High-risk extraction of over 100 personnel
Amid extensive evacuation efforts in Ukraine, Global Guardian details one evacuation mission from Kyiv to western Ukraine and Poland while navigating fragile ceasefires and curfews
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was met with firm resistance from Ukrainian forces determined to protect their freedom. By 10 March, as the war entered its third week, Russian forces made limited progress in their ground invasion but were closing in on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. A day before, Russian forces bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in the port city of Mariupol, drawing international condemnation. A trilateral effort by Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey to agree to a ceasefire collapsed. Russia routinely violated ceasefire agreements to allow civilians to leave besieged Ukrainian cities, heightening the danger of carrying out evacuations. Nighttime curfews added another layer of complexity.
Amid this backdrop, Global Guardian received requests from multiple corporate clients to evacuate employees and their families in the Kyiv area. The mission goal was to account for and gather over 100 people – primarily Ukrainian nationals between the ages of four and 75 – and drive them to the relative safety of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and/or Poland.
Evacuation mission from Kyiv
After reviewing the ground intelligence and weighing the risks, Global Guardian approved the ground evacuation on 8 March, with the plan to commence the mission two days later. Global Guardian’s executive leadership and the highly trained professionals in its 24/7 Security Operations Center, with assistance from on-the-ground teams with local knowledge and intelligence, developed an operation that involved multiple phases. The operation included thorough coordination and communication with evacuees, agents, bus drivers, and the safe house manager.
During coordination, Global Guardian’s team worked with the clients to acquire evacuee information pertinent to the mission, including visa details and known health issues – an extensive undertaking. The team provided the evacuees with the trip timeline and clear packing instructions and advised them to mentally prepare for a long journey with possible delays due to unexpected security checkpoints, traffic, combat, and snow. Having operated in Ukraine for several weeks, Global Guardian’s team expected the trip to take between two and three days.
Global Guardian also positioned four 50-passenger buses near Kyiv, including two used as backups. The team equipped each bus with Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs), water, and medical kits. Additionally, two reconnaissance and support vehicles with local security agents accompanied the buses.
To mitigate the heightened uncertainty in an active war zone, Global Guardian’s local team leveraged insight from Russian strike patterns to pinpoint the safest time to load the buses. On 10 March, the team consolidated the group of evacuees outside Kyiv and relayed a passenger manifest to the clients. The buses then departed for Lviv and Poland, stopping that night at a safehouse to avoid being exposed during the curfew. Along the entire journey, the clients received real-time updates from Global Guardian’s Operations Center tracking the convoy’s movements.
Navigating expected and unexpected challenges
As is the case with high-risk evacuations, communications, security, and safety are often unpredictable and cannot be guaranteed. Throughout the journey, the team encountered expected and unexpected challenges travelling with a large group. On the second day of the trip, the family of a diabetic child discovered they had forgotten to pack life-saving insulin. The convoy was required to make an immediate stop while a reconnaissance vehicle with a local agent tracked down the nearest open pharmacy. The agent was able to secure the medication – in the middle of a war zone – and deliver it to the family to administer to the child, narrowly avoiding a medical emergency.
On 11 March, the convoy arrived in Lviv, where Global Guardian’s team unloaded one bus of evacuees into local accommodation. The second bus continued to the Polish border and completed an overnight journey to Warsaw, where the client had pre-arranged accommodation for its employees and their family members. As a result of detailed planning, thorough communication, and local on-the-ground knowledge, all evacuees safely completed the journey.
Preparation: a month before Russia’s invasion, Global Guardian advised its clients to consider evacuating expats and non-essential personnel from Ukraine. As is common during a crisis, the options for evacuating people by air rapidly diminished when airspace shut down, leaving ground evacuation as the only option. If early evacuation is not possible, having a clear emergency plan and pre-positioned assets are critical
Communication: transparent communication between all parties is critical in an evacuation, especially one of this size and magnitude. Planning for the probability that communication systems will be down is paramount
Execution: Global Guardian’s reliable and well-connected local 24/7 response teams are situated in over 130 countries. This network, with on-the-ground knowledge and intel, gives Global Guardian its edge. The agents across Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary continue to play a critical role in evacuations.
Evacuation, support and for some, a safe return
From providing pre-emptive evacuation planning to handling complex international evacuations, Healix continues to support organisations in ensuring the safe return of their staff while assisting their operations in an often complex and hostile environment
Healix’s internal processes started as soon as the first signs of Russian military build up on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders emerged in late 2021. Our intelligence team increased evacuation ratings for both Russia and Ukraine to reflect this military posturing and the uptick in political rhetoric.
The Healix Global Security Operation Centre (GSOC) deployed its analysts and security consultants to establish open-source intelligence streams covering Ukraine and set up social media scanning systems. The team continued to alert clients on Healix’s Travel Oracle platform and reached out to organisations with a retained presence in Russia and Ukraine, informing them of the continued military escalation.
Ahead of the onset of the conflict in the early hours of 24 February, Healix also provided evacuation and contingency planning services to clients in Ukraine. The team identified triggers that would signify a deterioration of the security environment in order to give the best possible chance of the swift activation of local evacuation plans. These included bespoke advice on how organisations could evacuate their employees and dependents from Ukraine.
Approach to evacuations
Healix GSOC continued to monitor the deteriorating conditions in Ukraine 24/7, providing regular intelligence updates to stakeholders, while staff were explicitly told to make ‘grab bags’ containing essential items in case evacuees had to move to ‘stand fast’ locations. As the aforementioned triggers for evacuation were met, the Incident Management Team (IMT) escalated its operational readiness 10 days before the invasion took place. The team ensured all ground movements were backed with real-time intelligence to assess the situation on the ground, ensuring evacuating personnel took the safest route.
The arrival of Russian forces in Ukraine coincided with airstrikes countrywide targeting critical infrastructure, including airports. Airspace had been closed shortly beforehand, meaning for those who had not already evacuated, ground moves were the preferred solution.
Since the onset of the invasion, Healix has been assisting with evacuations from Ukraine to several international safe havens including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The team managed to evacuate individuals from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and many more locations across the country. This included instances of evacuating clinically vulnerable persons, collaborating with Healix’s international assistance team to ensure they received appropriate medical care throughout the process. At the height of the invasion, the Healix ground support team consisted of 10 close protection officers who supported various clients for more than four months. The GSOC teams in both Surrey and Singapore were supported by a dedicated analyst, a regional coordinator, and a senior manager, who were solely focused on Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.
The evacuation plans Healix had already established meant that as soon as clients wished to evacuate, the team could act swiftly, activating relations with various transport providers and hotels in Slovakia and Poland to accommodate large numbers of evacuees. The team had also identified ‘stand-fast’ locations in Western Ukraine to host individuals wishing to remain in country but in relatively safer locations. Healix conducted daily check ins utilising its Healix Sentinel software allowing the team to check in with all those affected – in-country staff and the employers – to ensure the continued safety of those on the ground.
Return to Ukraine
Following the withdrawal of Russian troops from Northern regions and areas close to Kyiv, several clients expressed their preference to return to Kyiv. Before supporting any return to the capital, Healix carried out a three-day investigation of the area to assess all known operational considerations and gather real-time intelligence. Over the three days, areas of Kyiv were split up into areas for surveillance and the investigation was based on 12 factors, including general damage, transport availability, nearest medical facilities, the general infrastructure, critical infrastructure, restrictions and processes when entering the city and the current military and police presence. Using these pre-determined factors ensured a consistent risk rating was put in place and provided the most accurate guidance for clients.
Embedded security managers
Since the conflict has relatively stabilised, with fighting now largely confined to eastern and southern regions such as Donetsk and Luhansk, Healix continues to help clients return to regular operations and establish more business continuity. Some consultants, who initially were part of Healix’s on-the-ground team, have now been embedded in client organisations as security managers. Their expertise allows organisations to identify opportunities and mitigate against future risks involved with operations in a hostile environment. This has also enabled Healix to support organisations across the board, from the evacuation planning stage, through conducting international evacuations, to supporting their risk management frameworks moving forward in a completely holistic approach.
Reaction on the ground – the importance of clear and honest information and operations
Forty eight hours after the conflict in Ukraine began, global risk advisory firm Inherent Risks deployed its own crisis response team to the region, led by Dan Kaine, Head of Risk and Crisis Advisory
Our primary objective during those first few days was to gather intelligence and assess risks in order to gain ground truth and dispel misinformation. This was in support of emergency evacuation operations the firm had been retained by its clients to conduct.
When conducting successful emergency evacuations in conflict zones, whether extracting people out of the country, or relocating them to a safe haven within the country, such missions have to be intelligence led, and quite often rely on the ability of a team to quickly establish high-level networks, recruit local assets, and source essential equipment and supplies.
Misinformation in any conflict is common, but more so at the outbreak of war. This is often fuelled by mainstream media broadcasting opinions from afar until facts are established. However, the most difficult and frustrating part of their tasks in Ukraine in the early days of the conflict, and to some extent up to present day, was and is to dispel false information and exaggerated capabilities that providers claim for their own publicity and financial gain.
Taking advantage of a desperate situation
War is a business. That’s a fact. Innocent people are dying and suffering while some corporations see it as a ‘cash cow’ to milk. No truer is this than to describe what has been happening in Ukraine since hostilities with Russia began.
On several occasions, we were the on-the-ground evacuation provider contracted by the third, fourth and even fifth down the supply chain from the original company that the client had trusted to provide the services. Private clients and corporations were being billed astronomical amounts to evacuate desperate people, and they were trusting the provider they had paid to do the job, only then for it to be farmed out several times over to a provider with actual boots-on-the-ground capabilities.
In the early days, we were very much the pathfinders for a lot of organisations who were either trying to evacuate their people out of the country, or for media and humanitarian organisations trying to enter. This was affirmed when in the space of a week, we were contracted by some of the largest risk management firms in the world to provide services on their behalf.
Know the capabilities of the provider you contract
It’s entirely possible that the original providers contracted by the client were oblivious to the fact that it was in fact Inherent Risks who conducted the evacuations on their behalf, as each provider in the chain obviously believed the next provider’s claims of capabilities, otherwise each one in the chain wouldn’t have been retained to provide the services in the first place.
Claims were being made by some companies on social media of questionably high numbers of rescues and evacuations – over 250 per day in one case. This was at a time, and in a region, when realistically it was extremely difficult to evacuate even 10 to 20 individuals per day!
Meanwhile, some operators were allegedly cramming 60 to 80 people onto one bus for a short ride to the train station, a journey that was repeated two to three times per day, and publishing each person as an individual rescue in order to bolster numbers.
Unfortunately, as we saw not too long ago in Afghanistan, there are tragic consequences to companies over-promising and under-delivering: people die. Time and again, these organisations are not held to account, and media agencies continue to publish their stories as fact, without any due diligence being conducted. The result of exaggerating capabilities sets unrealistic expectations for those being rescued, and completely unnecessary time pressures and constraints on the rescuers.
Establishing safe routes for evacuation
As well as evacuating an undisclosed amount of expat employees of multinational organisations and family members of high-net-worth individuals, we established systems and corridors out of the country for Ukrainian citizens with medical and mental health issues – including for military age males who under martial law had been forbidden from leaving the country – as well as for children without parental supervision, who were placed into the care of vetted families waiting at borders.
We are also the exclusive medical assistance and incident response provider in Ukraine for Lloyd’s Market insurer Atrium Underwriting, and continue to work with several insurers, including Hotspot Cover, and high-risk brokers, to provide bespoke risk advisory, close protection, emergency assistance and incident response for organisations and individuals entering the country.
We have had a continued presence in Ukraine since February, and established a permanent 24/7 operations centre in the region, staffed with multilingual medical, security and logistics specialists.
Since the conflict began, Inherent Risks, on behalf of its client donors, has sourced and delivered over £1 million of essential equipment and aid to front-line troops, hospitals and orphanages.
The evacuation of corporate clients
Successful evacuations from Ukraine necessitated the involvement of a dedicated team, trained to operate in hostile environments
As tensions increased between Ukraine and Russia last winter, NGS worked proactively with clients to prepare for all eventualities. Alongside regular monitoring of the geopolitical situation, NGS provided consultancy services to clients, advising on risk mitigation, crisis management planning and emergency response procedures. Following consultation with NGS, a multinational tech company decided to minimise their exposure in Ukraine by removing all foreign nationals. The company was also clear regarding their obligations to assist local nationals, and as such, NGS completed evacuation planning for Ukrainian staff. In preparation for possible mobilisation, NGS placed several strategic assets on standby, including security personnel, vehicles, safehouses, supplies and medication.
On 24 February, the day of the Russian invasion, the client engaged in substantial discussions with NGS, leading to the decision to offer evacuation to local national staff and their families. Sixty Ukrainians from locations including Kharkiv, Kherson and Kyiv, took up the offer from their employer. At this stage NGS activated approved evacuation plans and deployed all relevant resources to assist with the controlled movement of personnel. Ensuring the team were agile was pivotal to conducting the tasks without incident, so small security teams were deployed in SUVs. The evacuations were coordinated by the NGS team in London and a team leader in Ukraine, who worked in unison to ensure the safety and success of the missions.
Although the decision to evacuate was made relatively quickly, the availability of resources required by the emergency assistance industry in these circumstances often diminish beyond the point of providing a tangible response. As demand increased in line with instability, NGS was able to draw upon well-established relationships with trusted in-country providers meaning that despite resource pressures, several options remained viable. Experience and resourceful thinking led to the adaptation of evacuation plans to meet some unavoidable operational constraints: concurrent evacuations were altered to consecutive manoeuvres directed to a central collection location as an alternative. The use of a safehouse in western Ukraine enabled NGS to recover all evacuees within a safe optimal window, rather than elongating the process while the situation continued to deteriorate.
Conducting the evacuations
Operating in an extremely volatile and fast-paced environment posed a further challenge to NGS. The rapid advance of the Russian military trapped several client personnel in hostile territory. NGS used local knowledge and a dedicated team, trained and willing to operate in hostile environments, to conduct multiple moves from occupied ground, including Kherson and the outer suburbs of Kyiv. As the situation deteriorated, evacuation routes were altered. After rocket attacks nearby, NGS’ primary evacuation route from Kyiv, the E40 west, was deemed too high risk, and instead the E50 south to Uman was used. The safe navigation of these areas and routes was testament to the adaptability and determination of NGS, drawing upon years of experience in executing evacuations.
Within days, NGS successfully evacuated all personnel to the central safehouse and provided additional medical assistance and security services where appropriate. Whilst in relative safety, evacuees were able make decisions about their short-term future following significant upheaval and reflect on the wider humanitarian impact.
To best accommodate differing family circumstances, NGS planned several onward travel options to reunite people with loved ones. This included transport to safe neighbouring countries for those who wanted to leave Ukraine, and for those intending to remain, the provision of sought-after of personal protective equipment, medical supplies and transport west to long-term refuge.
Throughout the task, key factors that contributed to its success were establishing trust and regular communication with our client and the evacuees. The extreme emotional stresses that all parties endured meant it was pivotal that compassion and empathy were considered at all times. Providing comfort and reassurance to the evacuees had benefits for both the client and NGS. It meant those entrusted into our care felt more confident in their decision to evacuate, reducing the likelihood of a change of mind, while simultaneously providing NGS with a calm environment to operate. Support was also extended to those client personnel outside of Ukraine instructing NGS to assist. Understanding executive level anxieties and corporate obligations meant NGS had to consistently manage expectations and maintain positive relationships throughout.
Dealing with crisis management fatigue in a volatile world
Sally Llewellyn, Regional Security Director EMEA for International SOS, discusses how to keep staff going when they are facing a new an unprecedented level of ongoing crisis management
Crisis management teams (CMT) have been stretched to the limit in recent times. Employees and employers have adjusted to a ‘new normal’ in the wake of a global pandemic. Beyond the pandemic, over the past few years, the world has experienced extreme weather due to climate change, civil unrest, data breaches, ransomware and now the crisis in Ukraine. Wave after wave of critical incidents have required international organisations to mobilise their crisis management teams and assess risk at speed.
Easing of the severity of the pandemic in many countries following the success of their respective vaccination programmes was closely followed by warnings of a potential conflict in Europe between Russia and Ukraine.
It is, of course, not unusual for CMTs to have to deal with an ongoing issue. However, not in International SOS’ history have we experienced a worldwide pandemic followed by conflict in Europe, and not forgetting other concurrent geopolitical issues that have also put teams under intense strain and pressure. Businesses have had to deal with the direct impact of Covid-19 while facing coups (Myanmar), political instability (Chad), terrorism and major cyclones (Mozambique), and data security incidents impacting key technology providers.
And there seems to be no let up. We are seeing a political crisis in Sri Lanka and severe weather-related issues on numerous continents, while the second- or third-order impacts of the Russia-Ukraine conflict are still emerging.
Understanding crisis management fatigue in light of the conflict in Ukraine
Faced with such volatile conditions, a symptom that has crept into many businesses and organisations is what some call ‘crisis fatigue’. We know that numerous teams are feeling a form of burnout as they have been worn down by crisis after crisis, and this fatigue can require support from external partners to manage.
At International SOS, we specialise in assisting people in their time of need. We assemble teams to provide guidance and security in some of the most challenging situations. We recognise that turbulent times require a steady hand and work with companies to provide reassurance in what are often time-critical situations.
In Ukraine, for example, International SOS has been directly supporting impacted clients and their employees since the start of the crisis (and provided support to clients before the conflict began with an on-the-ground incident management team). Our work has been highly varied owing to our diverse client base, which has been affected in different ways. The help we have provided ranges from assisting with physical evacuations from Ukraine and bordering countries – of which we have conducted more than 100 – to helping with our clients’ informational and planning needs. We are now in the process of supporting some organisations as they return to Ukraine.
Often, we work together with CMTs to ensure they have the structure, training, information and support they need to effectively fulfil their own role. Crisis management is a difficult task at the best of times, so effective collaboration is often needed to mitigate the burden on specific teams.
Lack of specialism exacerbating the issue
In a recent crisis management survey, International SOS found that very few individuals in client organisations have specialised crisis expertise, and that it’s often not prioritised as it should be.
Employees often must take on additional management responsibilities, including the scrutiny (internal and external) on decisions and actions taken. With the increased length of major escalations, individuals on the CMTs are managing multiple roles and maintaining their own resilience, all while leading by example. This puts a huge strain on their capacity to deal with the myriad of issues and, for a number of non-specialist leaders, is contributing to burnout, erosion of trust and credibility among management teams.
Creating resilience within a crisis management team
At the outset of an incident, the adrenalin kicks in and crisis managers are often ‘on-the-go’ for 24, 48 and even 72 hours.
However, over time, the quality of their decisions may drop, they may slow down, and they may need to be withdrawn from the CMT. Starting the event with a disciplined approach to the role of primary and alternate crisis responders ensures continuity and means that good decision making is more likely. When everyone thoroughly understands the role they have to play, it should lead to an efficient response.
The mental health and wellbeing of CMTs are also factors that, if not properly managed, can lead to burnout. Recent challenging circumstances – such as the Ukraine conflict and Covid-19 – have, for the first time, simultaneously created multiple crises related to – among other things – our fears, health and economy.
This feeling of an inability to cope can significantly exacerbate the onset of crisis management fatigue in leaders, who are often shouldering the added burden of a ‘day job,’ as well as one or more CMT roles. This highlights the urgent need to improve awareness of mental health issues, not only for the organisation, but especially for the CMT. One strategy organisations could use to promote mental resilience is to take steps to check in individually with every employee, including senior and mid-level managers. It is also vital to ensure employees have and are aware of secure routes for reporting their mental health status and any emergent issues. When employees feel the organisation is behind them supporting them during times of crisis, it can make the world of difference.