How the full-scale war affected veteran businesses in Ukraine: two stories
February of 2022 changed the fate of many Ukrainians. Among them were veterans of the anti-terrorist operation (one of the names the Russian military aggression in Ukraine was known under before 2022). In the time between their military service and the start of a full-scale invasion, many veterans started and developed their businesses. However, Russian aggression forced them to take up arms again.
We spoke to a veteran and a volunteer to find out what happened to their business and if they plan to grow it further.
“Our workshop survived the occupation, but was burned down by a rocket”
Until February 2022, veteran Dmytro Motsak and his friend Andrii Bihlenko had been developing a business in the Kherson region. The partners were engaged in the production of sun-dried tomatoes, and started a company with an appropriate name – “Ukrainian sun-dried tomatoes”.
“Most of our sales were through Instagram. We managed to promote the page on this social network. We also had several customers among hotels, restaurants, café (HoReCa), and supplied them with our products. Furthermore, we tried to work with supermarket chains. For example, we conducted negotiations with Silpo (one of the largest supermarket chains in Ukraine), but they needed very large volumes of a product. Unfortunately, we could not provide that, and the agreement was not signed,” Dmytro says about the development of his business until February 2022.
Russia’s attack completely changed both business and the fate of partners. Dmytro joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Andrii was forced to leave the Kherson region at the beginning of the full-scale war.
“On February 24, the Russians began shelling the Kherson region in the morning. I was in Kyiv at that time, and Andrii was in Kherson, he managed the production of tomatoes. The enemy was advancing very quickly, and my partner and family decided to leave Kherson while there was still an opportunity”.
“They didn’t have time to take the equipment out of the workshop: it was located in Chornobaivka, which was under fire from all sides.”
Andrii and his family went to Kiliia in the Odesa region. There he is trying to restore the production of sun-dried tomatoes. The business had to be rebuilt from scratch because the equipment had been burned down in Kherson. At the end of January 2023, Andrii started selling sun-dried tomatoes already from Kiliia.
“A kind of paradox occurred – after the de-occupation, we entered our workshop. Surprisingly, it was not looted. We decided to take the equipment to Kherson and then take it to Kiliia. But two days later, a Russian rocket flew into the warehouse where the equipment was stored and everything burned down. The workshop survived the occupation, but did not survive a missile hit.”
Dmytro himself is currently serving in the Armed Forces. He voluntarily joined the army on the first day.
“I remember that on the morning of February 24 my friend called me and said that the war had started. I understood that I would join the Armed Forces because I already had the experience of serving in the army in 2014. My positions were near Mariupol then”.
“I knew that any day could be my last, so on February 24 I took a bath, drank my tea, and called my psychotherapist to say goodbye. Only after that I went to the Military Commissariat.”
During 11 months of the full-scale war, Dmytro went through all the hot spots in the Donetsk region, the Luhansk region, and the Kharkiv region. He also was near Bakhmut and Izium.
“The worst thing I saw was in the Luhansk region. Very intense fighting is going on there. A real meat grinder near Bakhmut. Many of our people died there. The horror that happened in Izium can only be compared with Mariupol. If you ask me what I think about this war and what happened in 2014, I’ll say that nine years ago, I did not experience a tenth of what I am experiencing now”.
At the end of the war, the military man is going to return to his business.
“We have a very interesting niche and an unusual product for the Ukrainian market. You don’t need to go to Italy to taste sun-dried tomatoes, you can order them in Ukraine via Instagram. And already after the war, I hope that people will be able to buy our products in supermarkets”.
“Nothing unusual. All the same situations, only on a larger scale”
Before the full-scale war, volunteer and paramedic Maksym Mostovyi taught Ukrainians how to save lives and provide first aid. To do this, he and his friends founded the UNIT training center. In the first three years of the center’s existence, UNIT instructors taught 28,000 Ukrainians first aid. By 2022, this figure has increased many times.
“I started volunteering during the Revolution of Dignity. I remember that on one of the days, the stocks of the Maidan burned down and there was a request for replenishment of food and other necessary things. I joined those who responded to this request and went to get what I needed after work. After that, I donated a lot and sent equipment to the frontline. We believed then that the war would end quickly, and we would win,” Maksym recalls.
However, the war did not end in 2014, and later Maksym created a support center under the SIERRA brand. As part of this project, Maksym and the team help collect first-aid kits, trauma kits, bags, and backpacks with reliable and proven components. In addition, the SIERRA team is engaged in the development of equipment and the adaptation of some solutions to Ukrainian realities.
“This is a business with a social bias. Until February 2022, our main customers were organized groups of civilians who were preparing for war, as well as those who planned to enter territorial defense, and shops that wanted to expand their assortment. The third large group was random people who needed first-aid kits for themselves or their relatives.”
Now Maksym, together with others from the UNIT and SIERRA teams, is a part of the Hospitallers – a voluntary organization of paramedics that was founded by Yana Zinkevich at the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine in 2014. This is a volunteer battalion, and therefore it has no funding.
“The battalion provides us with the main equipment for work, but we still have to get expensive equipment by ourselves. For example, a night vision device. Since the battalion is voluntary, it constantly needs help. Because of this, we are regularly raising funds for various needs.”
Therefore, Maksym and his friends plan to restart SIERRA in the near future. This is necessary to be able to provide the team with specific equipment and gear. But the UNIT team plans to return to commercial training after the victory.
“For me, between 2014 and 2022 there was no “peaceful life” phase. We did not stop volunteering. Except for very rare moments when it was necessary to take care of our own health”.
“Now it feels quite ordinary for me – the requests are “patterned”, and you can immediately understand whether a person is a professional and needs what he/she asks about. Work in the field has become somewhat more complicated and more diverse. However, so far nothing unusual either: still the same situations, only on a larger scale. And the number of people is greater,” Maksym explains.