Hard Drinking and Murky Finances: How an American Veterans Group Imploded in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — Andrew Milburn, a former American Marine colonel and leader of the Mozart Group, stood in a chilly meeting room on the second floor of an apartment building in Kyiv about to deliver some bad news. In front of him sat half a dozen men who had traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to work for him.

“Guys, I’m gutted,” he said. “The Mozart Group is dead.”

The men stared back at him with blank faces.

One asked as he walked toward the door, “What should I do with my helmet?”

The Mozart Group, one of the most prominent, private American military organizations in Ukraine, has collapsed under a cloud of accusations ranging from financial improprieties to alcohol-addled misjudgments. Its struggles provide a revealing window into the world of foreign volunteer groups that have flocked to Ukraine with noble intentions only to be tripped up by the stresses of managing 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, spoke only anonymously out of concerns that the Russians might target him. “You got to run these groups like a business. We didn’t do that.”

Hundreds if not thousands of foreign veterans and volunteers have passed through Ukraine. Many of them, like Mr. Milburn and his group, are hard-living men who have spent their adult lives steeped in violence, solo fliers trying to work together in a very dangerous environment without a lot of structure or rules.

The Mozart Group thrived at first, training Ukrainian troops, rescuing civilians from the front lines and raising more than a million dollars in donations to finance it all. But then the money began to run out.

Andrew Milburn after a meeting on Tuesday, when he said the Mozart Group, which he co-founded, “is dead.” At the top of the white board, he drew an X through the group’s initials, TMG. Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Ukrainian volunteer soldiers listening to instructions during training by members of the Mozart Group last year.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

After months struggling to hold itself together, Mozart was plagued by defections, infighting, a break-in at its office headquarters and a lawsuit filed by the company’s chief financial officer, Andrew Bain, seeking the ouster of Mr. Milburn.

The lawsuit, filed in Wyoming, where Mozart is registered as a limited liability company, is a litany of petty and serious allegations, accusing Mr. Milburn among other things of making derogatory comments about Ukraine’s leadership while “significantly intoxicated,” letting his dog urinate in a borrowed apartment and “diverting company funds” and other financial malfeasance.

The State of the War

  • In the East: Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters to break Ukraine’s resistance in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.
  • Mercenary Troops: Tens of thousands of Russian convicts have joined the Wagner Group to fight alongside the Kremlin’s decimated forces. Here is how they have fared.
  • Sidestepping Sanctions: Russian trade appears to have largely bounced back to where it was before the invasion of Ukraine, as the country’s neighbors and allies step in to fill the gaps left by Western restrictions.
  • Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks alone won’t help turn the tide, and Kyiv has started to press Western officials on advanced weapons like long-range missiles and fighter jets.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m flawed,” said Mr. Milburn, who acknowledged in an interview that he had been drinking when he made the comments on Ukraine. “We all are.” But he denied the more serious allegations about financial improprieties, calling them “utterly ridiculous.”

When Mr. Milburn showed up in Ukraine in early March last year, the capital, Kyiv, was seemingly on the precipice. Russian forces were blasting their way in from the suburbs and Ukraine was rushing thousands of inexperienced soldiers to the front.

That’s when, through a mutual friend, Mr. Milburn, 59, met Mr. Bain, 58. Also a former Marine colonel, Mr. Bain had been working in media and marketing in Ukraine for more than 30 years. “The Two Andys,” as Mozart employees called them, shared a vision of doing whatever they could to help Ukraine win the war.

Mr. Milburn, whose career has tracked America’s wars of the past three decades, from Somalia to Iraq, had both the combat experience and the contacts. He counts Marine heavyweights like the author Bing West and a former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, as friends.

Mr. 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 set up that turned donations into desperately needed gear for the Ukrainian military.

The two founded Mozart, the name a saucy response to the Russian mercenary force that uses the name of another famous composer, the Wagner Group. They also ran a short-lived podcast called “Two Marines in Kyiv.”

But they had very different styles. Mr. Milburn is gregarious, comfortable in the spotlight — he wrote a searing memoir — and by his own admission, hot tempered. Mr. Bain, who studied classics at Yale, is more reserved and cerebral.

From the beginning, there were tensions, both said. “For 30 minutes he’s the most charming man in the world,” Mr. Bain said of Mr. Milburn. “But at minute 31, you’re like, ‘Wait, something’s not working back there.’”

Mr. Milburn said that while he did not want to insult Mr. Bain, “the facts speak for themselves, and I can’t give any more insights into his character than what he’s done.”

Ukrainian soldiers after a training session. As more Ukrainian units sought training, the finances of the donor-supported Mozart Group deteriorated. Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times
Andrew Milburn, center, going over the addresses of possible evacuees with volunteers before heading toward the front in eastern Ukraine last summer.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

With the Ukrainian military desperate for all the Western support it could get, Mozart quickly expanded from a handful of combat vets to more than 50 employees from a dozen countries. The group’s two specialties became last-chance extractions of civilians trapped on the front lines, which was extremely dangerous work, and condensed military training.

As spring passed to summer, more Ukrainian military units asked Mozart for training. But the Ukrainians could not pay for it, leaving Mozart reliant on a small pool of steady donors, including a group of East Coast financiers with Jewish-Ukrainian roots and a Texas tycoon.

Everyone involved said it became stressful just making payroll. And several employees said that the way the money flowed into the organization, which was overseen by Mr. Bain, was opaque.

“I can’t tell you how many people would come up to me at a party and said, “Hey, Marty, I love what you’re doing. I want to give you $10,000,” said Martin Wetterauer, one of Mr. Milburn’s old Marine friends and Mozart’s operations chief. “But we would never know if the money actually came in.”

Mr. Bain said he did absolutely nothing wrong and provided financial information whenever it was asked for, which was rare.

On top of that, the people Mozart hired were not the easiest to manage. Many were grizzled combat vets who admitted to struggling with PTSD and heavy drinking. When they weren’t working, they gravitated to Kyiv’s strip clubs, bars and online dating.

“There was a lot of cursing, a lot of womanizing, a lot of things you wouldn’t want to take to mass,” said another trainer, Rob.

In September, they lost an important funding stream when a charity called Allied Extract decided to use less expensive Ukrainian teams to rescue civilians. By November, Mozart was so short of cash that Mr. Milburn, Mr. Bain and Mr. Wetterauer gave up their salaries of several hundred dollars a day.

Mr. Bain, who owned 51 percent of the company then approached Mr. Milburn, who held the other 49 percent, about separating, both men said in interviews. Mr. Bain asked Mr. Milburn to pay $5 million to buy him out but Mr. Milburn refused, saying there was no way he could come up with such a sum. The two soon stopped talking.

On Dec. 11, a Sunday morning, Mr. Milburn and a couple of employees went to the company’s headquarters, housed in a Kyiv building Mr. Bain owns, to retrieve winter jackets, body armor and some personal luggage locked in a storeroom.

When a security guard refused to let them in, one of Mr. Milburn’s men pinned him against a wall while Mr. Milburn kicked down the door. He later said they needed the gear for missions in Donbas, the eastern Ukraine region under relentless Russian attack.

Members of the Mozart Group trying to convince residents of Soledar, in eastern Ukraine, to evacuate during intense shelling last summer.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Axel Vilhelmsen, a medic with the Mozart Group, treated a woman who refused to leave her house in the frontline village of Marinka in eastern Ukraine.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Not long after that, a clip of Mr. Milburn disparaging Ukraine’s leadership circulated widely on social media. “I happen to have a Ukraine flag tied to my bag, but I’m not, ‘Oh my God, Ukraine is so awesome,’” he said. “I understand that there are plenty of screwed-up people running Ukraine.”

The clip was taken from The Team House podcast, in which guests are invited into a living room setting to drink hard liquor with the hosts. “Of course I shouldn’t have said that,” Mr. Milburn acknowledged.

As soon as Mr. Bain filed the lawsuit on Jan. 10, an internecine social media battle exploded. Mr. Bain published the allegations on Mozart’s Facebook page, which he controls, and Mr. Milburn fired back nasty comments about Mr. Bain from Mozart’s LinkedIn page, which he controls.

“It was like a domestic dispute,” Rob said.

But of more than half a dozen employees interviewed for this article, all expressed sympathy for Mr. Milburn. Even after the final meeting, on Tuesday, several said he was an inspiring leader and they were waiting to see if he could raise the funds to put them back to work.

Mr. Milburn has rented a new office in Kyiv and says he is determined to resurrect the operation.

“I dream of going back to Donbas,” he said. “When you’re out there, and you’re scared, everything else shrinks into the shadows. You’re not thinking about money. You’re not thinking about your reputation.”

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

Wearing a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and running shoes, he spent hours this week in front of his laptop. He’s scouting out new business, such as training courses for hostile environments. He’s writing emails to donors.

And he’s talking to his lawyers.

Ukrainian soldiers at the end of a training session with the Mozart Group in rural eastern Ukraine.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

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