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Strong drinks and shady finances: How a group of American veterans went under in the Ukraine


The Mozart Group, a private military organization that intervened in the war, is in the eye of the storm.

kyiv, Ukraine - Andrew Milburn, a former US Marine colonel and leader of the Mozart Group, was in a cold second-floor meeting room of a kyiv apartment building about to deliver bad news.

Across from him sat half a dozen men who had traveled to the Ukraine at his expense to work with him.

"Guys, I'm gutted," he said.

"The Mozart Group is dead."

The men looked at him with expressionless faces.

One asked as he headed for the door,

"What do I do with my helmet?"

Ukrainian volunteer soldiers listen to instructions during a Mozart Group military training near kyiv. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)

The Mozart Group, one of the most prominent US private military organizations in Ukraine, has collapsed under a cloud of allegations

ranging from financial improprieties to alcohol misjudgment.

Their struggles offer an eye-opening window into the world of groups of foreign volunteers who have flocked to Ukraine with noble intentions only to encounter the stresses of running a complicated enterprise in a war zone.

"I've seen this happen many times," said one of Mozart's veteran trainers, who, like many others, only spoke anonymously for fear the Russians might target him.

"You have to run these groups like a business. We didn't."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign veterans and volunteers have passed through Ukraine.

Many of them, like Milburn and his group, are hard-living men who have spent their adult lives steeped in violence

, loners trying to work together in a very dangerous environment without much structure or rules.

The Mozart Group thrived early on, training Ukrainian troops, rescuing civilians from the front lines, and raising over a million dollars in donations to finance it all.

But then money started to get tight.

After months struggling to stay together,

the Mozart group was plagued by defections, infighting, a robbery at its office headquarters, and a lawsuit

filed by the company's chief financial officer, Andrew Bain, seeking Milburn's removal.

The lawsuit, filed in Wyoming, where Mozart is registered as a limited liability company, is a litany of petty and serious allegations, accusing Milburn of, among other things, making disparaging comments about the direction of Ukraine while being "significantly intoxicated", of letting his dog urinate in a borrowed apartment and of "diverting company funds" and other financial crimes.

"I'll be the first to admit that I have flaws

," said Milburn, who admitted in an interview that he had been drinking when he made the Ukraine comments.

"We all have them."

But he denied the more serious allegations of financial improprieties, calling them "totally ridiculous."

Andrew Milburn, founder of the Mozart Group, during a meeting at the organization's office in kyiv, Ukraine. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

When Milburn turned up in Ukraine in early March last year, the capital kyiv seemed on the brink of a precipice.

Russian forces were fighting their way out of the suburbs, and Ukraine was sending thousands of inexperienced soldiers to the front.

It was then that, through a mutual friend, Milburn, 59, met Bain, 58.

Bain, also a former Marine colonel, had worked in media and marketing in Ukraine for more than 30 years.

"The two Andys"

, as Mozart's employees would call them,

shared a vision of doing everything possible to help Ukraine win the war


Milburn, whose career has spanned the US wars of the past three decades

, from Somalia to Iraq, had both the combat experience and the connections.

He counts among his friends Marine heavyweights such as writer Bing West and former Secretary of Defense General James Mattis.

Bain had the organization.

For eight years, since Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, he had been running the Ukrainian Freedom Fund, a charity he created that turned donations into desperately needed equipment for the Ukrainian military.

The two founded Mozart, a name that is a cheeky response to the Russian mercenary force using the name of another famous composer, the Wagner Group.

They also ran a short podcast called "Two Marines in kyiv."

But they had very different styles.

Milburn is gregarious, comfortable in the limelight - he wrote a scathing memoir - and, by his own admission, short-tempered.

Bain, who studied classical at Yale, is more reserved and cerebral.

Both say that from the beginning there were tensions.

"For 30 minutes he's the loveliest man in the world," Bain says of Milburn.

"But by the 31st minute, you're like, 'Wait, something's wrong there.'"

Milburn said that, while he did not want to insult Bain, "the facts speak for themselves, and I cannot give more information about his character than what he has already done."

With the Ukrainian military desperate for all the Western support it could get,

Mozart quickly grew from a handful of combat veterans to more than 50 employees from a dozen countries


The group's two specialties became last-minute extractions of civilians trapped on the front lines, extremely dangerous work, and condensed military training.

As spring turned to summer,

more Ukrainian military units requested training from Mozart


But the Ukrainians couldn't afford it, so Mozart relied on a small group of steady donors, including a group of East Coast financiers with Jewish-Ukrainian roots and a Texas tycoon.

Ukrainian soldiers during a Mozart Group military training in rural Donbas, Ukraine.

(Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)

Everyone involved says that just paying the payroll has become stressful.

And several employees said the way money flowed into the organization, which is overseen by Bain, was opaque.

"I can't tell you how many people would come up to me at a party and say, 'Marty, I love what you're doing.

I want to give you $10,000," said Martin Wetterauer, one of Milburn's old marine friends and Mozart's chief of operations. "But we never knew if the money was really coming."

Bain said he had done absolutely nothing wrong and provided financial information whenever asked, which was rare.

Furthermore, the people hired by Mozart were not easy to manage.

Many of them were combat veterans who admitted to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and excessive drinking


When they weren't working, they frequented kyiv's strip clubs, bars, and Internet dating.

"There was a lot of swearing, a lot of women, a lot of things you wouldn't want to bring to mass," says Rob, another trainer.

In September, they lost a major source of funding when a charity called Allied Extract decided to use less expensive Ukrainian equipment to rescue civilians.

By November, Mozart was so short of cash that Milburn, Bain, and Wetterauer gave up their salaries of several hundred dollars a day.

Bain, who owned 51% of the company, then turned to Milburn, who had the other 49%, to try to break up, the two said in interviews.

Bain asked Milburn to pay him $5 million to buy out his share, but Milburn refused

, saying there was no way he could come up with that amount.

The two soon stopped talking.

As soon as Bain filed the lawsuit on January 10, an internecine battle broke out on social media.

Bain posted the allegations on Mozart's Facebook page, which he controls, and Milburn responded with nasty comments about Bain from Mozart's LinkedIn page, which he controls.

"It was like a domestic dispute,

" Rob said.

Milburn has rented a new office in kyiv and says he is determined to revive the operation.

"I dream of going back to Donbas," he says.

"When you're there and you're scared, everything else is in the shadows. You don't think about money

. You don't think about your reputation."

But he's not going back to the front anytime soon.

This week she has spent hours in front of his computer.

She is looking for new business, such as hostile environment training courses.

She writes emails to donors.

And talk to their lawyers.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

Source: clarin

All news articles on 2023-02-02

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