It was late February, and I was wrapping a business call with the principals at The Palatin Group. As we all turned to our calendars to confirm our next meeting, they said, “We’ll have to get back to you about next week. We are going to be in Europe.” I thought nothing of it. I knew they had offices in Bratislava, Slovakia. But several days later, I learned they were not in Bratislava. They were farther east, setting up operation centers at border crossings in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia to provide real-time assistance to clients’ employees and family members leaving Ukraine.
A global intelligence, security and advisory services firm, The Palatin Group’s principals have decades of police, military, government, and private sector experience. Within the last month, they have helped thousands of people and pets evacuate Ukraine and resettle in safe havens. I recently had the chance to catch up with their president and hear about that experience. What became extremely apparent to me is what started for the, as the execution of a client’s crisis management plan quickly became a frontline effort to provide humanitarian aid. To provide a safe and secure environment to individuals and organizations. To distribute essential resources and logistical assistance to those who need it.
Below is my interview with Palatin Group President Christopher Sanders.
Q: Tell me, one month in, what are the greatest differences you see today compared to when you arrived?
Wow, the last 31 days feel like 31 months. So much has happened. We have learned so much in the short time we have been here along the Ukrainian border, and thankfully, we have been able to help many Ukrainian people and their loved ones. When we first arrived here in Kraków, it was quiet. Now, hotels are full, apartments are rented, and border crossings are mayhem.
Q: What do you mean by that?
Sadly, there is an increasing number of bad actors at the border. We have seen this before in situations like this. They take advantage of people in distress. And here you have people literally fleeing for their lives – women, children, and the elderly in particular. You see that go on and you realize it isn’t about a contract with a client anymore, this is about people helping people.
Q: So what originally brought you here?
We have a client, a U.S. technology company with about 350 employees in Ukraine. Those employees are a mix of American, Ukrainian, EU, and Canadian citizens. About this time last year, we conducted a safety and security risk assessment for them and built out a plan to evacuate and relocate their – Ukrainian employees and their families. We began implementation of that plan at the end of last year and are here to complete the execution of it.
Q: And how is that going?
Well, you know IT is a male-dominated profession. Their workforce is about 80% male, and with the requirement for 18 to 60-year old males to stay in the country, the number of people for us to evacuate is lower than we originally planned. And, frankly, many women have elected to stay with their families.
Q: How do you get them out? What can you do in these conditions?
Fortunately, we provided satellite phones to the employees at the end of last year and trained them on how to use them so that they would have a way to request assistance if they wanted to leave.
So, what do we do? We use information available to us to suggest the methods of transport, the route and the border crossings. Some of the crossings have really, really long lines. It can take anywhere from two hours to 40 hours just to get through. So we direct people to the safest, fastest route out.
Things like crossing the borders at nighttime is faster. Don’t get behind buses—they take much longer because they have to be searched. Those are just a few examples.
In a few cases, we have people who have had to go in to evacuate staff or their families. In others, we stay in constant communication and guide them to safe arrival at the border crossing, where we can meet them and get them the help they need.
Q: What does that look like?
We helped some people across yesterday. We got them to a hotel, fed them, helped them get comfortable. For many, this has been a long and unbelievably stressful journey to get to this point. There is shock and trauma. We are able to help them attend to medical and psychological needs and get them personal items. In one case, I even helped arrange for a nanny in their new location to allow mothers some time to relax after such an extraordinarily stressful journey. Unfortunately, this ordeal will have long-term traumatic effects on many. While we cannot change that, we can do our best to ease them into their new reality.
Q: How do you even anticipate what you are going to need in a situation like this?
Fortunately, planning, preparation, and speed have mitigated obstacles for those we are here to assist. The ability to rapidly react is just as important as forward planning. It’s easy to prepare in the moment of calm. Our task is to help you prepare for the chaos, so you know what to do when everything goes upside down.
Q: What are the reactions of the people you encounter?
We’re seeing a patriotic fervor here. There is tremendous national pride and a confidence in the ability to win. The people here are unified, and many are working in roles that are brand new to them. But they are assuming these roles with great seriousness and care because they are taking them up for their country.
Q: So your client mission is complete. You could leave. What keeps you there?
We look at this struggle like our own Revolutionary War. A foreign power is looking to impose its will on these people. I, myself, am a first-generation American with relatives from Eastern Europe. My family escaped Russian-sponsored oppression after WWII. We have seen this before. We want to help.
And it is not just us. Americans and others are here, voluntarily, to fight with the Ukrainians. People offer them money, and they refuse it. They do not even want to be paid. And every day, we meet more and more people – from non-government organizations and nonprofits, from all over, here to help.
And it’s the same with us. We are here. We can help. We see logistical challenges that we can alleviate. So we do that. There is a need to get aid to people who can benefit from it. How could we not do that?
Q: We hear a lot about ways to help. Based on what you see, what do you recommend?
Well, that is a mixed bag. The intent is great. We see huge supplies of food, socks, pillows, and sunglasses, which can be helpful. After meeting with military leaders from Western Ukraine, we learned that only one in four in the Ukrainian military have helmets and bullet-proof vests. They need helmets, night vision goggles, medical kits, medicine, and boots.
There are supply chain issues—operational challenges that result in wasteful handling of aid. In some cases, the logistics of distribution are unplanned or stalled. We heard about food that had been delivered and sitting in lockers for more than a week because there was no plan to get it distributed. There is definitely a need to prioritize the aid. It’s all needed, it’s just a matter of when.
Q: So what do you advise to someone who is looking to contribute, to assist?
Pick a cause, identify a reputable, local partner, and get money to them. They know what is needed and can get it to the people who will benefit.
What is clear here is people are focused first on winning the war. If they lose, all the good intentions and aid will be for naught. You don’t have to contribute weapons, governments will do that, but you can help take care of the people fighting the war. The military, police, and citizen militia need protective gear. Their safety and security are paramount to allow them to fight with confidence and to survive and rebuild after the conflict. Without safety and security, you have nothing.
Q: How do you know when your work is done? When is it time to leave?
Every day, I wake up and pray that this is the day for peace. Until then, we are here. If we can direct people away from danger or help organizations effectively deliver aid or supplies, then that’s what we’ll stay and do.
Martha Holler is the co-founder of ShinePR and has over 25 years of experience in public relations. Her expertise is amplifying brand purpose and delivering tangible and measurable results for her clients.