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Into the Heart of the Ukrainian-Russian Conflict

A story of how a passionate business owner goes on a journey to extract an employee out of Ukraine

The US-Ukraine Connection

The story of our US-Ukraine connection started when Kevin met Dave. Days away from quitting his last “real” job as a seafood plant manager, Kevin reconnected with a long-lost friend from high school. Little did he know, this long-lost friend was dating his soon-to-be business partner. After meeting Dave through their mutual connection, it didn’t take long for the two to start bouncing business ideas off each other. The flow of creativity soon grew into a business partnership that has withstood the test of time.

What started as a contingency recruiting firm quickly grew to analyzing job data on a grand scale and presenting this data to the public rather than one-on-one recruiting. The amount of data and processing necessary fast surpassed the skills of these two, they would need more than just their personal computers and the data entry team. They required employees with excellent software development skills. 

Meeting Igor 

Ukraine seemed like a hotspot as Kevin and Dave began their search for software developers. Young Ukrainian citizens were talented, skilled, and motivated. That was all Kevin and Dave needed to help build their empire. 

Over the next two to three years, Kevin and Dave built a team of 20 developers and QA, with Igor taking on the Lead Developer role in the newly founded Ternopil office. By 2017, Igor decided to move to Lviv, where he would work for a more prominent company. 

Luckily, Igor maintained his working relationship with Kevin and Dave. Soon after moving, Kevin and Dave hired Igor full-time and set out to Lviv, Ukraine, to find a new office for him. During the trip to Ukraine, Kevin and Dave solidified their relationship with current employees. They were convinced their Ternopil office would support existing ideas while their Lviv office would work on future projects. Igor had secured a long-term future with Kevin and Dave. 

In the face of Covid and overseas management issues, Igor became Kevin and Dave’s safe haven. It was time to redevelop the Ukrainian business and employment infrastructure. So, the idea was to combine the Ternopil and Lviv offices and leave the remaining employees in Igor’s hands. 

Whispers of War

Eastern Europe has a history of contention, but the Russian-Ukraine conflict is thought to have sparked in 2017 with the Russian annexation of Crimea. The Ukrainians expressed their aversion to Russia and Russian customs; however, the conflict felt so far away and distant for the Americans and Western Ukrainians alike. Our Ukrainian friends seemed unbothered even with the Russian military encroaching upon their border. Over time, their vantage point remained steady… until the morning of February 24th. 

The Ukrainian-Russian Conflict

On February 24th, 2022, Russia crossed the border into Ukraine. By chance, Dave was visiting Kevin in LA the morning of the invasion. After hearing the news, there was no time to think about work, as the most crucial feat became figuring out how the company could help our people in Ukraine. Dave and Kevin reached out to each team member. The first thought was, is everyone on the team safe? Next, it was time to brainstorm what they could do to help. 

After a week of contemplating and communicating, they found that Poland was a common destination for several employees. One employee anticipated the invasion a week in advance and evacuated Lviv. Meanwhile, four other team members were traveling back to Ukraine from a vacation in Crete when the attack began. Luckily, they were on a layover in Dubai when Ukraine shut down their airspace. So, the four of them flew to Warsaw, Poland, to get as close to home while trying to decide their next steps. 

The Government Declares Martial Law

Before the team could make any decisions about leaving the country, the president of Ukraine declared Martial Law. With martial law now in effect, men between 18-60 were not allowed to leave Ukraine. Not only was their presence government-mandated, but at this point, crossing the border was mass chaos. As a result, it would have been self-destructive for any male employees to return to Ukraine. Thankfully, most of our team was in a safe city with food and shelter, which helped put Kevin and Dave at ease. 

But then they still had to think about those who were still in Ukraine. So, here we are – a company nurturing and planning for Ukrainians who may never have the luxury of living in their country again. As Kevin and Dave began to spring into action for those stuck in Ukraine, the first thought was…

How can we get them out?

Extracting Igor

As Dave and Kevin began having discussions with all employees, the first question was

Who wanted to leave Ukraine? 

If anyone had the desire to leave, Kevin and Dave were going to do all they could to help them leave and set up accommodations in another country.  All employees gave the same answer: they were safe and content staying in their homes until things smoothed over.  Everyone except Igor. 

Five months before the conflict, Igor and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world. With the threat of a widespread invasion, Igor wanted to protect his family at all costs. But with men not allowed to leave the country, there was no legal way for him to go, and he didn’t want to send his wife and baby out on their own. So, they needed a plan. 

Stumbling Blocks

Could Igor manage to cross the borders inconspicuously? No, because border crossings were chaotic. After dodging thieves and preparing for gas shortages, there was still a long, arduous journey to make it across the border. There were also rumors of checkpoints to catch any men trying to escape. 

Could we charter a flight to go retrieve Igor and his family? No, the government closed the Ukrainian airspace.

The only way was to go over to Ukraine and get him out of there. So, over the next few days, Kevin began making plans. Everything seemed to be coming together, from border crossing points to reserving cars to finding a hotel to lay low. But something was missing. 

Kevin and Dave could do all the easy work, but how will they know what to avoid? How will they know what to do if something goes wrong? With the sort of risk this mission carried, they needed someone on the inside. Someone with connections in Eastern Europe who has done this before. Kevin reached out to every contact he could think of, anyone with military, security or mercenary connections.  After many dead ends, including meeting with a want-to-be mercenary who dressed the part perfectly (think Charlie Sheen in Navy Seals), Kevin felt deflated. It seemed that there was no option to help Igor and his family.

That’s when Kevin unexpectedly heard of a man named Robert. After the disaster of a meeting with the so-called mercenary, Kevin met the owner of an event production company. In casual conversation, Kevin explained his recent events and described the type of person he’d been looking for. The production company’s owner immediately told Kevin, “You HAVE to meet Robert.”

A Man Named Robert

The first question Kevin had was, can we trust this guy?

I mean, really… who could dive head-first into trusting someone you don’t know with a mission like this? It was time to do a little digging, starting with a phone call. 

To Kevin’s surprise, Robert wasn’t just equipped with the knowledge necessary to navigate the Ukrainian landscape. Using his connections and military background, he had done this before. Within the last week, he helped extract a man and his family from southern Ukraine.  

Over the next 12 hours, confidence grew, especially when incredible reviews from famous businessmen began pouring in. Everyone Kevin spoke to said the same thing

Robert is your man. If I was in this position, he’s the only person I would trust with my life.

At that point, Kevin knew Robert was THE guy. Yeah, it was going to cost. Yeah, it was going to be risky. But it would all be worth it. So, he began to plan. 

The Plan

Kevin heard Robert’s name on Tuesday, March 8. They spoke for the first time the next day, met face-to-face that Thursday, and booked flights to Poland by Saturday, March 12. He knew instantly that this was the team, and there was no time to waste.

Getting to Poland

First and foremost, Robert and Kevin had to get over there. They planned to fly to Poland to meet with Robert’s team, made of a Polish-American ex-Special Force Member (Luke) and CIA and Embassy intelligence. With this team, Robert had everything he needed in Poland to monitor the landscape, get up-to-date intel, and safely get Igor across the border. 

Storylines 

If Border Patrol caught Robert and his team with Igor, they would need a story – something believable, yet not too outlandish. They created three different storylines.

Maybe Igor was a US employee helping to relocate company offices to Poland due to the current conflict. On the other hand, Igor could have been a translator for CNN, and he was traveling to Poland to interview refugees. He may have even been part of the Rubicon Project Team. Despite the story, Robert and his team had the proof and documentation ready.

A Back-Up Plan

In a worst-case scenario, the team knew they might have to get Igor across the border by foot. So, they would need a backpack, passport copies, hiking gear, GPS monitors, and satellite phones. Though not ideal, everyone was ready to turn this possibility into a success.

Ready, Set, Action

Ready

The plans were set, albeit rushed and loose. Kevin and the team were packing their bags after three days of planning. There was no question that Kevin would be the one out of Dave and him who would take the trip. Not only was he curious, but he didn’t trust putting his employee’s (and now friend’s) life in the hands of strangers. If anything were to go wrong, Kevin wanted to be there. But that wasn’t the only reason.

Firstly, Kevin is the one who made contact with Robert. Secondly, Kevin’s status as a recently-divorced man meant he could go without the other half’s permission, but that didn’t mean he would keep her in the dark. Kevin mentioned to his ex that he was going, and she was surprisingly in full support. She sprang at the opportunity to help and began designing and printing fake business cards and letterheads for the mission. 

After earning the support of his ex, Kevin began notifying his family that he was taking a trip to Europe. However, no one other than Dave and his brother knew he was on a mission to rescue Igor. 

Set

Now, it was go-time. 

Kevin and Robert used the 12-hour flight to Poland to review the plan, detail storylines, and rest. Once landed, they retrieved the car and set off to the hotel. That evening, Robert’s CIA connect and the three-man team discussed the plan’s details one last time over dinner.

From Warsaw to Lviv

The next morning, the team set out to the Ukrainian border. The clear blue skies and cool temperatures in the Polish countryside almost made them forget the risky mission they set out to accomplish. After five and a half hours of peaceful travel, the team reached the Ukrainian border, where a few cars were awaiting entry. 

As the team made their way through the border, border agents repeatedly asked:

what is your reason for traveling into Ukraine?

Thanks to the storylines they created, the team was never without an answer. Even though the answers varied each time, the border agents were never suspicious.Once across the border, the team had a two-hour trek to Igor’s apartment in Lviv. As they drew closer to Lviv, the military presence became thicker. The team hoped to make it in and out without police noticing.

In no time, they were standing in Igor’s apartment with heavy feelings of anxiety and excitement. Igor looked and Kevin and said, “I can’t believe you are here!”  Kevin responded, “Neither can I, but let’s do this.”  Robert and Luke parted ways to meet with other security professionals under Robert’s hire who were guarding news personnel in the Lviv city center to gather more intel while Igor, his wife, and Kevin tied up some loose ends in his apartment. 

Action

As the team reassembled with Igor and his family, it was the moment of truth. They packed their belongings into Igor’s car and Robert turned to Kevin and said “You drive the wife and baby out of Ukraine, Igor will ride with us.”  The moment of no return. They would make it across the border, and no one would be left behind. 

Crossing the Border

Igor, CNN’s newest translator, hopped in the car with Robert and Luke. Meanwhile, Kevin apprehensively agreed to transport Igor’s wife and newborn baby. Robert and Kevin shared live maps tracking maps, and they set off to cross the border. 

They arrive at the first checkpoint shortly after leaving the apartment, and Kevin is on edge. Though he makes it through smoothly, checkpoint agents pulled Igor’s car aside. After a few short minutes, they were all back on the road again, having successfully completed the first checkpoint hurdle. 

As both cars closed in on the border, they approached a line of vehicles. Anxious to get across, there was no time for waiting. Igor’s car threw on the hazards and began passing the cars. Kevin followed suit. Both vehicles continued until they reached the second checkpoint. 

The Second Checkpoint

Using the story that they are CNN journalists and Igor is their translator, the first car made a smooth pass through the checkpoint. But when Kevin explained to security that he skipped the line because he had a sick infant in the car, he was quickly denied. Border patrol urged Kevin to go to the back of the line like everyone else. 

Out of all things, Kevin knew that being separated from the group would be a disaster. But instead of panicking, Kevin pulled the car to the side, calculated his next move, and decided to try again. As Kevin pulled up, unsure of what he was going to say, there was suddenly a heap of commotion beside him. Adjacent to Kevin’s car, a 65-year-old man was yelling at the top of his lungs in Ukrainian, which averted the guards’ attention. The male guards grabbed their weapons and began closing in. Meanwhile, the single female guard backed away to protect herself from pending gunfire. Kevin got her attention and showed her his US passport, which immediately got him waived through. 

The Polish Border

Though they experienced some turbulence at the second checkpoint, each stop after that was smooth sailing… until the final Ukrainian checkpoint, feet away from entering Poland. Igor’s CNN story worked every time up until then, and Kevin just had to show his passport. But at that final stop, things got chaotic when the men were pulled out of their car. They repeated their CNN story over and over. Robert even offered bribes at every opportunity, but none of the guards would budge. At this point, there was no way Ukrainian guards were allowing them to enter Poland, and they were forced to turn around. Meanwhile, Kevin, Iryna, and Danny had safely crossed into Poland. It was the first time failure had crept into anyone’s mind. Confidence dwindled, but not enough to make the team quit.


It was time for plan B. 

The Next 36 Hours

It was midnight when Kevin successfully crossed the Ukrainian border into Poland, and Igor’s car was turned away. In an effort to remain calm, each individual assured the other that the battle was not over and there was still a chance. But Igor and his wife would have to split up for it to work. 

So after Kevin spoke to Robert over the phone, he began driving north to their hideaway in Warsaw, Poland. Meanwhile, Robert, his team, and Igor began to head south for Plan B: Cross the Ukrainian Border through Romania. According to Robert’s intel and previous experience, Romania’s border would be a better getaway if crossing into Poland was a fail. 

After 5 hours of tedious travel through the night, Kevin was anxious for a report from Robert. But after reaching the hotel, he was shocked to learn that crossing the border in Romania had been unsuccessful. Not only was Border Patrol refusing to accept Igor’s CNN story, but they were also rejecting the bribe the team had prepared. 

Everything seemed to be working against Robert, Igor, and their SF crew. The team traveled all through Ukraine, attempting to cross the border in Romania, Poland, Hungary, and even Slovakia. With the threat of immediate military enlistment or possible jail time, Igor was apprehensive about trying to sell his story and border patrol agents were uneasy about accepting bribes. As things began to fall apart before Igor’s eyes. He began to lose a little bit of hope. 

They were down to their last resort…..

Hiking Across The Romanian Border

Somewhere along the Ukrainian-Romanian border lies a short fence and a wide-open field. There is no one within a thousand meters and the coast is clear. Hiking across the Ukrainian border is Igor’s last chance to escape, but fear set in. 

What if we get caught? What if someone sees us? We could go to prison. 

At this moment, Igor’s fear of being captured was more powerful than his will to escape. With the consequences, he was facing, who could blame him? So, Robert and his team decided to find another spot that Igor might be more comfortable with. The team navigated north, back to the Polish border.

48 hours after being rejected in Poland, they found themselves back in the same city driving along the border for an opening. When all of a sudden, they see an opportunity. Robert pulls over and sends one of his team members over the fence, through a creek, and across the Polish border. He comes back and confirms that there is no one within a thousand meters and the coast is clear. Igor decided that it was now or never.

Does Igor Make it?

Just as he made preparations to cross the border, Border Patrol agents pulled up and crushed all hope. For the rest of the night, each attempt was overshadowed by the miraculous appearance of guards. Their backs were against the wall, and as the sun began rising during their third day of attempted escape, they realized that there was no hope. The only thing left was to take Igor back home to Lviv. 

Mission Complete… Well Kind of

Over the course of the next few days, everyone on the team trickled back to the hotel in Poland. After everyone made it to the hotel, Kevin found himself in the lobby optimistic and happy to see that Robert and his team made it back safely. 

Upon their reunion, Robert presented a Special Forces Medal to Kevin. The purpose of the medal is to represent victory, so Robert was hesitant to offer it and even more reluctant to face Kevin with supposed defeat. Though Kevin recognized that the odds were working against them, Robert and his crew felt a heavy sense of guilt. The team explored every avenue to the fullest, and there was nothing left to do but accept fate. 

The idea of taking Igor back home was a shock no one was prepared for. Despite being a complex and risky mission, each team member was confident. Failure was never an option until there was no other option left. So, to make this mission as successful as possible, they had to finish making arrangements for Igor’s wife and newborn.

Once the new apartment was set up and Iryna and Danny were settled, the team of Kevin, Robert, and Luke headed home with only a small victory under their belt. It didn’t feel like a celebratory time, but that didn’t stop Robert and Kevin from drinking every last drop of scotch that 747 held on the flight home.  Knowing that everyone was safe, they were finally able to relax for a moment.

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