion and join the fight.

"Of course I worry. But I hope for good luck," he says. He hopes for a fast end to the fighting and the birth of a new, stronger Ukraine. He hopes for a country with more jobs, and more millionaires like him. "First we have to finish the war. Then we will look at what to do," he says.

Ukraine's supporters are also crowd-funding, raising $12 million for the country's defense ministry in the latest campaign. The support comes despite the country's fragile economy, falling salaries and weak currency.

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