It took Andrey Liscovich PhD 2015 three days to travel from his home in San Francisco to his besieged hometown of Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine. He had no choice but to go. After seeing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiant messages of resistance in the wake of Russia’s invasion, Liscovich, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, said he felt compelled to travel back to Ukraine and do whatever he could to defend his country.
He flew to Poland, hitchhiked, walked, and took a train the rest of the way, and then went directly to the conscription office to sign up as a volunteer fighter. But rather than being given a gun, Liscovich, a former CEO of Uber Works, was tasked with giving the army of volunteers helping to defend the city of nearly three-quarters of a million people the supplies they needed—everything from body armor to thermal underwear to energy bars.
Russian forces are drawing ever closer to the strategically located city in the eastern part of the country on the banks of the Dnieper River—bombardments began on Wednesday and hit the city’s secondary rail station, Liscovich said—and the need to supply volunteer fighters is becoming ever more crucial and more difficult.
Liscovich, a native Russian speaker who went to university in Moscow, brings to the tragic, life-and-death situation the relentless problem-solving approach of a startup veteran. Not only has he set up supply routes from abroad, he has also, with support from colleagues and friends, established a fundraising operation.
We spoke to Liscovich, who holds a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard, on Wednesday. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you experience the run-up to the invasion?
For three weeks in February, I was in Russia. I wanted to see my friends and I wanted to get a vibe of what it was like there on the eve of the war. The most surprising thing was almost nobody there thought there would be war. Locals, both in Ukraine and in Russia thought it was a very remote possibility. So even though the Western press was clearly emphasizing the likelihood of the invasion, locals did not believe it would actually happen, they thought it was a bluff.
I was also not putting a very high probability on this happening, but I knew it was a possibility, so I went there to see my friends. Most of my closest friends are Russian, and I got to see them. I didn't think I would be able to go back to Russia ever again, at least until this regime is replaced.
Q: You were able to coordinate your family’s evacuation from afar immediately after the invasion began. Why did you decide you would then head over to Ukraine?
The situation looked incredibly dire. If you remember, the forecast everywhere was that Kyiv would fall within 96 hours, 48 of which had already passed. And then I saw Zelenskyy's speech where he committed to staying, no matter what, and go down with the ship if it came to it. I felt it was absolutely incredible that we found ourselves in this circumstance, and I felt compelled to come back and do whatever I could to help the country. Of course, I didn't know what I would do. I just got on a flight, flew to Chicago, then from to Chicago to Warsaw, from there to Rzeszów, which is the closest airport to the border. Then I took a train and firefighters drove me to the border. I walked and hitch-hiked to Lviv and from there took a train to my hometown.
It took three days to get here, and when I arrived, I came to the conscription office and basically told them, "Okay, I'm volunteering. What can I do?" And given my background, they told me that the most important thing to do was to help all these other people who volunteered get the supplies that they were lacking. Basically, people were coming in in casual clothes—sneakers, jeans, a regular civilian coat—and they were getting AK-47s and some spare ammo. And obviously a soldier is a lot more than just a gun. You need to have proper clothes, tactical clothes, tactical shoes, thermal underwear. You need to have a whole bunch of stuff. Electronics, communication, you need food. A lot of these things are completely lacking, especially given how many volunteers have stepped forward—over 100,000 people have voluntarily joined the army since the war started.
Q: How did you go about this task?
Basically my job for the first week was to drive around with a military convoy and buy everything I could for them on my personal credit card, using my own money and what people Venmoed me when they heard that I was going. I didn't ask any of them for donations, just a few close friends knew that I was going, and they told others, and the word got out. Then people just started to Venmo me without even asking.
Within a week, the local inventory was depleted. So we had to pivot toward building a supply chain from the West, where we could buy things with the donations that continued to come and ship them to the frontline. We've now set up a fairly formal group—the Ukraine Defense Fund—90% of which is based in the United States, mostly ex-Uber employees. It's a logistics effort, and a lot of the people that are working on it really deeply understand logistics, deeply understand how to operate in adversarial circumstances. So, I've been coordinating this group from here.
Like with a tech startup, you can't just ask the users what they want; you need to understand their problems and give them a solution that they may not realize they wanted. And if you just ask the army, "What do you need?" they will tell you, "Bring everything." That's not helpful if you are limited in your resources. You need to make trade-offs; you need to know if they would rather have thermal underwear or shoes. “Bring everything” is not an option when you have finite money. You need to be there and be with the people who have been on the battlefield.
Q: You said one of the reasons you came was that you needed to have “skin in the game,” and that you couldn’t do what you were doing remotely.
I know that I would not have gotten anywhere near the support that I have received if people didn't think I was serious about this, and people didn't think I was going to take a personal risk. And that has been a factor behind our ability to find significant donors, and an incredible amount of support and interest from people.
I feel a sense of moral obligation to do something about this. I see my parents being refugees now. I never thought this would happen. And my city is still under Ukrainian control, but Russians are getting closer by the day. So, I feel like it's something I must do. I can't sit idly by in San Francisco and just like things on Facebook—it's not enough. I think I could do more and many people in their individual capacity can do more. In fact, the amount of support we've received has been incredible, and the biggest problem that I'm seeing is that a lot of people want to help, but they don't know how.
Q: How are you trying to channel this support?
There are four major ways to help. One is monetary donations. Money is arguably the biggest constraint right now. A lot of the protective gear is quite expensive. A single set of body armor like a vest and helmet can cost between $1,000 and $1,500 per soldier. But even $100 donation can buy a tactical medical kit, which saves somebody's life.
The second channel is donation of supplies. We have a list of critical supplies that we're looking for, especially protective gear. There's a whole range of other supplies like binoculars, and power banks, phones, drones, all kinds of other things that people have and they're willing to donate, but they don't have a channel of moving into the frontline. So we'll work with them to try to receive these in Poland and from Poland, ship them to Zaporizhzhia, or other places where we can deploy them.
The third channel is donation of time. We have a team based in the United States. Two dozen people are helping us in various ways—there's a core group that's almost entirely full time and there's a large number of people who are helping part-time. We have found people who have specific expertise that's relevant.
And the fourth area where almost everyone can help is conveying to their elected representatives [the Ukrainian’s request] for a no-fly zone.
Q: Are you staying in your family’s home?
I'm not, I don't have the keys because my parents don't know I'm here and I am staying in a hotel instead. But I've come by my childhood home. It's an apartment building. So I went into the entryway, and I also wanted to smell it. You know when you go through a childhood home, even the tiniest details bring up memories. And I don't know if I'll see that home in the future. I mean, it could be destroyed if the city is surrounded and there's shelling of the downtown area. So I tried to go to these sentimental spots—my high school, my kindergarten, all these spots where I grew up—and take them in while they're still intact. But who knows for how much longer.
Q: Do you think about the future—yours and your country’s?
My one and only objective is to do everything I can to affect the military outcome. I am not trying to think beyond that. All my focus is exclusively on this problem, and I know that will be the main determinant of Ukraine's fate going forward. And if the outcome isn't favorable, Ukraine may cease to exist. So any planning about all these contingencies may be a waste of time, if I end up in that kind of world. My job is to focus on not letting it happen and on trying to leverage my personal network, personal connections, anything I can do here locally to help these people—who have volunteered to put their lives on the line—have a fighting chance.
Q: You went to university in Russia. A lot of your good friends are Russians. How do you get your head around the war between these two countries that are so important to you?
I have no hatred for Russians. I have no hatred for Russian culture. I love it. I have deep ties to Russia. And in fact, I'm arguably the poster boy for the person who should be welcoming Russian tanks with flowers. I'm a native Russian speaker. I spent my formative years in Russia, almost all my close friends are Russian. And I'm doing everything I can to make sure if they come here, it's as tourists, it's not as a force that's trying to change the way of life of Ukrainian people. It's not Russia versus Ukraine, it's Putin versus the West.
Q: Do you think about the danger that you’re in?
I'm trying not to spend too much time on feelings. In fact, I would say there's a lot in common between running a startup and being here. A startup is an emotional rollercoaster, and everyday there is some problem that seems existential and you need to get through the day. You can't allow all these things to create an emotional train wreck inside your head. You need to be able to focus on the fundamentals that you can control and let the chips fall as they may.
So my goal is to do what I can and what's in my personal power to do, and if it helps great, if it doesn't help, well too bad, but at least I've done my part. I understand that there's a risk to being here, but I'm trying not to let emotions distract from the focus on the work that needs to be done to stop Putin.
Banner image: Volunteers stand outside a freight train loaded with aid sent to Zaporizhzhia. Photo by Dmytro Smolyenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto/Getty Images. Inline portrait from Ukraine Defense Fund video. Inline images: Donations of essentials to be distributed to the military. Photos courtesy of Andrey Liscovich.