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‘Speed Is Your Security’—Changes and Lessons Learned from Ukraine

Ukraine is pushing Russian forces back toward the border, retaking cities along the way. The picture of the war is significantly different today—78 days into the conflict—than it was at the onset, and although the conflict is far from over, it presents opportunities to reassess where we are.

Private security and duty of care firm Global Guardian has been on the ground in Ukraine since Russia invaded, and the organization has coordinated thousands of evacuations out of the country. The company leverages local extraction teams who are familiar with the area to get people out—and back in.

Earlier this week, Security Management connected with Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner to get an update on what he and his teams are seeing in Ukraine, how the situation has changed, and lessons learned so far that security professionals and organizations should take to heart.



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Evacuations

More than 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since the war began, according ot the United Nations. Approximately 6 million have left the country and sought refuge in neighboring Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Hungary, among other nations, the BBC reported.

The size of evacuation operations has changed dramatically in recent weeks, Buckner says. In the first three weeks of the invasion, Global Guardian was evacuating up to 800 people per day out of Ukraine, filling rows of 50-passenger buses with people needing to leave. Recently, however, evacuation requests are smaller but higher risk.

Initially, Russian forces had put pressure on two fronts—both the north and east—and that narrowed or blocked travel corridors and complicated evacuations. But as Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops away from Kyiv and further towards the border, central corridors reopened.

“Now, getting in and out of the capital, the biggest challenge we have is just getting through (Ukrainian) checkpoints,” Buckner says.

There are still impassable regions of Ukraine—especially in the east around the Donbas and the city of Mariupol.

“You’ve seen what’s happening in Mariupol and you’ve seen the constant bombardment in Kharkiv and places like that that are within striking distance of artillery out of the Donbas area,” he adds. “That has really worn people down, and we’re unable to get civilians out. We’ve tried.”

Even if an evacuation team could have tagged along with a Red Cross-sponsored caravan—few of which ever got through, even in declared humanitarian corridors—it was deemed too risky, Buckner says. If a team were caught at a Russian checkpoint and people did a serious investigation of who the personnel and clients were, “the probability of people being taken and/or killed was very high,” he added.



State of Ukrainians

People in Ukraine are getting worn down, he adds—people are not sleeping well, they are stressed, and they are not eating well. Many people have been living in basements and train stations.

“The condition of the people when we do get to them now in these more high-risk, smaller packages—you can tell this has worn them and worn their souls down a bit when compared to the first three weeks,” Buckner says.

Despite this exhaustion, the momentum of the country’s resistance against Russian forces has overtaken the initial uncertainty about Ukraine’s chances of maintaining independence, he adds. This has led to a resurgence of Ukrainians coming back into the country, especially as Kyiv becomes accessible again. Buckner’s teams have faced challenges reverse-engineering returns and bringing essential business supplies—including food, water, communications equipment, computers, satellite phones, and medical equipment—back into the country. Family members who evacuated Ukraine are leaving their children in Poland with a cousin or trusted friend and returning to help support men who could not leave.

Supply Chains

As organizations and citizens determine how to restart their day-to-day routines in Ukraine, they need supplies. But they are not always easy to come by. Computers are in high demand, as many people either took their computers with them when they fled or the devices were lost or destroyed. But communications equipment often gets more scrutiny in customs because Ukrainian forces have been leery of letting in equipment that could be used against them, Buckner says.

But overall, he notes, supply chains are freer to maneuver now than any other time during the crisis. One caveat, however, is that Global Guardian convoys of supplies are being split up into small groups—no more than two vehicles at a time—to avoid being targeted by Russian forces, which are aiming for train and truck convoys that are bringing in “lethal supplies.”

“There have been pretty significant attacks from the Russians as far within 20 miles of the border of Romania, Hungary, or Poland,” Buckner says. “We’ve broken (convoys) up and made them very small because we don’t want to be misidentified as lethal aid, because that’s a real tactical threat we want to be able to avoid at all costs.”



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Finding People

Especially for organizations with personnel in the hard-hit eastern regions of Ukraine, it can be challenging—if not impossible—to contact or find those personnel right now. Buckner notes, for example, that his company has spreadsheets per client that outline who they have in what city. In most cases, they have an address, phone number, and email address for the contact. Six weeks ago, those personnel in Mariupol, for example, could be contacted and teams could update them on what was happening and efforts to evacuate them. But a week later, Russian forces bombarded the city and knocked out cellular service.

If members from Buckner’s teams could get into these areas now, it is highly unlikely that the subject is still at their given address, and their cell phone is likely not functioning. In multiple cases, teams have gone into basement shelters and started asking if anyone had seen the person in question, showing a photo.

“It is literally a needle in a haystack,” Buckner says. “We’ve had success finding people doing that, but we’ve also had black holes where we cannot—we don’t know the status of who these people are and where they are anymore. That’s just the nature of a city being bombarded to the point where there is no address to check and there is no cell tower to allow communications.”



Lessons Learned

Even though the crisis is still unfolding, Buckner is noting some key lessons learned—especially, heed the warnings you are given. Many of Global Guardian’s clients were given a 53-page PowerPoint slideshow on the likelihood of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, potential ramifications before the invasion launched, and a checklist on how to prepare.  

One of the basic items to prepare was a current employee list, including employees' location, status, contact details and addresses, and number of family members they were living with who would need to be included if the call came for an evacuation.

Of Buckner’s clients in the area, 30 to 35 percent of the client base listened and were ready; 65 to 70 percent were not prepared. Firms that listened to the intelligence briefings and made preparations early got 90 to 100 percent of their people out of danger in the first six to eight days of the invasion. Firms that did not listen took between seven and 15 days just to get organized and collect accurate data on locations.

“The key lesson learned was, number one, when we send you that deck and we warn you that this is real and there are probabilities of the Russians doing something offensive that can disrupt your business, you need to prepare—even if nothing happens,” Buckner says.

Without accurate information, evacuations cannot have the level of precision that they need to succeed in such a chaotic environment, he explains.



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“Speed is your security,” Buckner adds. “If I can get to your people in the capital before the Russians get within artillery range, if I can just load the buses with ease, if I can put people on the street with very little risk, then that speed is what creates the security for this to go well. If you don’t move quickly, every minute of every day that goes by, exponentially the risk typically goes up until it breaks. It delays and slows our ability to do this safely, securely, and efficiently.”

Additionally, many organizations learned during COVID-19 that insurance policies often do not cover pandemic effects. Many are learning similar lessons about coverage for warzones—including for medical or security evacuations.

“These firms think because they have insurance, they’re covered, or because they have a duty of care provider, they’re covered,” Buckner says. “The problem is if you don’t read the fine print, pandemics are not covered, terrorism is not covered, natural disasters are not covered, war and conflict are not covered.”

This, again, speaks to the necessity of reviewing current coverage, policies, and capabilities in advance of a crisis to ensure that the appropriate steps and resources are in place to help keep employees and their families safe.

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