Episode 74: Dominic Bowen on the conflict in Ukraine

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In this episode, Laura speaks with Dominic Bowen, one of Europe’s leading international risk specialists, crisis managers, and public speakers.  Having spent the last 20 years successfully establishing large and complex operations in the world’s highest risk areas and conflict zones, Dominic is supporting some of Europe’s most successful companies to improve enterprise risk management, limit corporate risk exposure, understand geopolitical impact, and prepare for and respond to crisis. 

He is currently travelling in Ukraine  and tells us about his experience travelling in a high risk zone and collecting human intelligence, while sharing the stories of Ukrainian civilians who are directly affected by the conflict. 

Read more about Dominic at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dominic-bowen/

International Risk Podcast interview transcript with Dominic Bowen

Laura Siegler 01:15

Good morning. My name is Laura and I’m the host of the International risk podcast today. Our guest today is Dominic Bowen, an experienced leader and risk professional and the head of the International Operation Desk at Europe’s leading risk management consultancy. Dominic has spent the last 20 years establishing large and complex operations in the world’s highest risk areas and conflict zones, and he’s currently travelling in Ukraine. Welcome to the podcast Dominic.

Dominic Bowen 01:40

Thanks very much for having me on the podcast today, Laura.

Laura Siegler 01:45

So I wanted to maybe start with the logistics around your travels in Ukraine. You’re travelling there for work, I was wondering how did you access Ukraine knowing that commercial flights have been suspended? And how easy was it for you to cross the borders if you had to cross any borders?

Dominic Bowen 02:15

Yeah, I find going into any country affected by conflict, always to be quite challenging. It’s not just the beautiful flying into Heathrow getting through customs and jumping on a taxi. What I did was I flew from Stockholm to Warsaw, Warsaw to a little city called Chekhov. And it’s one of those small cities that you probably wouldn’t know unless you’ve travelled all around Poland, but right now, it is a bustling booming city. I mean, with spring and there’s lots of celebrations, Poland recently had their Constitution Day, so it was, you know, full of parties. But you also got a lot of international actors, both military and non government in the area, because it’s one of the final staging points before NATO sending in their support to Ukraine. So there’s the airport, extremely heavily militarised, you know much more than what you’ll see in any other airport, I’d say pretty much anywhere in Europe really. And then there’s multiple border crossing points. There’s about a border crossings from Poland into Ukraine, as well as multiple border crossing points from Moldova and Romania and other countries. So I chose one border crossing point to go over. And it was quite interesting. Actually, at the last minute, my road was changed based on advice I received, actually former border patrol officer. And from one of my contacts in Ukraine, the challenge was they both made a mistake, or they forgot to consider that I won’t be driving. So I literally was catching an Uber to the border, then walking over, then catching another taxi on the other side. But the border they sent me to was faster, but you couldn’t walk over. So I was literally at the border with no way to get across it. And just, you know, fate is fantastic. And we a family that had a young baby was pushed to the front of the queue. And the mom was sitting in the back of the car with the baby and the dad was driving. And so there was a spare seat in the front. And they were they didn’t literally did not ask me a thing. They just waved me over. I got in the car without speaking a single word, got in the car. And then they drove me the whole way to Kyiv. And this is a family that’s refugees from Ukraine. They’ve had to go to Poland to live because of the conflict. They had to come back to Ukraine to seek specialist medical care for their daughter. And without even saying a single word to me gave me a lift across the board and then to the town where I was going into the vehicle. I mean, it just shows the huge, huge generosity, I tried paying them for their support, and you know, given me that assistance, and they just refused. Just such a beautiful, beautiful family. So it was a really little bit stressful for a few minutes for me, but such a beautiful welcome to Ukraine.

Laura Siegler 04:45

Fantastic, so you travelled with a Ukrainian family, and they were actually going back to Ukraine. Did they tell you about how they were welcomed in Poland? And did you witness the support structures in place in Poland for Ukrainian refugees?

Dominic Bowen 05:00

Yeah, we see a lot of refugee fleeing a variety of countries, whether it’s the Rohingya from Burma, fleeing into Bangladesh, or the Syrians fleeing into Turkey. And generally, a lot of the neighbouring countries are actually very, very generous. I mean, we look at Lebanon, where one quarter of the Lebanese population are actually refugees a quarter of the population. So you know, when Europe gets upset about refugee flows, you know, the numbers are pale in significance. But one thing that has been consistent from every single Ukrainian I’ve spoken to in Poland is the generosity of the polls. I mean, it’s just been absolutely heartwarming, and the stories they’ve been saying, I mean, actually, I spent quite a bit of time at the Chekhov, which is the Polish city train station, to speak with Ukrainians when they get off the train just so I can understand from them. You know, what did you see, what why did you leave? What’s the situation in Ukraine right now? It’s a great way to collect risk intelligence, you know, speaking to people that have just got off the train from Ukraine. And I spoke to a lot of the Ukrainian and Polish volunteers that were working at the train station helping these Ukrainian refugees. And it was just phenomenal to hear all the stories and to speak to the Polish people too, that were volunteering and just to hear what was being done for the Ukrainians. So I think it’s been really fantastic what the Polish people have done in the Polish government to support these refugees.

Laura Siegler 06:15

So prior to going to Ukraine, knowing that you’re travelling in a high risk area, how did you plan your travels to make sure that, you know, you will remain as safe as possible, and that all risks are being reduced to a minimum?

Dominic Bowen 06:30

One of the first and most important steps of risk management, especially when we’re doing international risk management, is to understand the environment that you’re operating in. So there’s two primary ways that we collect intelligence. And that’s human intelligence. So speaking to people, and open source intelligence. And that’s, you know, at its most basic, it’s a Google search, but it’s a lot, a lot more than just a Google search. But for all our listeners, you know, doing heaps and heaps of risk based research, and then speaking to lots of people. Now, I’m really lucky that I work with a fantastic team. And we were able to spend a lot of time speaking to human context, so human informants sources, people that are living and working in the border, and cities like live in the capital in places like Kiev. And then in the Far East of Ukraine, where the conflicts going, where I spent today, in Kharkiv, and Poltova, and in areas right along the conflict zone. So speaking to people that are living and working, they’re doing a variety of tasks, people that working at cafes, people are working at restaurants and hotels, of course, the police and government are fantastic sources of information. But just seeking really wide varieties of information is critically important. And as we’ve seen, over the last week and a half, whilst I’ve been in Ukraine, you can really see the different types of information you get from different people, because we all have our biases. And we’ve all got our own motivations. And that really influences the sort of information I’ve been able to collect and how it feeds in to our risk mitigation activities.

Laura Siegler 08:10

Yes, I imagined that the best way of collecting data is talking to people, real people who are experiencing the situation on a daily basis. And speaking of, of people who experience the conflict now on a daily basis, you’ve you’ve been to Lviv and Kiev, how are the cities operating? What are the businesses that are still running? Is everything running As usual? are hospitals running efficiently? Are children being able to get an education?

Dominic Bowen 08:45

Yeah, there’s significant differences across the country. And you know, if I compare Lviv to Kyiv, it’s completely different. And if I compare Kyiv to Kharkiv, on the front line, again, it’s completely different again, but if we started Lviv, that you first asked about, I mean, Lviv is one of the most vibrant cities I’ve been in in a really long time. Like I’m spending a lot of time in Stockholm these days, and without a second hesitation-and I hope I don’t offend too many people living in Stockholm right now- but Lviv is such a vibrant, pumping, exciting, energetic city so much more, that places like Stockholm. And again, I apologise for Swedish listeners, but you know, Lviv is fantastic. You know, the people are cool and trendy and contemporary. There’s heaps of restaurants. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is still a country affected by war. In my first couple of hours in Lviv, the air raid sirens went twice, and so we had to go into the bomb shelters, twice, within the first couple of hours of arriving in Lviv. The day before I arrived in Lviv, the main train station was attacked by Russian missiles and injured several people and took out some electrical conductors. So the conflict is still very real. But life and the pattern of life, people getting up, people going to the gym, eating at restaurants, going out socializing, up until the curfew-and that’s worth keeping in mind, we are still in a conflict zone. So there are still curfews-but these are still fantastic cities. You know, one of the things I always try to do is when I’m collecting information and trying to meet people and try and understand the situation, I don’t just go to the police stations and the government offices, I go where the people are. And I try and get a really diverse group of people feeding into that. So I actually spent some time at the Lviv art gallery to get a deliberately different point of view. And it was it was fantastic. The people I met there were really insightful. Their thoughts on the situation in Ukraine, their thoughts on the evolution of the conflict, what they’re seeing and how they’re experiencing the conflict was really unique. But then I had the just a huge blessing to be able to see some of the artwork of young Ukrainians about the war and moving isn’t the right word. You know, it was one of those ones where I found, literally, I found myself laughing when looking at some pieces of it. And then others, you know, I’m almost doing it now as I speak it almost tearing up, it’s just heartbreaking. I’m not a creative, artistic person, but just the way that some of these artists had conveyed their message about the conflict was just a powerful, powerful really, really interesting. So yeah, Lviv is a really interesting city and I would encourage listeners as soon as the borders open as soon as planes are going into Ukraine, take a whole day in Lviv. I mean, it’s a fantastic city really is.

Laura Siegler 11:40

Yes, it’s really nice to hear that there is life and creativity going on despite the conflict. I guess it’s really important to keep on some normalcy going. And how about people’s ability to travel and go around the country, you know, from one city to another? We know that railways have been used for humanitarian transports and evacuations, and that there’s been issues around transporting goods, knowing that the ports in the south are under Russian control. And this is creating some issues around food supplies and other goods. So how is it affecting people’s ability to travel in Ukraine?

Dominic Bowen 12:15

Yeah, the transport of people is a really interesting one. And as I said before, the vehicle accident is still the number one risk to people travelling, whether it’s journalists, aid workers, risk professionals like myself. Vehicle accidents is generally one of the highest risks. So we try and mitigate that and look at what is the safest way to travel? Is it by train? Is it by plane? Certainly when there’s no fly zones over a country being enforced by Ukraine there’s no airplanes. So really, the options are trains or driving. Now we chose or I chose the option to move from Lviv to Kyiv by train-by night train. But train stations are funny all over the world, they’ve sort of got that same feel, that same sort of gritty dirty smell. And you know, people always looking a bit sweaty and tired and hot when moving around train stations, and arriving at Lviv train station at 10 o’clock at night, just as curfews coming in and my curfew starts at 10 o’clock, and I got there just before 10. You know, it was the security feeling was very quite tense. You know, everyone at the train said no one at a train station at 10 o’clock, let alone people fleeing war. And then the train turns up. And it was by far the biggest train I’ve ever seen in my life, the actual locomotive, the train engine at the start, looked like it looked about two storeyshigh, was just huge. I’m six foot three, and I was just completely dwarfed by the size of this. And the train itself was at least 25 carriages and everything was blacked out or the windows were blackened and they were welded shut. You know, there was people in wheelchairs, there was babies and mums. Uncomfortably there was also quite a few soldiers being transported on the train, which of course is not ideal having soldiers and civilians transporting on the same on the same train. But you know, that’s how it was that night. And then, of course, you know, you’re trying to go to sleep sort of wondering as you’re heading deeper into the country and closer to the frontline, you know that Russia has been making a deliberate attempt to target civilian infrastructure. And Russia has, you know, killed hundreds of people travelling on trains and at train stations in the last couple of weeks. It certainly was, I guess, an uncomfortable experience. You’re certainly aware that okay, I’m exposing myself to more risky, how do you get through that. And then of course, we woke up in Kyiv and started the journey there. And Kyiv is another fantastic city. But you’re getting closer to the frontline. And Kyiv was, you know, only a few weeks ago, surrounded by Russian troops getting pounded by artillery and missiles and rockets. And a really, really difficult spot. And not everyone has come back to Kyiv. Kyiv is a big city, nearly 4 million people. And the populations probably halfed right now and everyone you speak to comments about how quiet the city is compared to usual. And of course, there’s the usual curfews and checkpoints throughout the city. But once you’re in Kyiv, you know bolt and Uber and taxi as a means of getting around.

Laura Siegler 15:20

And then as you were saying, you know Kyiv people have been more affected by the invasion, but you have people who have decided to stay in Kiev. Of course, we know that not everyone has the same resources or network or contact abroad to be able to travel. But what have you heard from people who decided to remain in Kiev despite the conflict?

Dominic Bowen 15.50

Laura, let me share a story with you and I sort of pause I say that because it’s you know, it’s hard to hear, it’s hard to know how to respond. And it’s certainly hard to share some of these stories but there’s a lady in Bucha, a young lady married with a husband and leaves with her parents, and most of our listeners will know, they’ve heard about the situation and Bucha and the atrocities and the civilians killed and the rapes and the sexual violence and the torture and the war crimes, is there’s no nice way of saying what occurred. And she worked for the government. So clearly a target from you know, she was female, so also a target for Russian soldiers. Her husband was also quite young. So again, he wasn’t a soldier, but he was still a fighting age. And we know what the Russian soldiers did to most men they found of that age, and they didn’t flee. And when asked, you know, why didn’t you? Why didn’t you flee? Why didn’t you get out her response was, she said, to leave my city to leave my home to leave my country would be to die. And for Russia to take over my country would be to die. So we just decided, just decided to stay. And so she spent weeks in her basement with her husband, her dad, and her grandma and her mother, who were both quite old, were going out and getting firewood and cooking in the yard, using firewood and managed to get through unscathed, but I mean, just with all those atrocities going on, you know, she actually kept her phone’s turned off. From day two after the invasion, so from about the 25th or 26th of February, her phone was off. Because she didn’t want to be receiving any text messages. She didn’t want to be able to be identified based on her phone and the communication there. But just the fear that her and her husband and everyone involved, must have gone through is just huge. And everyone I’ve spoken to at that stage has just said, you know, this is my home, and it’s so easy for us to say, why didn’t you just leave? Why wouldn’t you just go. But I hear the same stories. And every country I work in whether it’s parts of Syria, or parts of Burma or parts of Sudan, people say the same thing. This is my home, this is my home, I’m not leaving. I’ve heard it enough times to know that it’s true, it’s their home, and they don’t want to leave even when you know death, and other terrible acts, or atrocities might be coming for them. They don’t want to leave. I mean, the lady that was managing the train carriage that I was on when I was going from Lviv to Kyiv, I asked her: where do you live? Where do you live? And she said Kharkiv. And you know, I just put my hands on my heart and I was talking to a translator I said, I’m so sorry. You know, is everything okay in your home? and she goes: last week my fridge was destroyed. It was just such a funny thing to say, she didn’t say my house was destroyed, my kitchen was destroyed but my fridge is destroyed. And I asked what happened. And she said, some missiles struck nearby and her roof was destroyed and part of a wall and in the process, her kitchen fridge was destroyed in the kitchen. So she wasn’t as upset or didn’t even mention the roof in the wall destroyed just the fact that our fridge was destroyed. And I said okay, well, you know, you’re going to leave now. But obviously the bombs are getting close to a house or not close your house, they have destroyed your kitchen. And she’s talked to me and shrug their shoulders. And then through the translator continued, “you know this is my home. I’ll just, I’ll just keep going, keep going.” And she knows how to get out. She works on the train. You know, she lives in Kharkiv and sits on the train to Kyiv and then all the way to the far west of the country. But it’s her home and just very pragmatic about it.

Laura Siegler 19:40

Yes, it’s definitely a very difficult decision. And the uprooting can be quite traumatising, especially when you don’t know what is waiting for you on the other side. And you were mentioning sexual crimes perpetrated by the Russian soldiers. And I can only imagine how the victims of such crimes must feel when there’s no healthcare or you know, psychological support available. But also knowing that in Poland, if they choose to go to Poland, for example, they want us to essentially get the help they need. And I’m thinking abortion, you know, many women did not know that it’s not possible animal to get an abortion in Poland. So that must definitely, you know, influence, their choice to leave.

Dominic Bowen 20:30

That really is Laura. You’re totally right. And I was actually explaining to the team last night and, you know, we’re recruiting some Ukrainians and working with them to build information platform and conduct risk management activities in the country. And one of the things I was working through last night with him is that when you have a risk and you try and mitigate it, you do actions you perform certain tasks in order to try and minimise the risk. And there’s a variety of ways we try and minimise risk. But every time you do that, you change the environment. And hopefully you change the environment so that your exposure to the risk is lessened. But often you bring in a new risk, and you’re exactly right. So someone that’s been the victim of sexual violence, that flees that city to avoid further sexual violence or to seek health care-and it’s a risk mitigation activity to lessen the consequences of that risk, but then now bring themselves to new risks. It’s a new city, a new environment. And as you said, if they’re fleeing to a country where they can’t get an abortion, then there’s new risks that they present. And that’s, you know, a concept that I think is particularly important with risk management that you put risk mitigation activities in place. But you’re bringing new risks every time you do that, and hopefully, it’s lessened every single time. But you need to continually review, I’ve done something to reduce the risk, what new risks are now presented myself? How am I exposed today? And then mitigating those risks. And it sounds quite clinical and theoretical for someone fleeing war, but it’s something you have to consider. I’m fleeing this city because of conflict, because of bombs. Okay, what’s the new zone I’m going to? Am I now going to be exposed to crime? Or am I exposing my children to a lack of education, or unemployment or you know, whatever the case may be, but you do you continually expose yourself to new risks, and you really think these things through?

Laura Siegler 22:17

Yes, the environment is changing, constantly evolving in a warzone. And actually, this is interesting in terms of sanctions as well, two weeks ago, you talked to Jara Barbieri, who mentioned that sanctions could have an effect on you know, Russian economy and, you know, have significant impact on the war itself. There are new sanctions coming up, you know, such as the new ban on Russian oil and gas by the end of the year. Do you know of businesses based in Ukraine that have been affected by the sanctions and how the people they employ or provide services to have been reacting to the sanctions?

Dominic Bowen 23:00

I think one of the most immediate impacts of the sanctions and then kind of sanctions from Russia. I mean, we can’t forget that about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Belarus turned off gas supplies to Ukraine, obviously, that was known by Belarus and Russia that the invasion was about to occur. And that was one of the reasons that they stopped energy supplies to Ukraine, it is almost impossible to get unleaded fuel in Ukraine at the moment. We queued up for about four hours the other day to get fuel. As I mentioned to you earlier, you know, we spent today in Kharkiv, meeting with a variety of people, and you cannot get fuel in Kharkiv, you just cannot get fuel in Kharkiv. So you have to make sure you know, as well as what we fit in our fuel tank. We’re carrying an extra 50 litres in jerrycans in tanks in the car, to make sure that you know, wherever we travel, we can get there, and we can get back. And it is it is a real desperate situation. And not only the fact that there is such a shortage of fuel across the country, I mean, diesel is an extremely short supply. So it’s liquid petroleum gas as well. But the cost is huge, because now, Ukraine can’t get it when Belarus turned off the gas. So now Ukraine has to buy its energy from Western Europe, who’s ultimately buying it from Russia and Belarus anyway, which is, of course, the motivation for many, many interesting discussions that Ukraine has to buy from those countries. So whatever Europeans and anyone listening to the podcast, no doubt is feeling the price and feeling the pain of the increased prices of energy supplies, both in your home and in your vehicle. Ukrainians are paying that plus some because it would have been by the same energy the Europe or European listeners are buying. Plus they’ve got to pay for the transport costs as well. So fuel costs of fortune in Ukraine right now. And before the war, inflation in Ukraine was at about 20%. Now we know in countries affected by war, inflation just skyrockets. So if your base of inflation is 20%, and then it skyrockets. You know, it’s really, really difficult. And then you add that to a population that’s displaced. You add that to a country that’s affected by war. And then a real shortage of a lot of materials like energy supplies. It is a very, very difficult environment to operate. I mean, buying by London, or Stockholm or Oslo standards, food is still inexpensive in most places, but it is certainly a lot higher. And if you compare it to the average salary in Ukraine, I mean, I don’t know how the average Ukrainian is affording food. So you know, on a Western European salary, things are affordable. But if you’re on a standard Ukrainian salary, I cannot do the maths how the average Ukrainian is surviving and being able to afford groceries and energy supplies.

Laura Siegler 26:00

And I wanted to talk a bit more about the narratives that can be heard in Ukraine regarding, you know, the Russian military progression. And the way this impacts people in Ukraine. So we know that a part of this war has been playing out online and through social media network, as well as you know, through narratives that are sort of trying to captivate the imagination of a global audience, or even sometimes a local Russian speaking audience. There’s been Telegram, which has been a battleground between pro Ukrainian pro-Russian camps. We also had, you know, social media posts, showing soldiers getting married, average citizens speaking up arms, to defend their families, their country. And so and obviously, we’ve also witnessed the on the other side of the Russian side, we’ve witnessed the Russian Victory Day celebration on the ninth of May, during which Putin sort of conveyed again, this narrative of, you know, special military operation ongoing. What media is relaying Russian and Ukrainian confrontations in Ukraine? And what can you say about the Russian disinformation campaign regarding Ukraine? How is it playing out in Ukraine? And are people like aware of that, and, you know, watching these images or commenting on these?

Dominic Bowen 27:20

As you know, Laura, we’ve spoken to quite a few people on the international risk podcast about disinformation and misinformation and propaganda and the risks associated with those and how businesses and just individuals really should be aware of this. So this is not a new topic, but I have never seen the intensity and level of disinformation, deliberate disinformation, spreading as I have in this crisis in this conflict, it is to just such a huge level, that fact checking, fact checking is always important. We know that and there are so many great sources that do fact checking now. But it is not easy. And it is really the tactical level, it’s the day to day levels, like, is there a curfew in this city? Is there fuel available in this city? Has there been bombings in this city? What is the correct way to respond to certain things? I mean, I spoke to someone today, and he received some information. And I’m deliberately not saying what the incident was, because I want to make sure I’m not contributing to further misinformation. But you know, he received information from his local military units about a trustee in Kharkiv, the Ukrainian military has been quite successful at pushing some of the Russian forces back to the north of the city. And some of the recently liberated cities. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of information coming out about new atrocities from those cities. But that information spreads so quickly before it’s been verified by independent investigators, whether they’re the Government of Ukraine or UN investigators, trying to understand what is the reality of what actually has occurred in these newly liberated cities. But the propaganda and the use of language is so powerful. About a year ago, I reread the book 1984, which many of our listeners would have listened to. And it’s such a fantastic book. But I remember at the time reading it, I remember being you know, getting goosebumps when realising that so many of the tactics that they talked about in 1984, we see now, we’re not just talking about in Russia and China and Iran. We see them used by the former Trump administration, and we see them used by, you know, Western so-called freedom loving democratic countries. It’s really quite scary that a book written in the 1940s is still so particularly relevant today. But we definitely see that and depending on who you speak to the language that is used. I was speaking with a local Ukrainian law enforcement officer last night, and just his use of the word he doesn’t say Russian, he doesn’t say soldiers, he says “the terrorists”, and just how we use the words, has a lot of power and a lot of meaning and how people are sharing information is very, very impactful.

Laura Siegler 30:15

Definitely, and it’s quite interesting to see how you know this, this disinformation tactics change as well, as the war evolves. I wanted to talk about the humanitarian needs in Ukraine. So obviously, we know that Ukraine is in need for humanitarian help is requesting help from EU members, but also the international community. The President of Ukraine Zelensky, has launched this campaign called United 24 recently, aimed at collecting donations in support of Ukraine. So as it was saying on the website, the funds are meant to be transferred to the official accounts of the National Bank of Ukraine, and allocated to ministry to cover the most pressing needs and it’s listed: defense, de-mining, medical aid and rebuild Ukraine. So what have you heard about this campaign? And what are the people you talk to expecting the most from that campaign? Do you think the pressing needs that are referring are matching what people are saying, from what you observed on the field?

Dominic Bowen 31:30

That’s a really interesting point, Laura. And the humanitarian needs are just huge. During my time in in Kharkiv earlier today, I was on one of the main streets and Kharkiv, for those of you that don’t know, is the second largest city in Ukraine, it’s about 40 kilometres from the border with Belarus and Russia. It’s had a population of more than more than 2 million people. It’s bigger than cities like Stockholm, for example. And the streets were deserted today. Now parts of Kharkiv look relatively undamaged by the wall. But you know, certainly, I mean, many people will remember the video of the main city hall in Kharkiv, just completely destroyed with civilians and civilian vehicles all at the front and just devastating and speaking to some people at the front of the front of that building today. And it is just deserted the main square, which is a huge square, which is normally bustling, which is full of people when I was last there in February, just before the war. And now it was completely deserted, and humanitarian needs a huge amount. As I said, this is a big city. And whilst I was in another part of the city, meeting with some people, a young girl, maybe 10, maybe 12, walking along with what I assumed was her grandmother must have been about 70-75 years old. Now, we’ve all seen photos of young children in Ethiopia, and Sudan, you know, walking all day and night to get water and then bring it back. And it’s one of the reasons why so many kids don’t go to school, because they spent so much their time getting water. And that’s exactly what this young girl and her grandma were doing. And that meant we were staying there for quite some time. And so we saw them walk back and take some water into their house, and then come back and get with the empty jars to do another lap to get more water. And this is in a this isn’t a big European main city with that previously had running water. And I’m not talking about a city that’s never had running water, we’re talking about a city that had running water, up until, you know, 70 days ago, when Russia invaded. And now, you’re in such a difficult spot. And obviously, this girl wasn’t in school today, she should have been in school, it’s a school day in in Ukraine, and her life has been affected. And she’s just one of, you know, 45 million people in Ukraine that have been negatively impacted by the war. I mean, I’m always very, very conscious about where I donate my money to, you know, as you and many of our listeners know, I’ve spent a lot of my life working with organisations like Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and the Red Cross and Save the Children and different UN agencies. And, you know, the work that these organisations do is so important. And I think it’s really important that we’re careful where we put our money to, I think the work that President Zelensky has done, whether you like him whether you think his political policies have been good, certainly his leadership during this conflict has been positive. Ukraine is a particularly complex politically country. There’s a lot of political actors that are pro Russia, a lot more than a pro EU. There’s also a lot of political actors here that, perhaps their interests aren’t entirely altruistic. And, you know, their influence over how money is spent is concerning. But certainly one thing I’ve seen in having spoken to a lot of political actors in Ukraine over the last couple of weeks, is that people are putting their personal interests aside whether their political business, etc. And putting Ukraine first. And I think that’s, that’s vital if Ukraine is going to rebuild, during and after the war. So I think initiatives like United 24 are good. And I think activities like the mining, I mean, there are mines everywhere. And Russia has been using cluster bombs across the country with devastating impact, and it’s going to take years to do the demining activity. So I think, support the demining activities support to medical aid. I mean, the two largest hospitals in Kharkiv, today we visited, both of them were closed. When we’re talking about a city on the frontline of war, where there is no shortage of casualties, there is no shortage, and I’m just talking about civilian, not even military, but civilian humanitarian needs that need urgent medical care, and the two main hospitals are closed. So certainly there’s a huge need for medical aid. And, you know, Ukraine is going to need to be rebuilt. I mean, we saw Odessa over the last 24 hours, and I’ll be in Odessa in the next couple of days, but you know, parts of Odessa have been just blank and bombed. And we were talking the sort of bombing that we saw in World War Two, just parts of the city completely demolished. I mean, it’s just, it really even though even though I spend most of my time travelling around different high risk countries, I mean, it’s hard to fathom this level of damage in some parts of Ukraine.

Laura Siegler 36:25

Ukraine has announced that they will not be any counter-attack before mid June. They’re hoping that they will receive enough military help and weapons from their allies. Obviously, the international community has been providing military support, you know, we know that France sent antitank and CEASAR artillery to Ukraine, the UK sent StarStreak antic aircraft, the US has sent drones, Canada has sent heavy artillery and anti-ammunitions. Germany has now agreed to you know, supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. And you let’s not forget about other countries like Denmark and Spain, Italy… Do the journalists and experts you met think that a counter attack would be possible by mid-June? And are they optimistic about the outcome?

Dominic Bowen 37:20

Yeah, that’s such a complex and such an important question, it really is Laura. And anyone that knows me knows, and I fought in a couple of wars, and spent a lot of my time in war zones. And I think anyone that knows me knows that I hate, I loathe war. But the only way to end this war is to fight. And I hear people advocating for peace and negotiations and accepting it. But you know, I’d ask anyone, that’s, you know, wrestling with a tiger will just give up half your arm, no one’s going do it, they’re going to fight back. You know, just give up half your country, just give up half your home because a bully tries to take it. People don’t, and people won’t. And to think that if you claim gives up half of its territory to Russia, that Russia will stop is honestly it’s ludicrous. So Europe is doing the right thing. And America and Australia and other allies are doing the right thing in supporting Ukrainian government to stop the illegal Russian aggression. And I know that the West has conducted wars that haven’t been legal. And I know that most countries have made significant and huge mistakes. But the only way to stop the current aggression, and to get back to a functioning rule of law, is sad to say this is to fight and to put an end to this war. And at the same time, we need to be strengthening coordination mechanisms, like the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council has become effectively useless during this conflict, which is a huge same. So we need organs, like the UN Security Council at the UN General Assembly, to play a much larger role in this conflict and future conflict. So there needs to be reform of some of the International systems that maintain peace and should be working towards peace. And at the same time, if we look at the ground, if we look at the operational levels, I mean, Ukraine has had some successes, they have been successful in pushing Russian forces away from the north part of Kharkiv, but not to the east of Kharkiv, not to the cities like Kramatorsk, we’ve seen cities like Mariupol, where we still have troops in the Azov battalion and holding out there. But largely Mariupol’s gone and been taken over by Russia, you know, Crimea has been controlled by Russia since 2014. Cities like Zaporizhzhia, which I’ll be going to tomorrow, you know, is surrounded on two sides, or on about 180 degrees is surrounded by Russian soldiers, and Russian troops, you know, cities like Nikolaev, on the way to Odessa, regularly under attack, and then we’ve already spoken about the huge devastation in a desert over the last couple of days. So I mean, Russia might be losing territory in Ukraine in some parts. But in other parts, Russia is still making advances. I think June, knowing that we’re now in May is probably very optimistic. But I can tell you speaking to the Ukrainians, and to the forces involved, you know, their motivation is unwavering. Their skills are unwavering. This is not the same military, that was on operations in Iraq in 2008, and 2009. It’s not the same military that we saw in 2014, when Russia took parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in Crimea. This is a hard, tough, well equipped army. But Russia is still a huge army with a huge arsenal and huge technologies. And thanks to all the oil that the world is buying significant cash flows coming in hundreds of millions of dollars every day into the Russian coffers. So Russia is still a formidable enemy. It’s easy to criticise Russia, it’s easy to say that they’ve had many failures which they have but they are still a formidable army. And I feel that this will be a long conflict unless there is a significant tipping point. And you know, we talked about when you minimise one risk you bring in another one. I mean, depending on what that tipping point is. I mean, we could escalate this conflict very significantly if we’re not very, very careful.

Laura Siegler 41:30

Yes, this was my concern, you know, escalation of conflict and the opinion that people have on that, are they really for a confrontation or direct confrontation between the West and Russia? I feel that the moral of the troops and the soldiers in Ukraine is too high. And that’s definitely driving a positive force, you know…

Dominic Bowen 41:55

I think that that’s really spot on spot on Laura, and there is not a Ukrainian I’ve met, that is not in 100% favour of completely, defeating Russia and completely taking back all of Ukrainian territory, and that includes Crimea, it includes all of Donetsk and all of the hats, not signing a peace deal and giving away half of the Ukrainian territory, but having all of Ukraine back for Ukrainians. And we can’t forget that. This isn’t happening in isolation. There are other countries that their hybrid warfare is already going on. We see significant tensions in the South China Sea with Chinese military operations, we see security guarantees being signed between China and the Solomon Islands, and the discord that’s causing in the Pacific. We saw this week, the former security chief in Hong Kong now appointed the chief executive officer, even though he was the only candidate strongly supported by China. There’s a lot of indicators in Asia that you know, that people should be monitoring and businesses should be aware of about potential Chinese aggression. And China is a very advanced, very intelligent, very forward thinking country, and their leadership, as most countries will be, we’ll be looking at how the West has responded to Russian aggression. We know that only a few months ago, there was hundreds, hundreds of Chinese soldiers into Taiwanese airspace, and as part of a testing activity to see the response times of Taiwan and to see how America would respond to these provocations. And this is just a real life experiment for China to see how does the West respond to China to Russia’s aggression? How firm is NATO? How firm is America? How firm is the international community in their unity, and their response to illegal acts of aggression? And if you were a country that was considering taking back territory that you believe was yours, or considering initiating a war against another, you’d be understandably learning from what the West and how the West is fighting its war and sanctions against Russia. So I think the West needs to not just be considering how their actions are perceived and how their actions are influencing Russia, but how other countries may be learning and potentially preparing for potential conflict in future.

Laura Siegler 44:20

So Dominic, you will be heading to Zaporizhia tomorrow. What are other cities are you planning to visit in the next few days?

Dominic Bowen 44:25

Yeah, that’s right. So I’ll be heading Idown from Kharkiv down to Mach Poltava. And then down to Dnipropetrovsk tomorrow, to assess the situation and to, you know, to speak to more people and learn about the risk environment in those areas. I mean, this is the 76th day of Ukrainian resistance against Russia’s invasion. And it is still a full-scale invasion across the country. So it’ll be particularly interesting to see how people are responding its efforts, you and the people in that city have been extraordinarily generous and open arms to the people of Mariupol that have been fleeing, and now sadly, they’re in the same spot that they’re going to have to flee potentially, in the very near future. And then we’ll spend a couple of days there, and then I’ll hit to Odessa, which, you know, is definitely undoubtedly, a strategic location that Russia wants to take control of, it’s a major port city. It also will link Russian territory up with Transnistria, which is the Russian controlled enclave in Moldova, it will also deprive Ukraine of its entire access to the Black Sea. So no doubt that the attacks are going to increase in their frequency and intensity in Odessa in the coming days. So we’re particularly keen to work with colleagues there to understand the risk environment and to identify appropriate risk mitigation activities there.

Laura Siegler 46:00

Well, we hope that you have a safe journey. And thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.

Dominic Bowen 46:05

Fantastic, Laura. Thanks very much for speaking with me today, and thank you very much to our listeners for listening.

2 thoughts on “Episode 74: Dominic Bowen on the conflict in Ukraine

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