The Voices of War

54. Duncan Spinner - The Fight for At-risk Ukrainians

VOW 54 | Ukrainians


My guest today is my good friend, Duncan Spinner. Since 2015, Duncan has been working in Ukraine and for four years was the OSCE Head of Operations for Luhansk.

Some of the other topics we covered are:

  • Snapshot of Duncan’s extensive experience working in conflict affected nations
  • Work in Ukraine as the OSCE Head of Operations for Luhansk
  • Questioning the Russian mindset, interpretation of victory and relationship to time
  • Reflecting on the ‘Russian way of war’
  • The power of narrative and risk of hubris
  • Informal rescue of at-risk and vulnerable Ukrainians from danger
  • The reality of those fleeing Ukraine
  • Getting personal protective equipment to fighters in Ukraine
  • The moral imperative of doing something to help
  • Supporting Duncan and his team

Listen to the podcast here


Duncan Spinner – The Fight for At-risk Ukrainians

My guest is my good friend, Duncan Spinner, whom I first met in Sarajevo in 2014. Duncan is originally from Sydney, Australia, but he grew up in Indonesia. He later found his way to Scotland before joining the British Army. He served in uniform for twenty years in air assault and infantry, as well as in intelligence and defence diplomatic roles. After leaving the military, Duncan led civil society programs, including a security sector reform in a number of fragile and vulnerable states such as Bosnia Herzegovina, Israel, Columbia, Jordan, and the Philippines.

Between 2013 and 2015, Duncan worked as the Director of the International Commission on Missing Persons in Iraq. This was during the hype of ISIS atrocities against the Yazidis, where Duncan led an advisory team, including DNA scientists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, and human rights specialists, in the largest genocide investigation since Rwanda. Since 2015, Duncan has been working in Ukraine, and for four years was the OSCE Head of Operations for Luhansk.

While there, he oversaw operations, including reporting of human rights violations and war crimes, and engaged extensively with regional civil society organisations on operations in the Donbas on both sides of the frontlines. He’s deeply involved in efforts trying to capture evidence of Russian war crimes, supporting the extraction of at-risk individuals from behind the frontlines, as well as bringing in much-needed equipment and supplies into Ukraine. He joins me to discuss the current situation on the ground and the work he and others have been doing to help everyday Ukrainians. Duncan, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Maz, it’s good to catch up with you again after such a long time. Thank you for having me.

It’s good to see you as well, but I never knew you grew up in Indonesia. How did that come about?

Dad’s Australian and mum’s from Glasgow, and dad accepted a job in Jakarta to build the Jakarta International School right in around 1973 or to grow it at the time when oil and everything was booming. It was post-Sukarno, and Suharto was leaping ahead and trying to bring Indonesia into the modern world. Building an international school to service the oil companies and all the other private sector foreign companies that were coming in was a critical thing. That’s what we did, two years in Sydney, followed by eleven years in Indonesia.

You speak Indonesian then. I studied it for a number of years and spent a year in Timor. It definitely is a little bit rusty. It’s amazing how it does melt away, so then to Scotland after eleven years?

I got sent to a boarding school in the UK. Whilst there, I became a British citizen at about that point. I became involved in British and Scottish culture. I had three grandfathers. One grandfather was killed by the Japanese serving with the Chindits in Burma. The other grandfather was a padre in the Black Watch, fighting through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and the Rhine.

My third grandfather was in the Royal Australian Signal Corps and was in Darwin when it was bombed. His two brothers fought in New Guinea. There was a really strong military presence in the family, like in many families at that time, going back to the Second World War. It seemed natural to join an Army at a time that was heavily involved in operations because it was the 1980s. The Australian Army was home defence at that point with the withdrawal from Singapore and all those sorts of things. The British Army offered a more exciting adventure.

You’ve seen a lot of service overseas with the British Army, haven’t you?

I did. I joined at the end of the Cold War. I studied Russian or Soviet economics, politics, and history at the London School of Economics. I joined Army to defend Western Germany against the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia happened. The war came down, and the wars started in the post-empire collapse. I was in Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, and a host of different places in different roles, primarily as a light infantry on counterinsurgency operations.

Why did you leave the Army? You were obviously on a pretty decent trajectory and had a lot of experience.

I’ve always been a bit of a pirate. I don’t conform effectively. Having a foot in multiple cultures is an advantage, but it also means that you’re never really inside one culture. I would say that I couldn’t conform to the expectations of a Highland Infantry regiment that much. I was frustrated by the constraints of the Army. I’d been injured four times on operations, and when I made the decision to leave, I’d been commanding an infantry company or doing other operational tours for almost three years continuously. From April 2001 until July 2004, I only spent four months not deployed on operations. I would be utterly exhausted, emotionally and physically. 9/ 11 was in the middle of that.

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Things weren’t going to slow down.

I remember being run for a job in Afghanistan. I was thinking to myself. I know better men than me that have done that job, and it exhausted and broke them. I didn’t see how I, as an individual, could win the war and capture Osama bin Laden or anything like that. I felt that it was time to go because I was no longer at peak performance.

You still did a lot of difficult jobs in a bunch of different difficult places. One of which was Bosnia, which is where we ended up meeting. The years in Iraq, I’m sure, would’ve been gruesome is probably one word, but also rather challenging and difficult.

I was lucky enough to be in Yugoslavia before the war started and to leave Bosnia Herzegovina in 2015, having seen a full spectrum of how the country moved. The same thing happened in Iraq. I was there in 2004, leading an Iraqi battalion of the Iraqi National Guard in a full-blown counterinsurgency internal security role. For example, within the brigade area, the busiest day was when we had 48 incidents in the brigade in one day.

In the battalion area of operations, five suicide bombings in the space of an hour and two against my company headquarters in the space of one hour. I went back to Iraq in 2014 and met my interpreters from 2004 in Basra, who took me out to lunch without any security presence whatsoever in Basra and then told me that it had been difficult, hard, and awful, but we had done the right thing.

That was quite a cathartic event because you worry about whether you’ve done the right thing, “Did we do it the right way? Did we do the right thing?” At the end of the day, out of that also came an issue because shortly afterwards, somebody tried to murder one of them. Since that time, I’ve been supporting his process through British courts to achieve permanent status in the UK as a refugee. It’s a long journey. From 2004 to 2022, Iraq and the people of Iraq have been part of my DNA in some ways.

That’s interesting. It does depend on, in many ways, who you speak to. I spent a bit of time in Iraq in 2018 and 2019. The diversity of thought of who should have done what and when is incredible. On day three, I had to evacuate a young female local staff member of mine because she had a credible threat to life by the Shia militia. At that point in time, it was assassinating prominent female social media influencers, if that’s the right word for Iraq, things turn south very quickly as well as for some of the others. It’s a complex place. You’ve done some of the hard parts.

I was lucky enough to live in Basra, Erbil, and Baghdad. Basra is more conservative and traditional, and also the crux of the war because they’ve been going through this since the Iran-Iraq war. There’s a friend of mine that you might want to speak to one day, a Turkish academic, who talks about the corruption of war and the way that it corrupts the soul and the individual society in every single way. We’re not talking about financial corruption, but just moral corruption and the collapse of liberal ideas because you can’t afford to stay liberal when you’re fighting for your life.

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Basra has been the focus of the war effort for almost 40 years on the margins of conflict. Baghdad is a large metropolis full of a thriving young population but on the edges of a very poor, disenfranchised population. Erbil has its own identity, vision, purpose, and its own drive and energy supported from outside and is very much seen as a very different Iraq. The three cities go in completely different directions.

It’s incredible. I do have to pick up on the irony that you said as we opened up. You went to defend Western Germany against the Soviet Union. After Iraq, you ended up in Ukraine for seven years, where you are, ironically, defending not necessarily Western Germany but Ukraine and the rest of Europe against Russia. How did you find your way into Ukraine?

I remember lying under the bed of my dormitory in a Scottish boarding school listening to my Walkman because we weren’t allowed to listen to Walkman after lights out. I might as well listen to something really worthwhile and anarchic. I used to listen to Radio Moscow. It was full in those days of economic statistics. This is the early 1980s, and Reagan is rampant. Listening to these descriptions of Ukraine, the grain harvest, the industrial output, the Port of Odesa, and the scale captured my imagination.

One of the reasons I wanted to study Soviet or Russian history at that time was because we didn’t know anything about it at all. The only thing that we touched upon in school was the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, but that was about it. My interest has sparked aged about 13 or 14. As I mentioned, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Al-Qaeda, all these things meant that I never got there. We diverted on the journey. In 2015, the opportunity came up to join the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. I arrived in Luhansk, which incidentally is 200 miles away from Stalingrad, at the far reach of that historical journey that the Nazis took.

It came true in the Donbas, driving past sunflower fields, the scale of which I could never imagine, twelve minutes to drive past one field one day. The UK doesn’t have anything of that scale. My horizons, geography, and my concept of time had been compressed in this small island nation. Seeing something like that was incredible. I instantly fell in love with the country, having fallen in interest with it many years before. I decided that I would do my best to try to prevent this war from happening, which is what our task was.

How were you supposed to stop the war? The war has never stopped since 2014. While it has for us, in our Western mindset, it certainly is not for the Ukrainians and Eastern Ukraine.

Our task was to, amongst other things, monitor and report on the facts and, in military parlance, in order to reduce tension and facilitate dialogue. Within that, there’s a whole range of implied tasks to extract from. You had on earlier, Arne Dalhaug, who was my boss at various stages during this. We worked very closely on how we do this. The mission analysis was critical for that.

There was a whole range of things, from reorganising the organisation in Donbas to being able to cope with the wide range of conflict drivers and the potential levers that could reduce tension at the local level. Our argument was all about incremental gain. We worked towards the fact that we weren’t going to prevent the conflict, but we had to work on trying to make sure that the conflict did not become worse. The conflict was already on.

What were the drivers? How could we incrementally reduce that? It was about presence. We didn’t have any weapons. Our presence and our reports might have a deterrent effect, and these were all mights, coulds, and shoulds because we didn’t have any real key performance indicators. We didn’t have any metrics against which to do this. You’ve got to remember, this is the first time an operation of this kind has been launched in Europe on this scale. We didn’t have any doctrine.

We didn’t have the organisation. We certainly did not have political free hands because the parties to the conflict were part of the organisation as well. It was pretty much very ad hoc. We used to get out of bed in the morning. The management has a coffee in the morning and says, “How are we going to get through today? What are we going to do to face the challenges?” I go back to that deterrence thing. Presence had a limited deterrent effect. We argued that every minute we spent on the ground in the hotspots was a minute that a bullet wasn’t flying and was, therefore, a minute of reduced tension. In that reduced tension, at some point in the future, the communities would not be as divided as perhaps they might be.

It was a very naïve approach. To be honest, Maz, we had no other tools. We had nothing that we could do at that level. At the diplomatic and political level, there was very little that could be done between two countries that were set on a course that was diametrically opposite. I’m not going to go into the Steinmeier Formula or anything like that. At the political and diplomatic level, there was never a chance for peace, given that the two sides had different objectives.



VOW 54 | Ukrainians
Ukrainians: At the diplomatic and political level, there is very little that could be done between two countries that were set on a course that was diametrically opposite.



It sounds horrible to say, but effectively human shields buying time, with the hope that the relationships between the conflicting parties would get so dense over time that conflict or war seemed the less likely option. Ultimately what Germany tried to do with Russia, with its Ostpolitik, was to intertwine Russia to Europe so deeply that the likelihood of war with Russia or Russia’s aggression towards Europe would diminish.

That’s fair, better-frozen conflict at the political-diplomatic level than a hot one, but unfortunately, if you were to look at post-1945, we’ve got so many of these things around the world that we’re trying to keep a lid on. That is, in the long, grand strategic perspective, the right tactic. I talked about the compression of time. In liberal democracies, capitalist countries, and societies, 5 or 10 years, that works because we can transfer the risk to the next generation or the local staff. We can transfer the risk to the next election. People in less temporarily compressed societies are looking at it at the outcome in a very different way.

That’s a nuanced point and one that we don’t necessarily touch on a lot because it requires reflection and understanding of our own vulnerabilities. When I say we, the West. You’re spot on. We think in days, years, and election cycles or business contracts. It is the Afghan adage, “You may have the watches, but we have the time,” We see time and time again how that plays out. It’s a tragedy, especially given the benefit of hindsight. I don’t know if this is a hard question or if it might be an easy question. How come we got to where we are in your view? How come Russia pulled the trigger? How come Putin pulled the trigger?

I can’t see inside his mind. He’d been warning for years that he wasn’t going to accept what we were doing. In all dealings with Russians historically, they don’t come to a negotiating table. They come to a table and tell you what they want. It’s not there to be negotiated. You have two radically different political systems, methods of thinking, hopes, and aspirations. From a radical European perspective, we’re thinking the best of the opposition. From the Russian realist perspective, we’re thinking they’re weak. Let’s push it a little bit further and see what happens. In terms of inevitability, I wouldn’t necessarily say that all of this was absolutely inevitable.

What was inevitable was Russia’s objective of being a great power. The ruthlessness in which Russia seeks to achieve that is they’ve been doing that throughout history. All great powers are ruthless when it comes to trying to achieve what they want to achieve. We failed to listen to the signals effectively. We, in 2008, had the potential to put down a red line by allowing Ukraine to join NATO. Potentially in 2014, it had replaced an infantry battalion in Kyiv. All of these things are potentials, but it requires forethought and a view that gets inside the other’s head. We achieved that.

I don’t think the West got inside Putin’s head because we were distracted by Al-Qaeda. We were distracted by oil. We were distracted by climate change and a whole range of other things that face us as pressing, and that face our populations as pressing. When I joined the British Army, I can’t remember how many soldiers we had, but it was almost 1/4 of a million. You’re going to broadcast that, but don’t quote me on that. We’re down to less than 90,000 because we didn’t see a credible threat on the horizon. That’s it. We’re comfortable. NATO got fat. I’m quoting somebody else now, a man called Robin Horsfall, “NATO got fat and took his eye off the ball.”

Many are describing it as the peace dividend. We got fat on the peace dividend because it was the end of history. The wall fell down. That was it. Democracy had won, and Fukuyama was the prophet. That’s it.

At the time, I was only eighteen years old, so I couldn’t argue because I knew nothing. I didn’t understand how anyone could see that there would be a peace dividend at the end of the empire because there had never been a peace dividend in history at the end of the empire. There had always been chaos in the border regions, the barbarians or hoards wandering free. At that point, I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t have any credibility. I couldn’t understand how people were saying, “Everything’s going to be cool.” It was a false hope.



VOW 54 | Ukrainians
Ukrainians: There had never been a peace dividend in history at the end of the empire. There had always been chaos in the border regions, the barbarians or hoards wandering free.



At that point in time, we were running away from snipers in Sarajevo, trying to get out and get into Germany as refugees. It certainly wasn’t at the end of history from our perspective, but it’s the benefit of hindsight. This is an interesting pivot on some of the work you’re doing because we do know, and as you mentioned, on the edges of the empire, we’re seeing something exceptionally horrendous occur in Ukraine.

With your experience and expertise in understanding war crimes and atrocities across a multitude of conflicts, I know that you are now in Scotland, but you left Ukraine. It was on the day or two before the invasion started. What are you hearing? What is your experience? I know you’ve got your fingers in too many paths. Tell us what you’re seeing where you’re sitting. What’s happening on the ground?

I don’t have access to any intelligence. I don’t have access to any special information. It’s media and friends on the ground. It’s former colleagues. It’s people I’m talking to who are in dangerous places. I’m not going to specify where because I don’t want to put them at risk. I’ll talk a little bit about that in a wee while as well. What’s going on in the media is people are saying this is the Russian way of war. They did it in Aleppo. They did it in Grozny, and they did it in Berlin in 1945. This is the Russian way of war. Particularly if you read The Soviet General Staff’s Debrief of the Cold War, which is a fascinating book, it’s quite a light read actually, but you don’t have to be a Soviet specialist to get through it.

I don’t even remember. A flexible response was NATO’s doctrine at that time. You hit us with a punch, we hit you with a punch, and eventually, we’ll get to thermonuclear warfare. Whereas the Soviet General Staff was saying, “Why would we have used the shaft of a hammer when we had the head? You forget that there was an ideological warfare. We’re going to whack you with nuclear or chemical weapons and roll over your dead embers.” That’s the Russian way of war.

The city is not an objective. There’s a first echelon objective, which is the city. The second echelon objective, or the commander’s intent, is something far beyond. We’re looking at what Russia is doing from a Western liberal perspective, wringing our hands and saying, “This is awful.” It is awful. From the Russian perspective, it’s there to achieve an objective. That objective is not necessarily clear to us. We are thinking about Putin’s legacy. He’s not measuring that in the next few years. He’s measuring that over the centuries. We talked about time and perspective. It’s a mistake to look at what Russia’s doing and think that they’re making a mistake.

This is their way of war. This is deliberate. This is cynical. The attack on Kramatorsk, which is a place that I loved and spent an awful lot of time in when I was in Donbas, was in accordance with Soviet doctrine. It’s to create a commander’s paradox and overloads the local defender so that he cannot use his resources to defend effectively, create a humanitarian crisis, and terrorise the population.

This is a deliberate war against the civilian population. It’s not a Russian mistake. It’s not an error. This is the way they do war. It’s the way they’ve always done it. We need to look beyond this and start looking at it with a proper historical filter and a proper filter of understanding, the Soviet war machine, to try to work out what he’s actually trying to achieve and not assume that the Russian Federation Army has been beaten. We beat them in tactical battles, but we won every tactical battle in Afghanistan. We won every tactical battle in Vietnam.

That’s really interesting. It comes down to defining what success looks like from Putin’s perspective and whether we are misguided in what it might be. I recently had Peter Warren Singer on, who you and I talked about briefly before we started. We talked about the Ukrainian victory in the Information War. By that, the West celebrated with Ukraine, but then also I had Carl Miller on, who cautioned against hubris, because he drew attention to the fact what we in the West are seeing is the Western lens and the Western outlets. We are not seeing the rest of the world.

He and Carl Miller, in particular, talked about Russian information operations in the BRICS countries and that there’s a concerted effort of shaping and influencing public opinion in those countries. We often forget that the West is merely a percentage of the world’s population and not necessarily the sole source of power, influence, and funding for the Tsar that is sitting in the Kremlin.

Before the war started, I was reading criticism of Facebook and its algorithms and the way that it cleanses the English language hate speech, but it doesn’t cleanse foreign language hate speech because it just doesn’t have the capacity to do it. That’s fascinating. We assume that this is an English-speaking war from our perspective. There are six billion people who don’t give a crap about that.

Who might have an opinion or might be shaped into an opinion? You spent a lot longer than I have in Iraq, but my eyes were opened to the power of Facebook in Iraq. Facebook equals the internet in Iraq, which to me was amazing. In Australia or Western countries, Facebook is merely one source of information. For most people, it’s a bit of fun. In Iraq, you buy your phone, and you get Facebook for free, but you pay an arm and a leg for the internet to google something. Facebook becomes the source of all emotions, and it’s incredible how much actually happens on Facebook.

At one point, ISIS was 9 kilometres from my front door in 2014 or 2015. They were so effective in the use of social media to terrorise the enemy. They would tweet or use the local equivalence of Twitter to say, “We’re 1 kilometre from this village,” and everyone in the village would run away when actually they were about 50 kilometres away and roll up without a fight. The use of fear and terror, there wasn’t a counter to that. I remember having a discussion with some British government representatives at the time. They said, “We can’t counter this because we can’t lie.” The restriction on a Western liberal democracy is that it has to deal with the truth and facts.

You cannot persuade somebody who’s in fear of the facts. They are running because of an instinct and because of a rumour. Your counter information in that tactical phase, the 24 hours, the 72 hours, or whatever, has got to be as hot as the enemies. We are restrained ethically in doing that. We also don’t have the firepower. When I say firepower, the British or Western governments can’t afford to pay for the capability to do that. When you’re paying government wages to somebody to counter disinformation against a jazzed-up radical from whichever enemy grouping they come from, you’re not going to win.

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In the comparative costs from attack to defend, it’s cheap to attack in the cyber or the information domain, but to defend this is exceptionally expensive. You are now in Scotland. We started talking about some of the people that you are in contact with. I also know that you’re trying to do a number of different things, some of which are to get people out. Who are these people? What do we mean by getting them out? Where are you getting them out from, why, and how within reason?

I was the Head of Operations for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Luhansk. I was based in rebel, separatist-held territory or non-government-controlled areas. There are many different ways to say that, depending on who you have to speak to. In 2015, I read the SOPs on what would happen if we had to relocate or evacuate. It was clear that we would relocate our staff to safer parts of the country, but not their families. When the war started, I’d been evacuated a couple of days beforehand by the British government, which ordered me out. I’m grateful to them for having the prescience of knowing what was going to happen and getting my daughter and me out of Ukraine early, much against my instincts.

Had I not had a child there in Ukraine, I probably would’ve stayed. It was a sackable offence to stay and a contract as well. I knew what was going to come. On March 7th, I established, with friends of the family, a safe refuge in the Highlands of Scotland. We’ve been working together ever since to move people into that area. It’s a huge effort by the local community. My role in this is easy. It is to introduce people to that, but who am I focusing on? We had approximately 800 local staff and their families. It’s difficult to tell you how many people that is, but if you assume a nuclear family, that’s 2,500 to 3,000 people.

When the war happened, people reacted in different ways. The leadership in different locations acted in different ways. Some did what was right. Some did what the rules said. We had staff left behind. We had staff who missed the convoy. We had staff who were already trapped because things happened so quickly. The organisation is bound by strict protocols and ethics. It’s a bureaucratic organisation that was never designed for this type of thing. I understood that they would be limited. We established a GoFundMe, page. We established a Facebook group to support each other, and we began sharing information and working on ways to get people out of hot zones and to a place of safety and resettlement. There are several phases to that.

As a result along that, as they were moving and as we were moving, then we started to get other calls for help from people we’d never met before and people who’d been associated with the organisation. It’s becoming a bit bigger and difficult to manage. Mission number one of what I’m doing is to get innocent people out of a point of danger and to get them to a place where they can find a safe refuge to become strong and rehabilitate.

I want to clarify. Given the fact that you said that you were working in the occupied territories, or whatever name we call it, but in Eastern Ukraine, is it safe to assume that all of these people are now effectively behind the frontline?

Not everybody, but there are. If I give you an example, over the previous seven years we’d had in my team in Luhansk, it was a total of three members of staff who were taken by hostile intelligence services, tortured, and made to make confessions to things. In the last few weeks, it’s been three men taken, tortured, and made to give coerced interviews on local television. We have several people currently missing. I’m not going to comment further on that side of things because we are limited in what we are able to know. We are limited in what we are able to do on that side.

On the other side, until then, we had staff members stuck in Kherson and Mariupol. There were different efforts to help and rescue people there, and all cost money. That money comes from individuals in the organisation providing money into the GoFundMe that we’ve got because the organisation will not, and they call in this people smuggling or human trafficking, pay to rescue its own staff. The reason those staff are stuck there is because the organisation’s SOPs did not allow for them to be relocated with their families, so they chose to stay with their families.

This is an absolute moral abrogation of their duty to their staff. Although they are working to do certain things, this is the gap that we are filling. I work with a small team of volunteers from the organisation, both local and international staff. We are working not across purposes to the organisation but in parallel or in tandem to try to get people out of danger zones. We’ve managed to get fourteen people out of Kherson and Mariupol to places that are safe.

That picture in Mariupol is rapidly changing. Are you still able to get people Mariupol, or is that window closed?

That window from Mariupol City is pretty much closed. I’ve been working with a number of veterans from different armies around the world and volunteers who were inside Mariupol, who were able to move people at exceptionally high risk to themselves. We are even limited in being able to give proof of life. We have an awful lot of calls in the darkness saying, “Please, can you find my uncle? Can you find my mother? Can you prove that she’s alive? Is she alive? We haven’t heard from her since the 2nd of March.” It’s heartbreaking.

Before, it was possible to start looking for people. Now, it’s not possible to give anybody any hope or to close that loop. It’s the most heartbreaking part of it. A service that we were able to offer in a limited way is dead, and some of the people that we’re working with are not with us anymore to do that. As the Russian horde advances, these opportunities closed down to help and find people.



VOW 54 | Ukrainians
Ukrainians: Before, it was possible to start looking for people. Now, it’s not possible to give anybody any hope or to close that loop. It’s the most heartbreaking part of it.



That sounds horrific. I can’t even imagine what some of these people have gone through. One point I want to pick up on is you are not formally supported by any organisations. I also want to make the point that some of the people you’re working with are some of the most highly qualified people. This is not a band of amateurs that are trying to tinker around the edges. You’ve got some of the most hardened warriors that are doing the hard yards on the frontlines, as well as some exceptionally competent people with decades of experience working in these conflict-affected areas.

The only difference is that this is funded by the people. It is not funded or sanctioned by any state or formal organisation because to do so would ultimately be a breach of their ethical responsibilities. If it was a nation-state that was funding you, it could potentially worsen the relations or tensions already existing with Russia. Is that broadly what I’m hearing?

I established the fund anticipating because I knew the organisation and the boundaries that it has as I established the fund because I knew they would be restricted. Even if they were unrestricted, they would still be slow in their decision-making. We are in a kinetic manoeuvre war, which requires rapid decision-making and requires us to establish a tempo that can defeat the enemy’s decision-action cycle. We have had successes, and we have had losses in what we are doing. I can’t go into the losses because they’re still sensitive. What do I mean by losses? We have failed to move people in time and therefore have lost the opportunity to move them. We didn’t establish an effective tempo against the enemy’s decision-action cycle.

We are all private citizens. There is not a single person here being funded by the state to do all this. We are using our own money to do this. All of us lost our jobs on March 31st, 2023, when the mandate ended. We’re relying on friends and family to get things going. Let me give you an example. If we were backed by a private sector organisation, there are rescue companies lifting people in Kyiv for $100,000 a person. That’s the cost in Kyiv. If I was to average, and each location is different, we are looking at $400 per person to achieve the same effect.

We’re using our local network and experience. I’m nowhere near the money. The money is managed by three women, two of whom are retired British police officers and one of whom worked in organised crime for many years. The third person worked in civil society for the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and Ukraine. All of us worked together. There’s a board making a decision on how that money is used. The priority for the money is saving a life. I would say that we probably have over 100 people in mortal danger from the staff. The window of opportunity to help them is closing rapidly. We work at $400 per person. It gives you an indication of how much we need to work. Those prices differ depending on which city you’re in and where you are.

I will make the point loud and clear to invite my readers to support your cause naturally, as I will be supporting it. Some of the people you’ve already rescued. Can you describe some of their experiences or who some of these people are, what their backgrounds are, what they’ve gone through, and where they are now?

I’ll describe somebody generically because I don’t want to give away a security perspective. They are somebody who has been in a basement for 4 to 5 weeks. They’ve been under shell fire. Every time they’ve popped their heads up above ground in order to get water or food, they’ve been a target. They are our local staff. They’re drivers, language assistants, accountants, and human resource people. They are exceptionally bright, well-qualified people whose worlds have been crushed. They are on the run. Getting them out is just the first step in the journey.

Step 1 is to survive, and that’s up to them. They survived. Step 2 is escape, and many have escaped on their own and others that we have helped. Step 3 is to get them to a place of relative safety. We have transit accommodations that we’ve established in different cities inside Ukraine. There’s a network of drivers to get them to a safe place. Nowhere in Ukraine is safe. It’s all relative safety. The first safe point is when you cross the border into a NATO country. It’s time to reflect. We can transit in. I’ve made contact with an Australian bloke who’s doing a brilliant job in Poland, helping people out of Ukraine. We’re working together on a number of issues. I’ve got a network of drivers and volunteers.

You and I have a common friend from Bosnia who’s in Lviv with his dad, driving people out. There’s a mate of mine from my town in Scotland. He’s South African. He’s been driving people in and out. My middle son is heading off shortly to volunteer and work on the border. We’re using our friends and our families to make this happen. None of it is official. It is a small band of disparate, determined, and willing volunteers who are trying to win the battle of getting my friends’ colleagues and Ukrainian citizens to safety. There’s transit accommodation right across Europe. We’ve got safe houses in every single country in Europe, where we can place people for however much time they need to decide what to do next.

The next part is getting them to the UK because everyone in this group speaks English fluently. The UK offers a three-year stable visa. It’s slow to get in, but it’s stable and offers good support in safeguarding, which some of the other systems don’t. We get them to the UK, then they are resettled. We’re in the early stages of this. They’re resettled and then rehabilitated and able to return stronger to whatever Ukraine is going to look like in the future to help rebuild the country.

Whenever and if ever that actually might happen.

It’s a long process. There’s a hot flurry of action to get people out and then it’s holding hands and leading people out. We talked about information. For refugees and IDPs, at the moment, there is too much information. They’re going off social media and then here’s your choice. “Come to Portugal, we’ve got great beaches.” Come to Spain, our beaches are better.” “Come to France, our beaches are marginally better.” There’s too much information out there, and people are coming out of a burning house.

You’re asking them to read information or make decisions whilst they’ve suffered from smoke inhalation. Their clothes are on fire. They’ve lost their possessions. They can’t actually see because of the smoke. What we are trying to do is to take people by the hand and say, “Follow me, and we’re going to get you to a safe place.” Once you’re in that safe place, then start thinking about the future and what’s going to happen.

I fled from Sarajevo in the second last UN convoy that ever left the city. What you’re describing there is giving me goosebumps. I was a child of 10 or 11 at the time. I distinctly remember that feeling of uncertainty, of not understanding what’s happening around you. I know there are hundreds of thousands of kids going through that same feeling. It was mothers mainly because fathers can’t leave the country. That was very much the same for Bosnia. It was my mom that fled with me and my brother because my dad was a fighting-age male. He was fighting in Bosnia.

I know that it’s the same thing is happening in Ukraine. The reason I say that is because I want to bring to light the plight of those people and how difficult those situations are and how unbelievably lifesaving it is to have somebody who’s willing to give you a hand, whatever that is. Whether that takes you to a safe house so you can have a night to stop, pause, catch your breath and let the adrenaline die down from literally running away to somebody giving you an idea about how to apply for a visa to the UK, Germany, Italy or to wherever it is. Open the door ever so slightly towards an option that you might not have known. A lot of these people, in this case, is they’re perhaps fortunate because they speak English quite comfortably. They at least have a marginal likelihood of being able to find a way once they land in a place like the UK.

The beautiful thing is, in terms of human spirits, so many of them get across that border and then say, “How can I help? What can I do?” They’re still traumatised. We’ve had difficult conversations here with people. I talk to people who are running at 1,000 miles a second, where their brains are. They’re saying, “I can help.” We can help people as well. We are helping people that don’t speak English. We have got Daniel Rusty from Melbourne. He’s got some disabled people who are deaf and blind. We’ve got people who can do sign language in Ukrainian. The people are crossing the border, taking a breath and saying, “What can I do to help?”

The beautiful thing is, in terms of human spirits, so many people get across that border and then say, “How can I help? What can I do?” Share on X

It’s marvellous to see. It puts things into perspective. When I look at some of my colleagues, and we’ve had some difficult discussions, I’ve lost a number of friends. One person said to me, “As a human being, I agree with what you’re doing, but as a professional, I can’t let you do it.” That’s exactly the sort of attitude that enabled the Holocaust to happen and genocide to take place. It’s marvellous to see the human spirit fighting back. As you know, conflict also brings out the worst or the weaknesses in people as well. It’s been disappointing to see the reaction of people in privileged positions as well, the why we are fighting as private citizens to help people.

It is another important piece of the work you’re doing. You said the word fighting. I know you’re not physically fighting kinetically, but you’re also doing a lot of work in getting much-needed supplies into Ukraine using the very same network you’re talking about. On the one hand, you are getting people out from behind the frontlines or very difficult situations, and then on the other hand, you’re also getting in some much-needed equipment to the local fighters in support of the war effort. Can you talk about that a little bit?

There’s a government-to-government activity, and battle-winning equipment is going in. I didn’t want to get involved in that. From my time in Bosnia, where I’d worked with Bosnian Defence Industry, for example, I knew a number of people. On day four of the war, I connected the Bosnian Defence Industry with the right people and then walked away from that. At that point, X number of X was available on a weekly basis to go in. That is going well. There are huge amounts of government supplies going in and out. Those are going to the government, and the government is setting the priority for where they’re going.

Across Ukraine, through this network, I get phone calls saying, “Can I have a helmet, please? Can I have five helmets?” There’s this idea in terms of civil society that we want civil society to record war crimes or to bear witness to what’s going on. They need personal protective equipment. To give you an idea of what a brand new helmet costs, there are different levels of ballistic protection, but to equip 100 people with body armour and level four ballistic helmets from the UK will cost £81,000. Civil society doesn’t have that.

That’s a huge part of the fundraising effort. To move 100 helmets costs exactly the same as moving five helmets. Somehow we’re trying to aggregate the support. Crucially, we cannot detract and must not detract from the Ukrainian government’s efforts. I have focused on surplus equipment. I tapped up the Regimental Association and went into the Facebook group. My inspiration, incidentally, is a film called Sea Wolves from the 1970s. It’s about a group of retired blokes who decided to sink a German ship in the Indian Ocean. I hit up the Regimental Association. After 40 years of existing in waters around the world, it sank in the Black Sea. In fact, it turned into the Kursk. I got onto the Regiment Association. It’s probably the same in the Australian Army, isn’t it? You leave the Army. You steal whatever you can.

I can’t say that. I’m in for the second time.

I put a call out and said, “We’ve got a container. Come with what you’ve got. You got two weeks.” I set a target of equipping a battalion. We equipped a battalion. I was talking to the defence command at that low level. Let me focus on what battalion we’re talking about. We’re talking about home guard. We’re not talking about tier 1 or tier 2. These are guys that are at the end of the chain of supply. They’re not receiving the stuff that’s going straight into the frontline. As I said, I’m not going to detract from government-to-government efforts or the national priorities, but there’s got to be confidence built.

There’s got to be stuff that goes in, and the stuff that we supplied is not necessarily the best in the world, but it’s good enough if you haven’t got anything. It’s a bit ancient. There were no pith helmets, there were no feather bonnets, Crimean War, but we delivered a capability that enabled one battalion to increase its holdings by 110% of PPE and other stuff. We also moved medical equipment. That was a pool of 2,000 veterans. We were lucky we got vehicles from a corporation and fuel funded by private donors. This is a separate activity from what I’m talking about, separate funding lines, separate management, everything.

We moved this stuff across Europe, and it was delightful. The average age is 56. We realised that we weren’t young boys anymore after 42 hours of driving non-stop from Scotland to the border. It was worthwhile. We’re going to do it again. We put out a call to compete with other Regiments and asked them to dig out their stuff. I don’t know how that’s going, but what is of interest is that there seems to be a flurry of things happening down south in England with similar activities. Why is this important? You’ve seen a lot in the media about what this war is about. Is it about Ukraine or Russia, or is it something wider than that?

It’s important for us to trade space for time in this war. The information campaign, who is watching this war? Who’s learning lessons from it? Who is identifying how they might go for a territorial stake across the straits of Taiwan at some point? Who thinks that they’re going to take advantage because the West didn’t do enough? Our role here, as former soldiers, is to identify that the moral position, the will to fight, and the will to win are critical. We need to do whatever is in our power to do that. I’m not fit enough to fight anymore, and neither are the rest of the guys.



VOW 54 | Ukrainians
Ukrainians: Our role here, as former soldiers, is to identify that the moral position, the will to fight, and the will to win are critical. We need to do whatever is in our power to do that.



We talked about incremental gains. By providing one helmet and one set of body armour, that’s an incremental step that trades space for time delays what could be inevitable in terms of a tier-one war between states. I would say that it’s a duty to try to do that. When you look back to 1940 and dig for victory, tearing down iron railings to go on, everything has to go in. This is not a total war for us. It’s not a total war for the West. It’s a total war for Ukraine. Ukraine represents liberal democratic values, a young, nascent democracy that’s being smashed by a fascist repressive state. If we don’t think that’s coming towards us, then we’re very naive. It’s our duty to delay that.

It’s a moral position. The other piece that’s important to me here is you’re making the war individual. It is about the individual. It is not about nation-states and geopolitics. It is about an individual. You are supplying one helmet to one soldier who’s perhaps forgotten because he is in the territorial defence. He’s standing at the end of his street with potentially an AK-47 that he’s not the first to use it. Now, he’s got a helmet.

I was to give you examples of some of these people because they’re my friends, and they were professionals who had never ever touched a weapon. They never considered that they were going to do this. One of my friends ran five kilometres one week before the war for the first time in her life without stopping. She’s in the infantry after four days of training, and we managed to get a helmet and set a body armour for her. We forget that it is the uniqueness of a social media war, of a modern war. We talked about the impact of social media on offensive and defensive operations, but now it is personal.

Everyone can watch what’s happening. They can watch the atrocities, and they can get involved as an incredible bot that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have got. You download the bot and drive past a Russian tank in your car. You film the tank, and it geolocates. It automatically goes into the targeting system. Citizen warfare, at its best, is asymmetric warfare in the digital age, and it’s powerful. Individualising this war for me is personal.

This is my twelfth conflict, and it is personal this time. I’ve been a professional in every other single conflict, and this is the first time that I’ve been a private citizen in a conflict. I can afford to make it personal. I tend to make it personal and to keep making it personal because it is about individual freedoms that someone else is trying to take away.

As somebody who witnessed the horrors of war as a child and whose life has been intimately shaped by mortars and artillery rounds, it is because of the moral compass of some that I ended up where I am. It is because of the moral compass of people like you who helped us get through Croatia and Austria into Germany to find a house in Munich or to stay in Munich until we had a distant relative come and find us to be able to then put us up into another friend of his house, where we stayed for a year. We didn’t even know if my dad was there or alive.

We had hope that one day we’d go back. 1 year turned into 2, 3, and 3 and a half, and then the war finished. We had nothing and nowhere to go back to. These are trying times for many people. It is the attention and the care of those who are morally touched by this that absolutely change lives. Duncan, I want to say thank you firstly for giving me the time to speak to me but also for the work that you’re doing. My final question to you is this. How can people support the work that you’re doing?

My first call out is to remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. There’s been a flurry of interest. People are donating and sending whatever they can. Now start thinking about how you can sustain your support. That’s the overall picture to private citizens. Secondly, we need cash for our operations to rescue our staff. I’m conscious that I’m focusing on our staff and their families, but that’s because I’m limited in my capacity. I can’t save everybody. As this train hurdles through Ukraine with our staff on it for a better expression, there are people that are jumping on that we’ve never met before, and we’re making wonderful friends with people that we never met before to help them.

We’re not going to say no to anybody, but in order to move people out of dangerous areas, we need cash. We need that on our GoFundMe page. We need it now. The window of opportunity is closing in a number of places. We have had a turnover in three weeks of £18,000. We’ve got a target of £65,000 to maintain the tempo of operations. All of this is managed by a committee of three people with a lot of experience who are looking at how that money is spent and who is targeting saving a life. Every 48 hours, we get together to look at who’s most vulnerable and how we’re going to spend that money. I’ll put out an appeal to Australians everywhere and people around the world. You think this is far away, but it’s much closer than you think.

Duncan, it’s been wonderful to see you, notwithstanding the circumstances, but my hat is off to you for what you’re doing. Keep your head up, and I look forward to talking to you again in the future.

Cheers, Maz. You take care and good luck with the upcoming baby.

Thanks, mate. Cheers.

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