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April 25, 2022


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Risk management

Managing risk in and keeping employees safe during the Ukraine crisis

IFSEC Global speaks to James Bird, Security Director – Intelligence & Assistance at International SOS, to find out how the security and risk management consultancy firm has dealt with clients and its own employees in the Ukraine crisis, and what advice it would give other organisations.

The situation in Ukraine is evolving rapidly. For context and clarity, this article was written on 11th April 2022 – please note the situation may have changed since this point.

James Bird, Security Director – Intelligence & Assistance at International SOS

IFSEC Global (IG): What updates can you provide on the everchanging security situation in the country and its neighbouring nations?

James Bird (JB): The current situation in Ukraine remains fluid. The focus of Russian troops in Ukraine will continue to shift to eastern and southern parts of the country, primarily Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, in the coming weeks. The broader security environment will remain extremely volatile and missile strikes will continue to affect Ukrainian cities. Talks between Russia and Ukraine aimed at ending the conflict will continue but an agreement is unlikely for several weeks due to the complexity of issues being negotiated. Fighting will continue in the coming weeks and the situation will remain volatile, underscoring our existing advice to evacuate all staff and defer all travel to Ukraine.

The immediate-term impacts on Europe and Ukraine’s neighbours to the west will continue to focus on disruption caused by significant refugee inflows and social unrest related to ongoing price hikes for basic goods and energy. Such protests will be disruptive but not lead to significant violence in most cases.

There remain a number of escalation points to monitor, however, in terms of the conflict’s impact on Europe and the countries neighbouring Ukraine to the west. These include, but are not limited to: the provision to Ukraine by NATO of more advanced air-defence systems, military aircraft; an incident involving the targeting of Ukraine-bound military equipment outside of Ukraine, either deliberate or accidental; a major cyberattack that results in loss of life and/or substantial material impact in a NATO country that is conclusively attributed to Russia.

IG: How is International SOS supporting its clients with operations in Ukraine?

JB: Since the crisis in Ukraine began, International SOS has been directly supporting impacted clients and their employees. This support has taken numerous forms, as our diverse client base has been affected in various ways. The help we provide ranges from assisting with physical evacuations from Ukraine and bordering countries – of which we have conducted hundreds – to helping with our clients’ informational and planning needs. Often, we work hand-in-hand with each organisations’ crisis management function, as we strive to empower them with the advice, up-to-date information, and forward-looking analysis, they need to make the right decisions.

We provide this support to organisations of all sizes, operating in a wide range of industries. So far, we’ve seen that the Tech, Medical & Telecoms, Professional Services, and Manufacturing sectors have been particularly impacted by the crisis. As the situation continues to develop, we’ll continue to support organisations in these industries and in those starting to become more impacted by the crisis. For instance, we’re now working with more non-governmental organisations and companies in the charity sector. These groups have an increasingly important role to play in the region, mitigating the humanitarian crisis – our job is to help them carry out their role whilst minimising the risks involved.

IG: What are the most prominent difficulties being faced by people as they attempt to evacuate from Ukraine?

JB: The key challenge for those attempting to depart Ukraine is the physical risk associated with movement in areas experiencing conflict, as well challenges accessing essential supplies, including food, water and fuel to support the journey. Access to up-to-date information about evacuation corridors and local assistance can also be difficult to find.

Availability of evacuation support is highly contingent on the security environment in the local area. Movement – whether via privately arranged transport or government provided evacuation trains or buses – has been possible, although at times extremely overwhelmed, in some cities including Kyiv. In other areas, particularly in the east or south eastern provinces, movement has been even more difficult due to the impacts of the conflict.

We’ve worked with many organisations to supplement locally-available evacuation assistance. We’ve provided risk assessment or journey management advice for those using locally available transport options or, where possible, we’ve provided secure ground movement options through our trusted local providers.

IG: What advice are you giving to clients with operations in Ukraine when it comes to evacuation/sheltering and the safest way to go about that, are you able to monitor evacuation status? Is that advice subject to change?

JB: Organising evacuations can be complex at the best of times, not to mention when they’re occurring in areas experiencing military activity.

Lots of the advice we provide centres on countering disinformation. Throughout this crisis we’ve seen the spread of unsubstantiated information, often shared with various agendas in-mind. This makes access to apolitical and verifiable intel all the more vital. Our teams work to ensure key organisational decision makers have this verified information at their fingertips. Using this information, organisations can assess our advice and analysis of the situation they face, and make informed decisions.

Verified information is critical when planning challenging evacuations from conflict areas, as organisations need to be aware of their options. For instance, there remains multiple land border crossing options with routes to Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. These options can, however, change at short notice. This is why working with accredited security providers is so important. At International SOS we can help organisations understand which evacuation option is the best for them, prioritising employee safety throughout the process.

While evacuating individuals, physical risks are obviously a key challenge. Many areas of Ukraine have been impacted by armed conflict, making the situation difficult to navigate. Daily changes to the wider situation influence how we strategise and plan evacuations with the organisations we support. At some times, for instance, it may be possible to organise an evacuation from a particular region as military conflict moves elsewhere. Conversely, an increase in a combat activity can quickly disrupt planned evacuations.

When evacuations are not possible, staff should be urged to find shelter with access to food, water, and medication – though in some areas this is increasingly challenging. If an area sees significant military activity, particularly if exposed to indiscriminate military targeting and infrastructure damage, individuals should generally seek to relocate to safer regions. This is no small task, as we’ve seen that all movement comes with certain risks.


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