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Ukraine: Inside the desperate operation to get people out

Thirty-one days before Russia announced its intention to invade Ukraine on February 24, a private security firm was urging its clients to leave.

Sounding the alarm in an email, Global Guardian’s CEO Dale Buckner sent a list of probable outcomes and likely dangers.

“You could see what was coming. It was changing. The Russians were getting momentum,” he told Yahoo News on Wednesday morning.

Leaving Ukraine has become increasing difficult since Russia began its attack. Source: Reuters / Getty
Leaving Ukraine has become increasing difficult since Russia began its attack. Source: Reuters / Getty

Mr Buckner's focus in February was to convey that "it pays to be a first mover".

Before a crisis situation escalates, commercial flights and public transport are still available.

It's also possible for those that plan to stay to secure necessities like satellite phones, housing, food and water.

Why evacuating Ukraine has become increasingly difficult

A week into the crisis and strategising evacuations has become more complicated for security firms.

They routinely now require clients to meet at exact location, at specific time, and travel lightly.

"Everyone's limited to one bag, one small pack, no large cases, you can't bring other family members at the last minute, you can't bring your friends," Mr Buckner said.

"We have an asset that fits 50 personnel, we're going to fill it to 50 personnel."

Travel times t Ukraine border can rapidly increase

Mr Buckner explained that the situation becomes increasingly reactive as the conditions change.

"We could anticipate the movement from point A to point B to be five hours," he said.

"Once we get close, it could literally be 30, 40, 50 hours."

Clients could get within 10km of the border and then decide to walk if the roads are blocked.

"Understand right now the temperature is freezing," Mr Buckner warned.

"You have to dress properly. You have to have snacks, you have to have water... all these things matter."

Time is critical in Ukraine war zone

Right now, evacuating some clients from Kyiv can now pose a greater safety risk than having them stay put.

Odessa is another location of concern, because as Russia heads northwest out of Crimea the situation could escalate.

Time is key, and planning is now generally occurring in 48-hour cycles prior to each on-the-ground assignment.

“We get a requirement today. We plan for it. We think we can execute two days from now,” Mr Bruckner said.

“We might not be able to get in. That's war. That's a crisis zone. That's the way this works.”

Thousands evacuated from Ukraine by security team

Mr Buckner, a 24-year US Army veteran with counter terrorism and special operations experience, has learned not to be affected by stress.

His team comprises of professionals who have worked in the CIA, British SAS, Secret Service and the military.

They have evacuated over 3500 clients from Ukraine since Russia began posturing, and Mr Buckner expects to assist a further 200 to 500 people every 24 to 48 hours over the next month.

How long evacuations continue depends on what Russia does next, but there’s one thing he's almost sure of: “(Russia’s) not going to let this go".

How Russia could use nuclear weapons to end Ukraine war

In the short term, Mr Buckner is hopeful there could be a stalemate, which could be achieved through a diplomatic concession like allowing Russia to acquire Donbas along with Crimea.

Long-term, he believes President Vladimir Putin could also seek to secure influence over Ukraine’s government, but it's possible he will not stop until he has taken the entire country.

Russia's powerful politicians have begun questioning President Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. Source: Reuters
Russia's powerful politicians have begun questioning President Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. Source: Reuters

“I think from the Russian perspective they cannot lose. They'll throw every asset, everything they have at this to ‘win’ tactically,” he said.

“And if they can't win, this is the scary scenario.

“They pull everyone out and they park a tactical nuclear bomb at Kiev and say: 'we won'.

Even if there is a short-term solution, Mr Buckner expect tensions to be ongoing.

“No one really knows what happens tomorrow, and we're all watching and waiting and trying to figure out what's really going on in Vladimir Putin's head to see if we can find a way out of this," he said.

Powerful Russians questioning President Putin’s ‘miscalculation’

Internal pressure is one factor which could influence the situation in the short term.

Mr Buckner has seen indications that oligarchs and powerful office holders within President Putin’s own government are questioning his decision to invade.

In 2014, Russian forces were able to quickly take Crimea, but this time he believes they have miscalculated.

“I think they made very bad assumptions that the Ukraine of today is the Ukraine of 2014 and it simply is not,” Mr Buckner said.

“They've been trained, they've been reinforced, they have equipment, technological capabilities, and most importantly, that population now has found nationalism.

“They don't want to move towards communism, they are fully looking to the future as a democracy.”

How World War III could accidentally be triggered

Mr Buckner's sources in neighbouring countries are voicing concern that the conflict is widening.

While invading forces are yet to move west to the border with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, they remain nervous that Russia may "go all in".

“Here's the risk: We get spillage into the Polish border, we get spillage into Romania,” Mr Buckner said.

“Even if it's a mistake: A tank thinks it's on GPS, it gets a bad grid, it crosses over, there's a firefight.

“We are now looking at the start of World War III, which everyone wants to avoid.

“We've reached a phase where NATO, the US and bordering countries are starting to think about reinforcements, activating reservists, getting their training, getting their equipment maintained.

“They're getting ready for that spillage, so it is very visceral today.”

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