While much of the world’s eyes have been fixed over the past week on the athletes taking part in the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the prospects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have cast a long shadow of uncertainty over both the games and the participating nations.
Many foreign policy experts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will wait until after the Olympics before making any incursion into the former Soviet territory out of concern of not only angering his Chinese counterpart in Chairman Xi Jinping, but also to avoid potentially sullying his nation’s chances of hosting the games in the near future. Regardless of the timing, however, organizations with operations in Ukraine are faced with the prospect of trying to relocate and/or make accommodations for employees in the country in the midst of this still looming crisis.
According to Dale Buckner, CEO of security firm Global Guardian, most large Western-based businesses with expatriates working in Ukraine have already either started to the leave the country or are planning to do so soon. However, he says that expats who are married to Ukrainian nationals and may have children in the country or have been designated as essential workers to keep those businesses running, may not have yet evacuated, though their organizations are likely making plans to evacuate them to a “safe zone,” possibly in the western part of the country or in neighboring Romania or Poland.
“In talking with teams on the ground, the trains have been packed going on two weeks now and the airports are very consistent with commercial [flights] remaining busy and brisk,” he says. “People are moving, and it has started in a material way.”
Buckner, a former Green Beret who has served on multiple combat tours and classified operations around the globe, says they have advised their clients to determine their risk/reward scenarios as it relates to exfiltrating people and other assets out of Ukraine given the number of personnel involved and the infrastructure they have in place.
“In general, we’ve told all of our Western clients that have expats that if they are not key and essential or you can afford to move them to somewhere else in Europe where they can have continuity of operations, continue to work… and let this play out – if Putin gets his diplomatic solution and goes home – then they come right back in,” Buckner says. “If [Putin] takes over part of eastern border of the country in the Donbas area and you have office space near that, they might never go back but now is the time to make those decisions and move [workers] preemptively.
Currently, Buckner says that people can still move throughout Ukraine on mass transit, as well as on airplanes and in personal vehicles as they normally would and that, particularly for Ukrainian nationals, they can still cross into neighboring countries on the western border with relative ease. However, when and if Russia makes an incursion into the country, things could change dramatically with roads and border crossings becoming much more congested.
“For those that you do consider key and essential or you don’t want to move because they are in Kyiv in the center of the country or to the west because you believe that is a safe zone, then you prepare them and preparation is having satellite phones, preparation is having a consolidation point and a consolidation plan if there are no phones or internet because there is a cyberattack. Having vehicles, buses, vans – those assets you can assume will disappear across the country within the first 24-48 hours. There won’t be van or a bus left, so you need to reserve those assets now,” he explains. "The calculus is if you can move them and they can continue to work in Europe, move them now preemptively. If you can’t because they are key and essential or you still think you are in a bit of a safe zone, then at least prepare them for the worst, so they can ride some of this out, buy time and ideally know what assets you are going to use to move people – whether it is in country or to go a place like Poland or Romania, for example.”
If neighboring countries start to become overwhelmed, Buckner says there is also a high likelihood they will begin to implement greater restrictions or even shut the border entirely to people seeking refuge from the conflict.
“In all these cases you face the same scenario, so it pays to be a first mover before the masses, it pays to know the system before the border crossing government starts to feel overwhelmed and starts restricting things. Right now, with Covid, for example, the Ukrainian national Covid restrictions are very light, very easy, but that could change,” Buckner says. “In order to get a visa right now it is very easy, you can do it electronically or in-person. Once this starts and there is an incursion or an all-out assault and invasion of the country, you can imagine getting a visa all of a sudden when there are hundreds of thousands of people trying to do it becomes very problematic.”
Learning from Experience
Over the past year, Buckner says his firm has been involved in helping organizations move people out of harm’s way in places like Myanmar, which underwent a military coup last February, as well as in Afghanistan last summer following the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the return to power of the Taliban in which they helped exfiltrate approximately 600 clients. The company has also been involved in moving people out of volatile situations in a variety of other countries around the world in recent years, including Turkey, Sri Lanka and Venezuela to name a few.
“In each one of these, the challenges – they are very similar to what I previously described. Right now, pre-crisis, commercial air is still flying. Aviation will be the first challenge; it will disappear,” he says. “Typically, if there is a war that breaks out or there is an incursion – the FAA and the State Department will make an announcement that there has been an incursion, there is a warzone or an assault going on – the first thing that will disappear is your ability to move by commercial air. It might not be the whole country; the assumption is that it will be the eastern side of the country – that could change if Putin goes for it and tries to invade Kyiv and take the whole country – but you could lose the airspace first and foremost.”
Although there could still be private air charters operating in the western parts of the country if the incursion is limited to the east, Buckner says that all commercial options will be gone.
“Much like what you saw in Afghanistan, we were getting clients out 10 days prior to NATO and the U.S. taking over the airport. As soon as they took over the airport, we stopped moving our clients to the airport because you could tell it was a mess and now, you’re dependent on the government system, which is a bit of unorganized chaos and we simply went to a ground option,” he says. “At that point, we moved all of our clients by ground through eight Taliban checkpoints and crossed them into Pakistan legally. The challenge is that, on average, every 72 hours that border crossing requirement to go from Afghanistan to Pakistan changed. One day you could just show up and get a visa and the next day you had to apply for the visa in Kabul and get it 72 hours prior. One day you needed no [Covid-19] vaccination status or test, three weeks into it you had to have a Covid test within 72 hours and eventually they wanted a Covid shot if available. Very few people in Afghanistan had the opportunity to get a Covid shot. It wasn’t real, but they put it out as a criteria.”
The Crisis Endgame
In looking at multiple war game simulations and in analyzing information from both open sources and people on the ground, Buckner says they have concluded that there is a 65% chance that Russia will attack Ukraine in some fashion before the crisis is over. That could come in the form of a navel strike or an incursion into the aforementioned Donbas region where there is a significant population of Russian sympathizers and those that are native Russian speakers, much in the same way they approached the annexation of Crimea during the Obama administration.
Additionally, Buckner says there is a 25% chance that a diplomatic solution is negotiated with Russia that makes Putin feel as if he has won and can subsequently go home, spike the football and proclaim victory by telling the Russian people that the Western powers blinked, and all of the soldiers and military equipment return to their bases. At the very end of the scale, there is also a 10% chance that Russians execute a full-scale invasion and attempt to take the country as a whole.
“No one really knows. We don’t think that anybody in the intelligence community knows what is going to happen next and anybody that says they do, I think, is just characterizing this incorrectly,” Buckner concludes.
Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].