Icame back to Ukraine on March 12, originally to write for an American outlet that covers defense related news. I wrote four or five articles in the first week but then it just started to seem so frivolous; I didn’t want to be an observer. People who I knew from previous visits, who are now in the Ukrainian military, asked me for help. They thought, because I am a former U.S. Marine, that I was representing the U.S. government, no matter how often I said that I wasn’t.
My first experience of combat as a Marine was in Mogadishu, Somalia in the ’90s and then subsequently I was in the first Marine division during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. I have completed tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, been involved in the evacuation of civilians from Libya in 2011 and commanded a special operations task force against the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2016.
So I realized I could help, in some small way, other than writing. I felt a weight and a responsibility, because the Ukrainian military has undergone rapid expansion. They have taken in thousands of recruits, which creates a significant training problem. The world of military special operations is quite small and I’m a member of The Global SOF Foundation, an association for international Special Operations Forces (SOF). There is a saying that your reputation is the most important thing you have, so I would imagine that people here heard my name and asked about me. I was taken seriously.
We started off small, with a handful of guys, training Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SOF) with a focus on resistance, because we were in Kyiv and at the time the fight was going on on the outskirts of Kyiv, less than 10km away from us. It was a city under siege.
Some of the guys I work with came up with the idea of calling us The Mozart Group and I thought it was catchy. I wonder now if that was a mistake, because we’re not mercenaries like Russia’s Wagner Group. Our goals and the way we operate are so different. I don’t want anyone to think we’re anything like them and I don’t want anyone to think our sole purpose is to oppose them. We have such contempt for that organization.
We have been providing basic tactical training: How to handle weapons without shooting yourself. You start with basic procedures because a lot of people think they’re very advanced but they don’t know how to move tactically, without being seen, or they don’t understand camouflage and basic weapons handling or formations. We did do some sniper training, but it was really more marksmanship training. Our interaction has been with the Ukrainian SOF and Ministry of Defence of Ukraine not with President Volodymyr Zelensky himself. And there has been a broad mix of Ukrainians; from guys who had spent some years in the military, snipers and those who had spent time in the territorial defense, to middle aged women.
I have observed that the Ukranians are good at a number of things and are better at U.K. and U.S. troops in a number of key areas. One of those is understanding a drone and what drones can do. Not just strike drones, but how drones extend the reach of your senses. They also understand how to use precision fires, they take basic quadcopters and turn them into deadly weapons. There is some very ingenious stuff going on.
The Ukranians’ morale is remarkably high. It was even when Kyiv was under threat. It’s just this confidence that the Russians will not win that increases with the more atrocities that they come across. I’ve been through Iraq and Afghanistan and I was in Mogadishu before that. I have fought against the Islamic State. Obviously you hear bad things happening in war; I’m not any stranger to how depraved people can become. But I was saying to someone the other day that I have a greater respect for the ethical behavior of the Islamic State than I do for the Russians. That is no exaggeration. I’ve never committed a war crime, I’ve always told my guys that we fight with the values we represent, we don’t adopt those of our enemy. I don’t think of myself as a vicious person, but currently, I’m filled with the deepest contempt and anger.
I was one of the first people in Bucha after the Russian retreat and I saw the bodies dumped there, including kids’ bodies. Things happen in war. When you have soldiers who are nervous they get trigger happy, but this appears to have been a very, very deliberate approach to killing civilians. People were dragged from their homes and killed, women gang-raped in cellars and executed. The Ukrainians’ hands are not unbloodied either but I find it hard to blame them. Because I imagine this was my country and those were families I knew. I’m also not rolling into this as someone who is naive and hasn’t seen cruelty and depravity before. Hopefully that gives a scale of the cruelty that is occurring here.
We now have 100 volunteers coming in so I think we’re going to have a greater impact. We did tend to gravitate to special ops applicants, but those who came from conventional forces with particular skills—if they were sniper instructors or knew how to use a stinger missile or man anti-tank gunners—were brought in to help train Ukrainians. We have two vetting teams, in the U.S. and U.K, because the last thing we want over here is guys who are cowboys. But I don’t want to pretend we’ve changed the course of the war. Honestly, I think a lot of the effect we’ve had has been intangible. The Ukrainians seem really excited to have Americans and Brits behind them, helping them and supporting them. I think that’s important.
Now, we have to push and we have a plan to push out mobile training teams and logistic sites behind the front line. We’re doing our first site survey where we’ll take out medical equipment and provide medical training, because the Ukrainians need combat support. That’s not shooting people, it’s providing casualty evacuation and helping at triage points. The Mozart Group has recruited plenty of combat medic volunteers.
We have to be able to act in self defense but we’re not mercenaries; that is not my intention. We’re trying to save lives.
We are completely run on donations. There’s no money in it for us. There are no grants because we’re not a non-government organization (NGO). But we are trying to do more than stick a band aid on the problem, we are trying to build capability and capacity and resilience.
I don’t think it is going to be a short war. I think it’s going to last at least a year. We are going to be working on de-mining certain areas—we’re going to train, but we have our guys who are actually going out and helping the Ukrainians defuse bombs—and I also want to get into the evacuation of vulnerable citizens. My goal is to continue doing what we’re doing but expand. What worries me most is not the Russians, it’s the prospect of money running out and letting people down.
Andy Milburn is a former U.S. Marine and CEO of The Mozart Group. You can find out more about their work in Ukraine at themozartgroup.com.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.
April 20, 2022