‘I’m a former Marine training Ukrainians – Russians are worse than ISIS’

I returned to Ukraine on March 12, originally to write for an American media outlet that covers defense news. I wrote four or five articles the first week, but it started to seem so frivolous; I didn’t want to be an observer. People I knew from previous visits, who are now in the Ukrainian army, have asked me for help. They thought, because I’m a former US Marine, that I represented the US government, no matter how many times I said I didn’t.

My first combat experience as a Marine was in Mogadishu, Somalia in the 90s, then I was part of the 1st Marine Division during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I served missions in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, I was involved in the evacuation of civilians from Libya in 2011 and commanded a special task force against the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2016.

So I realized that I could help, in some way, other than writing. I felt a weight and a responsibility, because the Ukrainian army has grown rapidly. They have taken in thousands of recruits, which creates a significant training problem. The world of military special operations is quite small and I am a member of the Global SOF Foundation, an association for international special operations forces (SOF). There’s a saying that your reputation is the most important thing you have, so I imagine people here have heard my name and asked about me. I was taken seriously.

We started small, with a handful of guys, training Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SOF) with a focus on resistance, as we were in Kyiv and as the fight was happening in the outskirts of Kyiv, less than 10 km from us. It was a besieged city.

Andy Milburn, a former US Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is currently in Ukraine and formed the Mozart Group and an organization that helps train Ukrainian special operations forces.
Andy Milburn/The Mozart Band

Some of the guys I work with had the idea of ​​calling us The Mozart Group and I found that catchy. I wonder now if it was a mistake, because we are not mercenaries like the Russian group Wagner. Our goals and the way we operate are so different. I don’t want anyone to think we look like them and I don’t want anyone to think our only purpose is to oppose them. We have such contempt for this organization.

We provided basic tactical training: how to handle weapons without shooting yourself. You start with basic procedures because a lot of people think they’re very advanced, but they don’t know how to move tactically, unseen, or they don’t understand camouflage and basic weapon handling or formations. weapons. We did sniper training, but it was more marksmanship training. Our interaction has been with Ukrainian SOF and the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and not with President Volodymyr Zelensky himself. And there was a wide mix of Ukrainians; from guys who had spent a few years in the military, from snipers and those who had spent time in Home Defense, to middle-aged women.

I have observed that the Ukrainians are good in a number of areas and better with British and American troops in a number of key areas. One of them is understanding a drone and what drones can do. Not just hitting drones, but how drones extend the reach of your senses. They also understand how to use precision shots, they take basic quadcopters and turn them into lethal weapons. There are some very ingenious things happening.

Ukrainian morale is remarkably high. This was even when kyiv was threatened. It’s just that confidence that the Russians won’t earn that grows with the atrocities they encounter. I’ve been through Iraq and Afghanistan and was in Mogadishu before that. I fought against the Islamic State. Obviously you hear bad things happening in war; I’m no stranger to how depraved people can get. But I was telling someone the other day that I have greater respect for the ethical behavior of the Islamic State than for the Russians. It’s not exaggerated. I’ve never committed a war crime, I’ve always told my guys that we fight with the values ​​we represent, we don’t adopt those of our enemy. I don’t consider myself a vicious person, but currently I am filled with the deepest contempt and anger.

I was one of the first people in Bucha after the Russian retreat and saw the bodies dumped there, including the bodies of children. Things happen during the war. When you have nervous soldiers, they are happy with the trigger, but it seems to have been a very, very deliberate approach to killing civilians. People were dragged from their homes and killed, women gang-raped in basements and executed. Ukrainian hands aren’t bloodless either, but I find it hard to blame them. Because I guess it was my country and it was families I knew. I also don’t roll in there like someone who is naïve and has never seen cruelty and depravity before. Hopefully this gives a scale of the cruelty that occurs here.

Andy Milburn in Bucha
Andy Milburn pictured in Bucha after Russian forces withdrew from the area in April 2022.
Andy Milburn/The Mozart Band

We now have 100 volunteers coming in so I think we will have a bigger impact. We tended to gravitate towards special ops candidates, but those who came from conventional forces with particular skills – whether they were sniper instructors or knew how to use a Stinger missile or anti-tank gunners – were brought in to help train Ukrainians. We have two verification teams, in the United States and the United Kingdom, because the last thing we want here are cowboys. But I don’t want to pretend that we changed the course of the war. Honestly, I think a lot of the effect we’ve had has been intangible. Ukrainians seem genuinely happy to have Americans and Brits behind them, helping and supporting them. I think it is important.

Now we have to push and we have a plan to push the mobile training teams and logistics sites behind the front line. We are conducting our first site survey where we will be removing medical equipment and providing medical training as the Ukrainians require combat support. It’s not about shooting people, it’s about evacuating the wounded and helping out at the triage points. The Mozart group has recruited many combat medic volunteers.

We must be able to act in self-defense but we are not mercenaries; It is not my intention. We are trying to save lives.

We operate entirely on donations. There is no money for us. There are no grants as we are not a non-governmental organization (NGO). But we’re trying to do more than put a band-aid on the problem, we’re trying to build capacity, capacity and resilience.

I don’t think it will be a short war. I think it will last at least a year. We’re going to be working on clearing some areas — we’re going to train, but we have our guys going out and helping the Ukrainians defuse bombs — and I also want to touch on evacuating vulnerable citizens. My goal is to keep doing what we are doing but to grow. What worries me the most isn’t the Russians, it’s the prospect of running out of money and letting people down.

Andy Milburn is a former US Marine and CEO of the Mozart Group. You can find out more about their work in Ukraine at themozartgroup.com.

All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

As said to Jenny Harvard.

Evelyn C. Tobin