I’ve proudly given time and resources to help Ukraine, founding Ghosts of Liberty in February 2022, and completing three trips and two months in the country. It was a rewarding yet moving experience. The men I trained on my first trip were good people with no military background whose futures and lives were upended – not only because of the invasion, but because they chose to fight. They were not fighters; they were photographers, real estate investors, doctors, dentists, artists. Weeks earlier, they did not expect to fight, but they rose to the occasion.
Some have been captured (one released), wounded, and sadly, killed in action. I am humbled and grateful for their service and sacrifices, but am saddened and angered by the injustice and suffering they endure, as I have gotten to know many of them and remain in contact. One of the men I supported was personally awarded the Hero of Ukraine by President Zelensky. The brother of one of the medics I trained, who later became a medic, was supplied with my night vision and sent to evacuate and treat wounded fighting in Soledar as it was falling. He saved many but lost his leg in the process. Learning of their losses leaves me frustrated by the slow and restrained pace of aid to Ukraine.
I was also moved by a veteran of the 2014 conflict who had a bounty on his head from Russia. Like the men we trained, he too was a civilian who abruptly volunteered to fight a Russian invasion. One day, he got the news that one of his friends he served with was killed. Two days later, he received news that another close friend was killed by a grenade. Each time he shared this news, he showed a photo with them, and I could see his pain as it felt that a part of him died each time he lost a friend.
I met a commander of Alpha SBU who attended the Soviet Naval Academy in St Petersburg. His close friend at the academy later became the head of the Black Sea Fleet and stopped talking to him in 2014 when Russia first invaded Ukraine. The commander told stories about how Ukrainians attending the academy were treated as second-class citizens in the Soviet system and would receive less favorable posts and opportunities because of their ethnicity.
My good friend (whom I’ve known for over ten years) is from Sevastopol, the capital of Crimea. While he was fighting Russians, his sister who remained on the peninsula also remained supportive of Russia’s war – a war that nearly took the life of her brother who was fighting on the front lines to stop it as his unit was surrounded outside the power station in Donetsk, and mostly destroyed as it fought to rejoin Ukrainian lines.
I learned the long history of Ukraine and its struggles for independence; and how much of the war seemed to me to be history repeating. Ukraine has a long, gruesome, and recent history of fighting across territory that changed hands over a dozen times since the 20th century – not accounting for the two centuries that preceded it.
Its red and black resistance flag originated from partisans over a century ago and remains a symbol of sacrifice flown throughout the country. Its red and black colors represent a blood-stained blue and yellow Ukrainian flag from its first fight for independence.
Since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, I’ve read about how Vladimir Putin has dismantled free press, established several security services to terrorize the population who opposed his rule, assassinated or jailed his rivals, consolidated power, falsified “elections”, engaged in massive cyber psychological warfare (to include “troll farms”) to influence elections and populations both in Russia and abroad (including in the US), and clearly stated his view for a new world order which includes something that resembles a new, seemingly fascist, Russian Empire. Hearing stories on the news is one thing, but it became more real when people I knew were impacted by the decisions of a tyrant.
A Ukrainian friend from college was a Maidan protestor in Kyiv in 2013-2014 and shared stories of what they experienced. One night a year later, I was invited to an event at the Ukrainian Embassy in DC, where I met the ambassador and learned more about Ukraine and what was happening there from their perspective.
A classmate and friend I graduated from business school with in 2012, who is Ukrainian, was living in Kyiv with his wife and kids, enjoying his blossoming career as a real estate developer until Russia invaded on February 24. He volunteered to fight. He asked for help, and I came to join him and 80 men in his group, along with body armor, first aid supplies, night vision scopes, plate carriers and vests, and more supplies for the group.
The intentional deception and misdirection of Putin’s regime can make it difficult for the common citizen with their own daily concerns to understand what’s really happening, and what’s at stake.
Putin has given many reasons to justify his campaign:
- To prevent Ukraine from joining NATO (he also said NATO should be pushed back to Germany as a condition for not invading Ukraine).
- To defend Russian citizens who were being attacked by Ukraine. A similar excuse he gave for both the 2008 invasion of Georgia and first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, where unmarked military forces entered the country and seized Crimea and key cities in the east under the guise of “local militia” which were Russian forces directed, funded, and led by the Putin regime.
- To protect Russia, a nuclear state, from invasion by NATO, a defensive alliance
- To “de-nazify” Ukraine, claiming that the regime is run by Nazis. A ridiculous claim considering that President Zelensky is Jewish and lost family members in the holocaust.
- Putin claimed that the 2014 Maidan Revolution was a coup, backed by “the west” to delegalize Ukraine’s independence and suggest that its own citizens have no agency.
Putin also said he doesn’t recognize Ukraine as a sovereign state or people. No, he views Ukraine and its people as vassals of Russia. As property. And as an angry child, he’ll break Ukraine if he can’t have it. He routinely rewrites history and engages in wild rants to justify brutal, unforgivable acts of inhumanity not only against those outside Russia’s borders but against his own people. Putin is a corrupt, criminal, psychopathic dictator with no empathy or respect for human life, who steals from his own people. He ignored international treaties Russia signed that guaranteed Ukraine’s protection and sovereignty, like the Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the US, and the UK.
Putin’s goal is simple: The pursuit of power and territorial expansion through fear and conquest, and of course, self-preservation for himself and his corrupt and brutal regime. He would also like to split the US/EU/NATO alliance.
It’s worth noting that Putin swore to the world publicly that Russia would never invade Ukraine, but the history of his actions speaks louder than words and shows that deceit, false flags, brutality, fear, manipulation, and lies are the principal tools employed by the Russian state.
The Ukraine conflict to me resembles America’s war for independence, but with the brutality and senseless savagery of World War I and the Civil War. For hundreds of years, the people of Ukraine have fought for their independence and paid dearly. This is their time to cement their independence and protect the future of their culture, language, and entire identity. Make no mistake- the Ukrainian people are fighting for nothing less than their right to exist.
And Ukraine isn’t simply fighting a war against Russia, as daunting as it is on its own. No, Ukraine is fighting five wars at once and will continue to do so for the remainder of the conflict. In some cases, long after. Every nation faces internal challenges, including the US, and Ukraine is no different. It is not our place to judge them, but rather to support them on the path to a brighter future for the people of Ukraine, and the democratic world.
Ukraine’s five simultaneous wars:
- Russia’s invasion
- Financial (Ukraine needs $5B infusion of cash per month to stay solvent)
- Spies and saboteurs
- Public opinion
In total, I spent about two months in Ukraine on three trips. My mission was not and is not to hurt Russians- it is and has always been to save Ukrainians. I have grown up with Russian friends and still have Russian friends. The enemy is the Russian state that has manipulated and oppressed its people for over two decades.
Ukrainian civilians have been killed and targeted in a campaign of terror, rape, murder, and torture from which innocent women, the elderly, and children cannot escape. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children and citizens have been forcibly deported to Russia – a mass kidnapping that remains underreported. Imagine a gang of brutes breaking into your home, trying to steal it and all you own, and raping, killing, and kidnapping your family. Would you expect your neighbors to help you? Would you help your neighbors if you knew they were under such evils? Could you look at yourself in the mirror if you didn’t?
Short of Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the only acceptable path forward is a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. To this end, allied aid to Ukraine needs to be expanded and accelerated without hesitation.
- Provided night vision optics for machineguns and rifles for Alpha GRU (Spetsnaz)
- Provided bipods for rifles and machineguns
- Trained 80 Ukrainian Army and Territorial Defense on defense, assault, patrolling, ambushes, urban combat, close-quarters battle, first aid, hand/arm signals, weapons handling, squad/platoon organization and leadership, fire and movement, boobytraps, strengths/weaknesses of various vehicles, and more.
- Equipped 80 of those trained with plate carriers, magazine pouches, and more
- Provided body armor to soldiers in the south
- Provided first aid supplies and kits
- Supplied encrypted radios to allow defenders around Bakhmut to communicate
- Provided night vision and thermal devices
- Motion sensor alarms
- Various long-range binoculars
- Camouflage, uniforms, ghillie suits
- 30 fire-resistant, cold-weather flight suits for helicopter pilots
- Advanced drone with thermal imaging
- Attack drones
- GPS trackers
- Night vision
- Long-range binoculars and optics
Fourth – Supply Run
- Secure radios
- Generators for aviation units
In addition, I continue to support other groups operating in Ukraine.
One of the things I’ve learned is that despite the foreign aid you hear in the news, most of the war is crowdfunded. That is understandable in the early days of the war, but it is unacceptable. Many front-line troops still don’t have critical items like first-aid kits, tourniquets, radios or communication, night vision, electronic warfare support, and binoculars.
The requests their commands make to senior levels are lost somewhere in the process. It’s not simply a matter of “it’s a lot” or any other unacceptable excuses that need to be measured in treasured lives. I believe the problem is corrupt or incompetent individuals within the government, and they must be rooted out. In time, I believe they will, but not fast enough.
Still, Ukrainians have emptied their savings to send vital supplies to their loved ones fighting along a massive and unforgiving front line. I have the luxury to return to the US and leave the country when I wish. They can’t escape from the nightmare that is their life, a nightmare with no clear end date or promise they’ll survive it. Those who are in fortunate enough positions and have the resources to make a difference must do so.
Ukraine is under extreme financial pressure and cannot sustain the war and its economy alone. This is nothing like Afghanistan or Iraq, this is a total war of survival for the Ukrainian people, and it will determine their future and the prospects for democracy everywhere, and peace in the 21st century.
Russia and China publicly stated their desire to forge a new world order: one of fear, overwhelming and unquestionable power of the state, which is ruled by a powerful few, the subjugation of all people under its dominion, no justice, no human rights, no democracy, and one in which might makes right. A sick order ruled by despots with nuclear weapons must be resisted. It’s not simply the right thing to do, it’s necessary.
Russian assets should be frozen and used to pay for the damage and harm inflicted on Ukraine A new, global free trade and collective defense organization should be formed among nations committed to the principles of liberty. If the republics of the world do not stand together this century, they will certainly hang separately.
What matters is not where a people were born, but their values. The Ukrainians I’ve met are honorable, courageous, and kind. True warriors, who defend the weak against the strong. As Ukraine fights desperately for its right to exist, we must continue to support them. I will.