On Friday afternoon, Dale Buckner, a former Green Beret who’s CEO of the private security firm Global Guardian, was on the phone trying to coordinate an evacuation from somewhere inside the devastation in Mariupol. If he could carry it off, his clients would join 7,500 others Buckner says he’s gotten out of Ukraine.
Seven employees of an internationally known consultancy were sheltering below ground in a subway, Buckner told me. They had food, water, a bathroom.
“It’s not comfortable but it’s somewhat safe in the scheme of things,” he says.
A Global Guardian team had earlier conducted reconnaissance on the outskirts of Mariupol, assessing the state of violence. Were Russian aircraft overhead? Were Russian mechanized units nearby? Were Russian missiles or artillery shells slamming into buildings? Were the necessary roads blocked?
The team planned to reconnoiter later in the day as well, trying to answer the same questions. Every six hours around the clock a Global Guardian team member updated the clients in hiding via cell or satellite phone.
“If we find the opportunity where we see shelling subside and we think we can go in to get them out, we will,” Buckner affirms. “I told the [corporate client’s] chief security officer; ‘Just because I can’t get in today doesn’t mean I can’t get in tomorrow or the day after. You just have to be patient. The last thing I want to do is take your employees, put them in the vehicle and have the vehicle struck by fire. … It’s a never-ending calculation.”
If the team gives its clients the signal to go, they’ll have to be ready at once. An exact pickup address or city location will have been arranged and the fleeing clients will have a window of time when their Global Guardian extraction team will be there.
“They know what to pack, how to dress, how many days this might take us and they have given us their medical conditions.” Buckner says. The last bit of information — honestly shared and assessed — is important, he adds.
“We had an 85-year-old who had a heart attack with us. A doctor stabilized him, saved his life. Two days later we got him across the border after he’d slept two good nights and been properly treated. Mariupol is being hammered by the Russians. It’s incredibly high risk.”
A month into the conflict, the work is dramatic and tense but it’s not what you might think.
Global Guardian is not organized along paramilitary lines. It’s not a counterpart to controversial firm Blackwater or its modern day descendant Academi. Buckner says his company exists to “get people out of the way.”
Founded On The ‘Worst Case’
Global Guardian was formed as an LLC in 2012 in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. It’s now part of the $32 billion North American security services market, which includes everything from traditional security guards and currency transport to the burgeoning cybersecurity industry and executive protection services. Asia holds the largest share of the global market at 28% followed by Europe, and the U.S.
Buckner came to scene following a 24-year career in the Army where, according to his Global Guardian bio, he had combat and classified deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Chile, Panama and Haiti. He commanded a special forces scuba team, a special forces counter-terrorism team and counter-terrorism task force, and a “special troops” battalion.
The experience, he says, gave him insight into the corporate insurance and private security services markets.
“Even the largest insurance platforms in the world have the same problem – people buy insurance for the worst case but when you read the restrictions, they don’t cover natural disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks or war zones. The reality is, insurance won’t cover you or support you in the worst case, which has now been proven in Ukraine.”
Nor, Buckner says, will so-called “duty of care” providers which offer corporations tracking, alert and medical evacuation services for foreign based or traveling employees. He calls such tracking and medevac services “administrative at best.” In almost all cases, he asserts, the latter simply flies a medically in need employee to a location of its choosing; “Meaning the cheapest point from A to B.”
“If someone gets injured or sick in Africa, at best they’ll [be flown] to Kenya, Ethiopia, maybe Eastern Europe. They’re not being flown back to Paris, Los Angeles or New York.”
Buckner’s time abroad in uniform gave him the chance to make further observations. It taught him that governments are “slow, bureaucratic, and don’t perform in real-time.” He says he saw corporate security contractors at work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, and other garden spots. Their services, he opines, were so narrow and slow they became “almost useless.”
“As I came out of my military career, having dealt with contractors in war zones and seeing what corporations were buying, I thought there was an enormous gap in the market.”
Since 2012, Buckner says his company has helped clients out of jams during the 2015 Paris terrorist attack, the attempted coup d’etat in Turkey in 2017, the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, travel lockdowns at the outset of the covid pandemic and last year’s coup in Myanmar.
Filling The Gap
“We operate in all the locations and conditions that insurance does not,” Buckner says.
Those with even a passing familiarity with the international private security market might expect to find the usual suspects – former U.S. and British military/special operations veterans – in the field for Global Guardian. But they’re not part of the company’s model.
Buckner explains that, aside from sticking out conspicuously (despite their efforts to blend in) in many parts of the world, American and Brit security teams can’t respond fast enough to crises.
“It’s because they often try to fly these teams in after an event [has kicked off]. They couldn’t do that during Covid. If you’re not in that country today, including Ukraine, you might not get in period.”
Global Guardian uses a network of local teams, subcontractors who are natives of the country or region in question who speak the local language, know the local culture and who, even when sands are shifting, can tell the good guys from the bad guys. In the kind of evacuation and support work his company does Buckner says Africa is always the most difficult environment, the Middle East runs a close second. South America, Central America, Asia, and Europe, are “easy” thanks to the model he sticks with.
“Ultimately, I can’t make the Japanese look and sound like the Saudi Arabian team or the Saudis look and sound like Colombians.”
Buckner says his network spans 134 countries and 4,700 agents in those countries, and that he has access to 6,000 vehicles globally, 53 air ambulance aircraft on contract, and 89 non-U.S. standard aircraft on contract. The latter are not tied to the U.S. so can be flown to areas where FAA has closed airspace to American aircraft. He says Global Guardian has built an affiliate group of over 7,000 hospitals and clinics. Back in Tyson’s Corner, it employs 48 cybersecurity analysts/defenders.
This model allows his company to move fast and flexibly, Buckner asserts. He maintains that no American or British LLC can obtain a license to carry weapons or operate armored vehicles in a foreign country. Global Guardian can do so through its in-country affiliates in which he can take up to a 49% stake, remaining minority owner while the majority owner is a national of the particular country who can obtain weapons/driving licenses for local agents.
Buckner claims his local affiliates are reliable.
“We’ve never failed a security evacuation or medical evacuation in 11 years. The only difficulty we’ve had is language [coordination is done in English and executed in the local dialect]. Knock-on-wood, a failure could happen tonight but it hasn’t to date.”
It could happen because Global Guardian has never faced a challenge like Ukraine.
“I cannot get into the city center of Mariupol,” Buckner acknowledges. “I cannot get into the city center of Kharkiv. Dnipro has gotten more difficult – we can still get in but we have to time it. I can only get into the southwest corner of Kyiv and at some point the Russians are going to cut off the capital.”
To The Border And Back
If you’re wondering where Buckner is, look no further than Global Guardian’s operations center in northern Virginia. When he did an interview with Yahoo News earlier this month, he divulged that he was on day 15 of going on two to three hours of sleep. Now, he’s getting four to five hours. Though the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating, his teams there have a gotten a lot of practice and he’s letting others steer the ship more.
Due to the time difference between Washington and Kyiv he sets an alarm for 11 p.m. (5 a.m. in Ukraine) knowing his teams go into action at 6 a.m. local time.
“I wake up at 11, run through to about 3 a.m. [ET], catch a couple hours sleep, get back up and run the day in the office. I typically take another nap around 4 to 5 p.m. [ET] because the next day’s planning and sequencing has been done. We’re just waiting for daylight to hit [in Ukraine].”
Buckner says he’s used to a sleep-deprived schedule from his Green Beret background. He even enjoys it.
“I don’t have to be in our operations center but I like watching things in real time, watching the vehicle movement, getting updates on what they’re facing. When something happens I’m paying attention and I want to communicate major events to our clients personally. I don’t want that to come from somebody else.”
The Global Guardian ops center monitors, communicates and coordinates with two teams in Ukraine, two in Poland, two in Romania and one each in Slovakia and Hungary. In all, he says he has a total of about 175 agents in and around Ukraine is operating from seven cities. In the beginning they were in just three cities but as demand went up and their desire to cut response time down and get better intelligence increased, they dispersed.
A month prior to the invasion, Global Guardian sent its Ukraine clients — who Buckner describes as Fortune 1000 companies and European multinationals — an intelligence packet, a PowerPoint brief “basically begging our clients to prepare for this”.
The company put the probability of attack at 65%, telling its clients they must update contact lists, addresses, and phone numbers. Two weeks prior to the war several of Buckner’s clients did start prepping. They began moving people 3-4 days before the invasion, he says.
“Others did not. They didn’t get us [evacuation] lists until six to eight days into the war.”
The corporations that did move wanted their expats out within the first 72 hours. But Buckner says Global Guardian is retrieving things as well as people — proprietary manufacturing technology, advanced tooling, computer servers holding supply chain data, sensitive financial information and scientific formulas. The equipment and IP are commercially strategic and arguably, internationally strategic.
“After day four or five you could tell the corporate mindset was that they were going to have to support their local workforce,” Buckner says. Global Guardian started moving Ukrainian nationals west to Lviv, its service now recognized as a humanitarian effort, not just a corporate evacuation. Any free bus space is given to non-affiliated Ukrainians fleeing the country, free-of-charge, he says.
“Every mission since then has included children, spouses, grandparents and pets. That’s who we’ve been moving out of violent pockets of cities.”
Three weeks prior to the invasion Global Guardian “flooded the zone” with satellite phones and text devices. “We thought the Russians were going to cut the internet and cell phone towers. We were wrong. It turns out that the Russian command and control of its army is so bad they need the net and phones as much as we do.”
Early in the conflict the phones buzzed as the company evacuated 250 to 500 people at a time using 50-passenger buses. These were lined up in convoy groups of five or six with one reconnaissance vehicle in front and one in back with armed agents. Buckner says they can still do that for runs from Odessa to Romania. If they’re careful they can still do it from Dnipro or Lviv. But those windows are closing.
“Now we’re focused on high risk, smaller sets where it’s 3 to 15 people.”
For these sets Global Guardian sends out reconnaissance teams to scout pickups and conditions. They’re in direct communications with the clients and corporate HQs. When a decision to go is made, a three-vehicle set of SUVs, sedans or small armored vans proceeds to a city location.
The SUVs, cars (and sometimes armored Sprinter vans) “that don’t attract a lot of attention” can get through Ukrainian roadblocks more quickly. “There’s so much debris on the ground in some of these city areas, I can’t get a single bus in there so a sedan or SUV is the way to go,” Buckner explains.
Ten miles outside a city or pickup locale a “mothership,” usually a 20-passenger bus awaits. The armored vans and SUVs shuttle people to it until full. As they go through roadblocks and around obstacles, the team’s guns are stowed out of sight.
“We don’t show our weapons. They’re not holstered or across the chest,” Buckner says. “Our agents put them away because we don’t want a young, nervous Ukrainian soldier to see these weapons, think there’s a problem and get scared.”
Thus far, he says Global Guardian’s agents have not had to draw their guns or produce cash for bribes, a situation often encountered in other parts of the world where different values and such a unifying threat are not present. Buckner reports that early-on a couple of his larger buses were commandeered by the Ukrainian government, an action he did not contest. Buses have routinely been inspected by Ukrainian security but otherwise try to move as unobtrusively as possible.
Once the evacuees are secured, the journey starts. If the party is leaving Dnipro in central Ukraine, the trip takes “at least” two days. The teams move only during daylight. A curfew (and common sense) prevents night travel, requiring the vehicles to make for safe houses, typically churches, train stations or bus stations where the Team’s charges can eat and sleep. At dawn they start the next leg to the border.
Sometimes there are detours. “We’ve had kids who ran out of diabetic medication,” Buckner offers. “We’ve scoured countryside pharmacies to find it for them.”
Border crossings at Poland, Slovakia and Romania change day to day. If evacuees are in good enough health, they leave the bus, stand in line and walk across the border. There are special lines for the elderly.
The only frontier Global Guardian teams have authority to drive across is Poland but elsewhere the company has secured permission to drive wheelchair-bound children across the line. Once over the border the usually exhausted parties are met by another in-country Guardian complement.
“The Ukrainian team does the hardest part but we still have to have a key team on the other side [of a border] waiting with the exact same seating capacity and medical support to get them to a secure zone,” Buckner explains.
Then the journey resumes to large cities like Warsaw or Bucharest where the company places the refugees in hotels, typically for two days, after which the commissioning client takes over their care and support if they were not handed off directly at the border. The Ukrainian teams head back east for the next tranche of people or things.
All of the above happens without connection to or assistance from the Zelensky government – by design.
“We’re not looking to integrate with the government,” Buckner affirms. “They have their hands full. The only contact we’ve made is for specialty passes for incapacitated people at the Ukraine-Polish border for example.”
Global Guardian plans not to have to interact with the Ukrainian, U.S. or other governments unless absolutely necessary. When necessity will strike is a question as yet unanswered. It lies next to another question which has been resoundingly answered.
His company’s phones do not stop ringing, Buckner says.
“This is a major event for us. These events always have been, but this is the biggest in our 11 years. Right now, we’re on pace to sign 25 to 30 new Fortune 1000 firms which have realized that insurance is garbage, that duty of care services are garbage. They’re going to move towards firms like us, firms with real rigor who can actually operate in these kinds of environments.”
Buckner sees a new paradigm in the private security and underwriting markets, a response to a more overtly threatening, divided and competitive world than even one year ago.
“This is the wake-up call for multinationals. Just because you have insurance doesn’t mean you’re prepared for crises in a more complicated world.”
Global Guardian has an insurance integration service provider agreement option and according to Buckner insurers are showing interest. He says the firm already has an exclusive agreement with a large global insurer for whom they are a master service provider for medical/security/kidnap-ransom services.
Existing Global Guardian clients pay an annual subscription fee for access to all the assets mentioned above. It ranges between $35,000 and $50,000 per annum according to the CEO. Additional packages of service from client tailored medevac (transport to wherever the client desires), security protection, and kidnap-ransom contingency products are available.
The companies availing themselves of Guardian’s high-risk Ukrainian services are not being charged a war-premium, Buckner says.
“If you are an existing Global Guardian client, during this Ukrainian war all we’re charging you [additionally] for is the vehicle, the agents and the distance of the evac based on the number of days it takes.”
The flat-rate charge for a 50-passenger bus for a half-country journey is about $18,000. That works out to about $360 per person, more than a Greyhound fare but highly reasonable considering the risk the company asserts.
Global Guardian has a complimentary effort ongoing in Russia from which it has retrieved over 2,400 people for its clients, typically flying them to Turkey or UAE. The latter has no Visa requirement making it particularly useful as a landing pad for onward trans-shipment of people to home destinations. So far, the process has been smooth.
Waiting It Out
As of the last update, the group in Mariupol was still sitting tight. They’re affiliated with a large consultancy firm that Americans would recognize. They are one of five groups trapped in the devastated city that Buckner is trying to extract.
“Right now I can only get to one of the five,” Buckner admits. “Every day we send reconnaissance teams out to look at what’s happening. They do what we call an ‘offset,’ setting up outside the city center. In one case we sat for almost 16 hours waiting for the bombing to subside. When it did, we went in and got an 85-year-old blind man, an 81-year-old woman and a person in his 40’s with health issues. It’s tenuous.”
Could it be more tenuous if the Russians know what Global Guardian is doing? They do know, Buckner reminds me. His company’s flights still leave from Moscow.
“The question is, why would Russian forces care about us getting corporate employees out of Ukraine?”
They might care if an important individual was involved, I suggest.
“Yes, there could be big money,” he allows, “but I would say that my footprint is small and they have much bigger problems than a firm like Global Guardian taking families out of the country.”
Buckner adds that his cyber team has significantly “stepped up its game” in the event Russian actors try to disrupt his operations center or in-country comms. But he stresses, he’s trying to be as transparent as possible in Ukraine, with his clients and with the media.
“There’s no reason not to. This is not a classified operation. We’re not the CIA. We’re simply trying to get people out of the way of a threat.”