Firsthand experiences in Ukraine – Part 1

Episode #21 of NAVIGATE shares on-the-ground experience supporting clients in the Ukraine war.

Firsthand experiences in Ukraine – part 1 transcript:

 

 

 

Frank Harrison

0:00:04 – 0:00:22

Hello, my name is Frank Harrison. I’m the regional security director in North America with World Travel Protection. Thank you for joining us as we present a two part series on Ukraine and first person experiences. In part one, we are joined by Liam Ryan, welcome to NAVIGATE. Liam, I’ll get you to introduce yourself who you are, and your organisation.
Liam Ryan

0:00:23 – 0:00:35

Yeah sure, it’s my name’s Liam Ryan, I’m the CEO of GM risk Group. We’re a private security firm who specialises in protective services and consulting in high risk, in complex environments.
Frank Harrison

0:00:38 – 0:00:43

Alright, so GM risk, how did you end up in the Ukraine?
Liam Ryan

0:00:44 – 0:01:32

So initially, we got a lot of experience working with media firms. And with the conflict that was escalating there, we had a few clients who were interested in covering that. And so we headed in the beginning of January. And initially, it was around the intelligence gathering and putting all this together so that we could have better awareness and put together assessments and planning for the clients.

And in a way, as that sort of unfolded, as they do with media, very reactive, and that that grew with the number of clients we’re looking after in the field. And then it sort of grew from there, on this occasion, but we spent a lot of time with media in different conflict zones around the globe. So it’s media that was the initial drawcard.

Frank Harrison

0:01:34 – 0:01:54

So you’re on the ground, you are doing your assessment, you’re supporting these teams. With the work that you were doing in the build up for your clients, were you seeing a disconnect from what you were identifying on the ground to what was being perceived by the general population and the general media external to the clients that you are protecting?
Liam Ryan

0:01:55 – 0:03:11

It’s actually a good question. And it is something you sort of noted as we’re going through that process and, and the propaganda from both sides of it, and the messages that get pushed out. And it happens on both sides. And just seeing the way that actually impacts the mood of the cities and the allied forces and the mood back in other countries, as well.

And, and during that sort of early stages, I think it’s important for, especially for people in our industry, to have perspective of what’s going on, not necessarily the rights and wrongs, but there’s always two sides and being able to sort of filter through what’s being pushed out in the media and those narratives that they do follow or push out, it’s, there is a disparity depending on who you listen to.

And it’s really about spending the time on the ground, finding out what those ground truths are for yourself. Also, listening to the narratives from both sides, but you need to be able to be there to be able to really have a good understanding of what the actual situation is.

Frank Harrison

0:03:13 – 0:03:28

So you’ve got the ground truths, you’re seeing what your organisation is picking up. Was it obvious that there was going to be an invasion or did it just happen?
Liam Ryan

0:03:28 – 0:04:08

All the signs were there when it escalated from the war games or suggested war games and the troops gathered. And then from down in the Black Sea to up around Belarus, and as they position themselves, but I think the narratives from the Western forces or NATO, they were really sort of hesitant in, in saying that the invasion was as imminent as it was. All the signs were definitely there. But that was a little bit harder to tell, when that first button was going to be pushed, essentially.
Frank Harrison

0:04:09 – 0:04:15

So you waited for the button to be pushed, how did you prepare your own personal teams?
Liam Ryan

0:04:15 – 0:05:42

So at that point in time, we were – I was personally in Kyiv, when it first escalated and the missile strikes were coming in. How we prepared for that was putting the contingencies in place that were based off the back of the risk assessment and the intelligence that we gathered.

So we gathered that from the open source intelligence were aligned with other intelligence gathering agencies. And we also used the ground troops from our guys out in the field but so with our emergency procedures, and mitigation strategies, sort of roll off the back of those, those reports. So what we’re essentially doing at the beginning is ensuring that our accommodation had adequate cover.

So in the event that there was an escalation that the accommodation was structurally sound, that we had bomb shelters, essentially somewhere to go. We had rations, we had power. We had our vehicles, we had our evac routes, safe houses, ability to move. So that around all the your PPE, the training of the clients, and communications – everything all stills needs to be in play, but it’s at those early stages, that things that we’re looking at.

Frank Harrison

0:05:43 – 0:05:56

So in the early stages, if there was one thing that occurred, did you have any major lessons learned once the invasion happened, or were your systems just in play, then you had a seamless transition into the conflict.
Liam Ryan

0:05:57 – 0:08:25

 

Don’t know if seamless is ever a word that’s used in those environments. But the nature of what we do is, it’s, I guess, it’s a little bit different in its application, as opposed to a standard security detail. And there’s a few reasons for that, especially when you’ve – if you’re focusing on as media as a client, they’re very reactive. And in a standard sort of risk management format, the easiest way to reduce the likelihood is to remove yourself from from the situation. But the reality is that that’s not going to happen.

So you’ve got with the information that you gather, you use that to best try to forecast, you know, what could happen or areas where it may escalate and move. But you’re not always able to do that. And so being able to have these systems in place, and, and plans and procedures to follow in the event of an escalation, that all has to be able to be moulded very quickly to be able to change to the environment that you’re operating in, because it can go from, you know, bustling city, to taking cover from airstrikes, or when you push it further to the east now with artillery and the likes, those sorts of things can change the environment completely, very quickly.

So with regards to having seamless transitions – they’re never seamless – but having the ability, and the experience of working in those environments, having worked with your teams, and the confidence in the support, and operations support that you get as well, that allows us to be able to work in those environments fluidly. And that’s what gives us the access and that freedom of movement. So although that there, you’ve got the procedures in place, they need to be able to be moulded to the environment at at any given time.

Frank Harrison

0:08:25 – 0:08:50

So don’t want to put you in a position where you’ve, you’ve got active clients on the ground now, but looking back on the first two months: so the conflict being with media teams, is there one lesson learned from working with media teams that you can share that people can look at, whether it’s from a personal or business travel, or just dealing with high value assets and moving around in a conflict zone?
Liam Ryan

0:08:51 – 0:10:10

There’s lessons to be learned to in every situation, but if it would be a lesson to share, I would say it’s more along the lines of complacency is normally the biggest thing that creeps in with with clients.

If you, if something’s quiet for a few days, or they hear that somebody was able to access a location, and they did it safely, that if they’re not directly impacted by things, there’s a level of complacency that can creep up pretty quick. And it’s part of our role in advising the client and being with them on the ground that we keep people grounded and make sure that you are always prepared for any situation at any given time.

And that’s what normally the sort of the biggest takeaway for clients is that it can happen, it does happen. And just because somebody had a bit of luck, doesn’t mean that you should not prepare properly for any possible scenario.

Frank Harrison

0:10:11 – 0:10:20

When the conflict broke out, what were some of the first things that you saw from prospective Ukrainian forces and Russian forces?
Liam Ryan

0:10:21 – 0:13:42

So it was interesting to watch, to be honest, so as late January, early Feb, the mood in the cities changed. And as they started to bunker in and set up road checkpoints, and you’ve got the Ukrainian forces, and then you have a civil defence, which is a line down from that. And then at that point in time was when martial law came in as well. So 16 to 65 year old males, were no longer allowed to leave the country, still not. And they were also giving arms to the public as well.

So where we were in the cities, they were locked down, but at that point in the initial invasion, from where we were in Kyiv, it was from Belarus from the north, where they came down and ended up coming down through to Bucha and Irpin, which is just on the outskirts, on the north of Kyiv city. So at that point, the forces were deployed outside of those areas.

But as that the first sort of couple of days there, the tension sort of really grew. And there was scepticism about media in particular, because they had saboteurs coming in and giving away locations, and from the Russian side. So the Ukrainian forces became quite sceptical about press and who they were, and who were they talking to. And that became a became a bit of a problem, actually, because they normally – we would be on with the Ukrainian side and they would be somewhat our safe haven. But on a number of occasions, we would be interrogated, as such could be roadside or pulled out of the car and checked for your permits and everything’s lined up in that sense.

But as that that sort of progressed as well, and because you’ve got those three tiers of the Ukrainian forces, when it gets down to the lower level, and you get outside of the cities, you’ve got almost like little villages, and each city has a group of the local men who will be defending that little part of their town. So by that stage, you’ve got escalating tensions and conflict, mistrust with who people are, and somewhat insider threats. You’ve got the civilians are armed. So not necessarily trained on how to use a firearm safely, add alcohol into the mix of that as well. You know, it’s a, it’s not a good recipe. And, you know, that first sort of week or so that was that tensions were quite high.

Frank Harrison

0:13:42 – 0:14:02

So we’ve got the invasion. We’re watching on our televisions, we’re watching the Russian forces going into Hostomel and others around Kyiv. When was your first experience meeting with the Russian forces or the areas that they had occupied and the impacts we had on the local environment?
Liam Ryan

0:14:03 – 0:14:48

So we had teams who headed up north. We had teams right across the country throughout February, but the first time that we got to see the real aftermath would have been in that just pushed out just past Irpin which is on the northern side of Kyiv. Because of the clients that were with her at the time, and the service that we’re providing at this occasion were not kinetic at all, we’re not standing alongside a gunfight as such. But the responding to sort of first person on the scene after it was around those northern outskirts of Kyiv.
Frank Harrison

0:14:49 – 0:14:57

So you guys were effectively keeping your media teams separate from contact with Russian forces?
Liam Ryan

0:14:57 – 0:15:58

Yeah, so, at the early stages of the conflict, you know, things that are also important to take into consideration is just to – we knew what weapon systems were there. We knew what tactics the Russians have used previously.

But there’s still an element that you need to see how that’s going to unfold in the battlefield, and being that we were there to provide a service as well, where we can’t be reckless in our advisory of where is and is not safe until such time as we’ve got the information that we required to make those decisions, but very close, but for obvious reasons that Ukrainians don’t necessarily want media attached to, to their forward mounted teams as well.

Frank Harrison

0:15:59 – 0:16:06

There’s a lot of flexibility that they need to be able to manoeuvre on the battlefield.
Liam Ryan

0:16:06 – 0:16:16

Yeah, and they don’t need, they don’t want people necessarily knowing where they are and everything they’re getting up to, because that element of surprises is gone.
Frank Harrison

0:16:18 – 0:16:33

So with our backgrounds in our military training, was there anything you saw or observed there that you found shocking from a perspective of being a soldier or former soldier?
Liam Ryan

0:16:33 – 0:17:32

I’m not actually a former soldier myself. The tactics that have been used by the Russians were somewhat very predictable with the, you know, the information we’re getting in there with the way that it played out. And I think it’s been a long time since an almost conventional war has taken place and on the scale that this has.

Majority of the clients that we’re working with, most of their experiences is in the Middle East. And the space there is is very different. And so to see the tactics that were being used, but by the Russians and encountered by the Ukrainians, it’s not so much of a surprise, but certainly generationally, for from my perspective of seeing that actually play out, it was different.

Frank Harrison

0:17:33 – 0:18:10

My background, I was a unit combat in NCO in Germany. So the Warsaw Pact was our bread and butter. And some of my former peers and colleagues when we were watching the build up and the actual invasion, we were stunned that the tactics – it was 1989, Redux, and we were shocked. But now we’re seeing the consequences of that and you’re on the ground so you must be seeing absolute devastation that’s being presented by the way these battle groups are working.
Liam Ryan

0:18:10 – 0:19:20

Yeah, well, the aftermath of the indiscriminate shelling and somewhat dumb bombs and targeted, you know, they’re still getting targeted on a daily basis. But that’s pretty much decimated and you know, that’s been the reoccurring pattern of the tactics of being able to sit back at a distance and shell the the cities until such time and the positions of the Ukrainians until that they can, they can move in but in saying that the Ukrainians have done a really good job and the will to fight is, is strong. And it’s occupation. I couldn’t see that happening from day one, because they would be fighting from door to door. So it’s certainly a different, a different motivation from the Russian to the Ukrainian side.
Frank Harrison

0:19:20 – 0:19:32

Because the Russians are invading as an occupier and the Ukrainians are staying, staying alive to keep their country and get to tomorrow.
Liam Ryan

0:19:32 – 0:19:34

Protecting their way of life, yeah.
Frank Harrison

0:19:34 – 0:19:44

So you had two months on the ground, a lot of lessons there. You’re out on break. Are you looking forward to going back?
Liam Ryan

0:19:45 – 0:20:42

It’s yes, it’s, it’s 100 percent I want to get back in there and continue to work. It’s the situation there. It is still as active as it was on day one, but it just doesn’t get the frontline news articles that it did a couple of months back. But there’s, there’s a lot of activity, there’s a lot of people who need help. There’s a lot of people who are trying to provide help who need assistance to get in and get out.

So there’s training for their police, their first responders, their field hospitals, and so there’s a lot of things that need to be done. And it’s, it is difficult at times to rotate out and sit at home whilst you know, things like that are going, but you have to do it from time to time.

Frank Harrison

0:20:43 – 0:21:11

So normally, I’d ask, you know, for someone who’s traveling, what would be your top three picks of advice for someone that’s traveling, but in this environment, where there’s a large international body of people that are trying to get into the Ukraine for other logistics or military support, or non government organisations, civil society, looking at this external movement of persons off top of head, what are the three things you would recommend to people before they head towards the Ukraine.
Liam Ryan

0:21:13 – 0:24:10

So depending on their objectives are in the field and what they’re going to be associated with and, and how that may sort of be portrayed or where they’re staying. And the chain of thought of that is how that they can be identified or associated with, especially with the tensions that are rising now to the possible attack of further attack of supply chains of anyone who’s providing aid from NATO forces. So things like your technology, it has been ways that they’ve been able to identify foreigners previously, when they attacked the training compound just north of Lviv a couple of months back. So using local numbers, don’t don’t use your, your primary number on those local networks, they should be using VPNs. So they’re not logging on to Wi Fi. And that goes across all your devices as well. And Russia is really, really good from a cyber perspective. So it’s important to make sure that your information and your personal information or identity are controlled.

That the next would be having adequate communication capability. So with regards to your navigation and communications, not just relying on cellular, but also having a satellite capability so that you have got the ability to be able to reach out or navigate your way out in the event that infrastructure went down or other ECM equipment was taking your cellular capability away.

And then you want to make sure that you have got the ability to be able to move 24 hours a day. So when I say that, you need to have access to a vehicle. And it’s not that you get a cab when you want to get around. But even as far across in Lviv that we’ve seen consistently that has been shelled as well. And so it’s not a safe haven. So going back to that complacency, that could sort of sneak in pretty quickly. So trying to protect yourself from and your identity from being hacked or targeted. Making sure that you’ve got the ability to be able to communicate, reach out to people if you need assistance, and making sure that you’re able to move at any time so you don’t get stuck in a situation where you don’t want to be.

Frank Harrison

0:24:11 – 0:24:54

That’s really good advice. So local, mobile device on a local network, VPN to protect your internet communications, the ability to communicate and locate, and ultimately flexibility of movement so you can get around or even self-evacuate. Great advice, Liam.

Liam amazing work – you’re in what is currently one of the world’s most dangerous places when you return. You’ve been involved in witnessing some incredible things and the effort of the Ukrainian people to save their way of life. Is there anything you’d like to share before we close out?

Liam Ryan

0:24:58 – 0:25:47

I guess it’s good. It’s been great to be part of such a large scale sort of operation, it’s not something that you ever really want to have to be part of. But it’s these environments, they bring out the best and the worst in people. And it’s inspiring to be around other people who are on the ground, they’re giving, sacrificing their time and, you know, people sacrificing their lives for, for what they believe in. And just because you know that they believe that’s the right thing to do. So it’s inspiring to be around that. I’m happy to get back in there and get back into it.
Frank Harrison

0:25:48 – 0:26:02

Liam, thank you for sharing your personal story and the story of GM Risk and joining us on NAVIGATE. I wish you the best of success and safety on your return. And thank you for joining us.
Liam Ryan

0:26:04 – 0:26:05

Appreciate your time. Thank you.
Frank Harrison

0:26:05 – 0:26:44

Thank you for joining part one of a two part series on Ukraine. In this episode, we focus on the work of Liam Ryan and his company GM Risk.

Looking for the best travel podcast to inspire your upcoming adventures, while also helping you travel smarter? Listen to NAVIGATE, the top travel podcast that enhances the way you explore the world found on our WorldTravelProtection.com site under our travel assist hub. In each episode, our World Travel Protection hosts speak with a travel industry expert or experienced everyday traveller to bring you thought provoking travel insights, experiences and advice helping empower you to travel the world confidently.

Until next time, I am Frank Harrison.

As the Ukraine conflict escalated into an invasion, our guest Liam Ryan and his team were – and still are – responsible for keeping media clients safe as they headed towards the conflict zones. Liam is the CEO of GM Risk Group, a strategic partner and service provider of protective services for World Travel Protection. With multiple teams deployed across Ukraine since January, they have been providing close protection & security advisory, logistics, emergency medical & incident response alongside civilian evacuations.

Join us as we learn more about what it was like to be on the ground with conflicting messages in the beginning, how they prepared to be the ones people could turn to when in need, and what was most shocking about the tactics used. At the end, Liam shares the top three things he’d recommend for people heading towards a conflict zone.

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