Mozart Group Founder Andy Milburn: How to Win the War in Ukraine
Peter Maguire goes one-on-one with retired Marine Col. Andy Milburn
Unlike many of the defense contractors and NGOs who have descended on Kiev in recent months to wet their beaks in the massive American aid packages, the members of the Mozart Group maintain a low profile, are supported entirely by private donations, and spend most of their time far from the capital. Under the constant threat of Russian artillery and aircraft attack, their team of international military advisors, veterans of some of the world’s most elite units, have run thousands of Ukrainian soldiers through crash courses in urban warfare, close quarter combat, basic marksmanship, and battlefield first aid.
“Some 80% of Ukrainian soldiers currently on the frontline have not even fired their weapons,” said Mozart Group founder, retired Marine Colonel Andy Milburn. “The units undergoing training have an absurdly short amount of time in which to transform from an ad hoc group of civilians to a unit capable of offensive operations. Their attentiveness and desire to do well are poignant, at times heartbreaking.”
While Milburn initially recruited American veterans he knew, word about the Mozart Group spread quickly, and soon retired British commandos, American scout snipers, and tier 1 all-stars from all over the world began to show up in Kiev looking for him. “They’re looking again for a sense of purpose,” said Milburn. “They wanted to do something and were proficient soldiers and Marines who are keen to instruct, so we brought them into the fold.”
Unlike Blackwater or Russia’s mercenary army, the Wagner Group (who inspired their name), the Mozart Group’s international volunteers are not mercenaries. “If you're looking to get your gun on, you’re not working for me,” said Milburn. “I'm not running a mercenary organization. That's why, for the sake of our reputation, I'm very keen that our guys are not involved in direct combat. We’ve got a saying in the Marine Corps, ‘Your most valuable asset is your reputation.’” The Mozart Group’s leader believes that being limited by what they can pay makes things simpler because “it ensures that we don’t have people risking their lives for money. Everyone is on the same scale, and must choose the level of risk that they are comfortable with. It makes things easier but also immensely difficult for me as a leader.”
The challenges of leadership are nothing new to Andy Milburn. After a distinguished thirty-one-year career in the Marines, he could have easily carved out a comfortable career at a war college, think tank, or university. However, given his extremely unusual path to the U.S. Marine Corps, Milburn’s decision to travel to Ukraine and volunteer to train soldiers comes as no surprise.
The youngest son of a British father and American mother, Andy Milburn was born in Hong Kong and grew up with material comfort. He attended St. Paul’s School in London, received his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University College, and his law degree from Westminster University. After he graduated from law school in 1987, motivated by “a desire to do something completely different,” Milburn went to the U.S. Marine recruiter’s office in London. Although he had never been to the United States, and the only things the young Englishman knew about the Marines were what he had read about them in novels like Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire and William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness, he enlisted.
“Parris Island was my introduction to the United States,” said Milburn, “I was thinking, ‘This country sucks! Everyone yells at you.’” Worse than the constant shouting was his inability to understand most of what his drill sergeants were saying. “It took me some time to realize,” wrote Milburn, “the phrase ‘Where’s milburnat?’ referred to me (my expensive education not having prepared me to deal with sentences that ended in prepositions).”
After boot camp and officer candidate school, Andy Milburn spent three decades serving with distinction—Mogadishu, Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Jalabad, Tripoli, Bashiqa—and finished his career as a colonel directing special operations forces against ISIS in Syria. Upon retiring, Milburn wrote one of the best combatant-eye views of the Global War on Terror, When The Tempest Gathers.
In it, he writes reverentially about the Marine Corps that today he considers nothing less than his “home” and “family.” Although he is respectful of the American military’s tradition of civilian leadership, he raises some of the same questions he asked in his controversial 2010 paper, “Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional.”
“As Marines we are taught that the mission comes first, the men come second; but it’s not always so clear cut,” he wrote. “At what point do indecipherable or unobtainable goals shift the leaders’ responsibility back to the led?” Above all, Andy Milburn is critical of civilian leaders, republican and democrat, whose “strategic misdirection” squandered victories won with the blood, sweat, and tears of the young Americans, some of whom drew “their last breaths in places with no significance, and for a cause without rationale.” Equally frustrating, during the Global War on Terror, Milburn seldom saw “a link between military efforts and any coherent overarching strategy.”
Unlike America’s political and foreign policy establishment, both neoconservative and neoliberal, who refuse to admit, much less take responsibility for, their strategic and military failures, for Milburn, aiding a cause that he believes to be good comes with a sense of atonement. “Unless you're some kind of psychopath, nobody likes seeing civilians and the local population terrified of you,” he explained. “Those of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have all seen that. We've been on the side of the big guns and those guns are not always used with discrimination as much as we would like to pretend that they are.”
Like all wars, civilians in the frontline areas of Ukraine are the most vulnerable segment of the population. While some of the defense contractors who were shepherding rich clients out of the country at the beginning of the war for as much as $10,000 a head (described in Ukraine 7), the Mozart Group gets those who cannot help themselves—children, elderly, and disabled—out of harm’s way free of charge for the simple reason that no one else is doing it. Andy Milburn regularly leads these evacuations and describes them as a “a deadly game of cat and mouse” and adds that “it is very refreshing now to be the mouse.” Less than a month ago, Milburn was trying to find a family in a city that was under Russian attack. “Every street we chose got targeted by artillery, in one case an SU-25 [Russian close air support fighter plane],” he said. “We were a mouse and we're trying to find our way through this maze, and the cat, all-seeing and all-powerful, can put his paw down on any of those streets and stop us. That, strangely enough, frightening though it was, was comforting.”
Peter Maguire interview with Andy Milburn, September 31, 2022 (edited for clarity)
PM: What is your goal for the Mozart Group at this point?
AM: When we started, we didn't think a lot about the future. We thought about the survival of the organization and how we could keep doing what we were doing. We never imagined that we would have lasted this long. So now we’re six months in, and we've got a reasonably steady source of income from donors, and the prospects look good for another six months. The business model we started with is obsolete, and now we are looking at the Mozart group as a franchise with roots in Ukraine but able to expand elsewhere.
PM: From the outside looking in, the thing that you've been able to do that is most impressive to me is that you’ve maintained your reputation in a pretty brutal war. Unlike Blackwater that got compromised very quickly and basically became an arm of U.S. government…
AM: and that [Blackwater] brought plenty of problems with it. We are all paying for Blackwater right now. That is the reason why, when I reached out to EUCOM, and said, “Let me help you train soldiers. We won’t charge you anything,” I got stiff-armed because everyone remembers Blackwater. I am a lousy businessman, money in and money out. I have a CFO to deal with that. The thing I care about is the people we bring in because that is going to be our success or failure. So recruiting is something we pay 100% attention to and we have since day one. We've got this weird alchemy that is extraordinary. Men from ten different countries, but they all have a high degree of emotional intelligence. We have never had any problems among them. We've never had any complaints from the Ukrainian students, far from it, in fact the opposite. We have not had a single incident—from curfew violations, to getting into an argument with the [Ukrainian] military. That's extraordinary.
PM: Had you ever spent any time in the United States before you enlisted in the U.S. Marines?
AM: No, Parris Island was my introduction to the United States. I was thinking, “This country sucks! Everyone yells at you.”
PM: And they end their sentences with prepositions!
AM: Yes, that's right.
PM: What determines the conflicts the Mozart Group will get involved in?
AM: That's a good question. It hasn't been an issue until recently. I'd be lying if I said, “This is our criteria.” There are ethical and legal issues involved. We don't want to be on the wrong side of U.S. policy. The reason that we do this is not money. It is for a sense of purpose.
PM: There are things that we disagree on, but I have more faith in your reading of the current situation in Ukraine than the American foreign policy elite—both policy makers and opinion makers. My distrust of them has never been greater. Recently, we saw the Humanitarian Hawks or neoliberals, call them whatever you want, close ranks with the neoconservatives in the name of anti-Trump. That, to me, is a very dangerous alliance, because neither expresses any sense of regret or atonement, much less recognizes their failures in the Global War on Terror.
AM: Of course not! I am not a partisan, but I dislike stupid, incoherent policy and that’s it! When Sullivan [National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan] and Blinken [Secretary of State Anthony Blinken] came in, everyone was so excited because they represented the old liberal guard and yet they have failed abysmally. If you understand what the National Security Adviser can, should, and is capable of, and the influence that he is supposed to have, and the role he can carve out for himself, not to mention the Secretary of State! Let alone Austin [Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin] who is a buffoon and has always been a buffoon! It's just a crowd of incompetents. Watching the groupthink that led to the debacle in Afghanistan, and listening to Sullivan in subsequent interviews justify his lack of decision making and his lack of coherent advice to the President and Austin, made me think these people just do not understand. Sullivan and Blinken were both born with silver spoons in their mouths. They are products of the Ivy League think tank world. There has always been a problem with that world and that's the price we pay for civilian control of the military. Sometimes you get people who emerge from that world who are extraordinarily competent. I feel a sense of bitterness, but no surprise. I feel real bitterness towards Austin and Millie [General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] because they were brought up in a different milieu and totally ignored the lessons because they were so hungry to get to the top. All of them were kowtowing for years and it was muscle memory by the time we really needed them to step up to the plate. I was invited to speak at the Marine War College, and the civilian deputy of the college tried to rescind my invitation because I'd written an article calling for Austin to retire as Secretary of Defense. My point in return was, “At what point does this become censorship where you only invite people who agree with whatever themes the college represents?” That becomes very, very dangerous. Sooner or later, you are only going to invite people who agree with the current political administration. And that is not what you want to do with your best and brightest.
PM: Looking at it as a civilian from the outside, it is very strange. Some of the best people I've met in the U.S. military never made it past Lieutenant Colonel. Then you have people like Anthony Zinni, Jim Webb, Andy Bacevich and nobody listens to them. They are eminently sensible, but their greatest sin was telling the truth. We seem to have an aversion to the truth. That's what frightened me about the Ukrainian war. We're good at winning battles but don’t have coherent policy objectives and an ability to turn battlefield victories into political gains—long term political gains. What do you see as the political objective of the war in Ukraine? I see some mission creep in that it has expanded from freeing Ukrainian territory taken by Russia to regime change in Russia.
AM: I have a different perspective. I don't see any policy objective! I see a meandering. It's not that I disagree with U.S. foreign policy, it's that I can't discern what U.S. foreign policy is in Ukraine. What it appears to me is to be a very cynical ploy to grind down Russia, but at the same time ensure that Ukraine doesn't win a victory that could be ascribed to the United States or anyone else. Of course, that means that Ukraine will suffer intensely over the course of the next year. I don't think it's born from cynicism. I think it's born from this ridiculous fear of the dark, “We don't wanna push Putin into some crazy corner!” I'll give you an example. If we're providing lethal aid, what difference does it make if we're killing Russians from 40 or 50 kilometers with HIMARS [The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] or long range drones from 300 kilometers away? If the fear is that they will be used to hit Russia, you put in a proviso that these weapons are not to be used in Russia. It's not like Ukraine is going to say to its greatest benefactor, “Oh sorry, I slipped! I didn't realize that was Russia.” There is a reasonable expectation that a country such as Ukraine will agree to the provisos of their benefactor who is giving them game-changing weapons. This is common sense diplomacy. That's what I mean by incoherent. It's either crassly stupid or very cynical, but it's incoherent.
PM: Is that dispiriting to you?
AM: Oh yeah, it should be dispiriting to every American. Even if you recognize that Nixon was a crook in that Kissinger was incredibly Machiavellian and narcissistic, their understanding of the world and their level of maturity are something we haven't seen in any administration in decades.
PM: Our foreign policy often morphs into a strange form of cultural imperialism like in Afghanistan where nation building programs become as high a priority as securing, occupying, and controlling territory. People seem to have lost sight of the fact that policy is the brain and military force is the fist, and if they don't communicate, you end up punching yourself in the face.
AM: We haven't had an administration that understands this in generations. To me, a real eye opener came during the surge in Iraq. At the time, President Bush was introducing Petraeus [General David Petraus] and he said, “Here's General Petraeus to explain his strategy.” I was like, “Wait a second! Isn't he explaining how he's going to execute your strategy?” We've gotten very confused over the years.
PM: Do you think that America is suffering from, what Paul Kennedy called in his book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, “imperial overstretch”?
AM: I don't think it fits neatly. Certainly complacency plays into it, but whether that is due to “imperial overstretch” or not I can't say. The invasion of Iraq was undoubtedly a milestone on the road downwards. Overstretch perhaps, but most of all complacency. The strangest thing to me about domestic politics today is that it no longer generates talent. It generates showmen, and I'm not just talking about Trump. I'm talking about the abysmal lineup of democratic candidates. I've been watching them and just thinking, “Wow! This is the best of the best that the most powerful nation on earth can do?” The same is true for both major parties. Yes, there is overstretch and complacency, but there is also a dumbing down of our successive administrations.
PM: We've reached a point where we generate showmen and hucksters like Matt Gaetz and Gavin Newsom who are crass hypocrites, in my meek opinion. How do you make the case to someone like me who was mighty suspicious of the war in Ukraine, mainly because Victoria Nuland [Under Secretary of State for political affairs] was calling the shots? I don't think that it's right, but if Nuland says it, I tend to believe the opposite and admit that it is a horrible dynamic, but one that is so common in America today. Having watched China move in and sink their claws into Southeast Asia with my own eyes, they seemed like the looming strategic threat to the West and the United States. My friends in the U.S. military have always hated Putin, and I never understood their passion. However, as the war unfolded and the Ukrainians fought with great bravery, and friends on the ground told me what they saw with their own eyes, I began to soften. If anything, I fear for the Ukrainians in the same way that I feared for the Iraqis, Afghanis, South Vietnamese and Cambodians. Might the Ukrainians become victims of America's short attention span?
AM: You are open and admit that the argument you’ve laid out, both for and against the war in Ukraine, doesn't follow any path of logic. That is often how it is when you see people that you despise support a cause. You tend to be cynical about that cause. I understand that, but all of your arguments for and against come from some sense of emotion, “Hey look China is doing far worse! Let's not get preoccupied too much with Russia. China is the real threat.” The counter argument is that Ukraine is putting up a brave show, and we owe them support. So I take neither of those examples. I agree that China is more of a threat. Russia has managed to consistently punch above its weight, but as a nation itself is unimpressive and struggling to survive economically, especially now. Russia’s GDP isn't getting any higher, high levels of alcoholism, you name it. They are suffering from imperial overstretch. “Russia is not really a threat, why not just let it follow its path?” I would argue there is such a thing as international norms. Yes, the U.S. has at times violated them, but we went to great steps to point out why, whether you agree with that or not. There is still a recognition of state sovereignty to some extent, but also a balance of power that doesn't simply rest on “might is right.” It rests on some sense of global rules. So the invasion, as a follow-on to what happened in Crimea and what happened in Donbas in 2014 and 15, it is about more than Ukraine and Russia. It's a cliché, but if these precedents are allowed to stand, then you've got a big shift in the view of what is right and what is wrong in both Ukraine and in international relations. That should matter to the United States, and U.S. interests are intimately wrapped up in that. On a higher level, that is the way most of the U.S. justifies what we are doing. Secondly, to my point of whether you agree with policy or not, let's outline what policy is. Are we all in? Do we support the prospect of a Ukrainian victory? Do we want the Ukrainians to win as quickly and bloodlessly as possible? If the answer to that is yes, then we are going about it the totally wrong way. We are feeding them obsolete equipment incrementally. We give them a little bit of an edge, the Russians adjust their strategy to defend against it as they have with HIMARS. Now, we're back to the same status quo and it's another bloody war of attrition, until the U.S. gives them just another bit of an edge. That's not a coherent. Or let's just say up front, “Hey, no more! We want the war to end and will support a ceasefire.” You can't just pretend this isn't happening and that's my point. This effects the U.S. government’s interests regardless if people think it does or it does not. What is our stance? Are we in or not? Right now we are half in and kind of splashing around in the shallow end of the pool and are ineffectual. The Ukrainians know it, our allies know it, and our enemies know it.
PM: Do you see the Europeans getting wobbly in their support of Ukraine?
AM: Yes, 100%. The G20 Summit is in November. Putin has already worked through his own chain of logic, “I can scare the world, declare Zaporizhstal, Donbas and Luhansk part of Russia by referendum. I'm going to talk again about the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend Russian soil. By the time we get to the G20 summit it'll just be getting cold. I'll start talking reasonably about a ceasefire negotiation and settlement, then hint at the fact that winter is coming and that we might be struggling to pipeline sufficient gas to Germany.”
PM: That's all very convincing, but I would challenge your statement about the international order. I would argue that it changed after the end of the Cold War and America bought into the idea that we were the unipolar power and that we called the world’s shots. I think we abused that power. Although we still possess a great deal of power, it's hard to listen to today's diplomats, so-called statesmen, policymakers, and court pundits, because they have put us on such a rocky road since 9/11. When Obama came in, I expected him to pull back on the reins and show some kind of judgment. Instead, the opposite occurred. He went adventuring in Libya, Syria, Africa, and became the Drone King. I think we have really teed Xi and China up to challenge America’s world leadership, and that to me is quite terrifying. I watched the Chinese progeny, the Khmer Rouge, commit genocide, and China took no responsibility whatsoever. In fact, they lie about it even today. I have no faith in the Chinese.
AM: I grew up in Hong Kong under the threat of Chinese invasion and was there during the Cultural Revolution when people were pouring across the border to escape from being annihilated. I was brought up under the shadow of China and saw it as a very scary place, not the benign place that many Brits and Americans thought it to be in the 1990s. I don't think it makes sense to say, “This is our biggest adversary and we shouldn't ignore all others.” I think China needs to be put in its place, and there is a time to do it. I think Russia needs to be put in its place, and this is the time to do it conclusively. The way we are going about it is to open the way for Putin to start pulling the strings, especially on energy. The best solution for the United States would be a rapid and conclusive defeat of Russia. In the wake of it, Putin will disappear or be murdered. My point is that there is no downside to a quick, Ukrainian victory.
PM: How do you think that victory can be achieved?
AM: Extending 100%, full logistic support, right down to in-country distribution points. Using contractors, but not U.S. government personnel, and wholehearted intelligence sharing. Right now, it's been intimated by some in the U.S. intelligence community that they're frustrated because the Ukrainians aren't letting them into their plans, so they say, “We can't tell you shit until you tell us what you plan to do! We know more about Russia's plans than we do about your plans!” Instead of holding back, the U.S. should start blasting Ukrainians with intelligence. We should offer retired American officers to assist them and help plan the major campaigns. The Ukrainians lack the ability to plan above the brigade level. So in short, they need intelligence and fast forward logistics. Then planners will be able to send coherent demands back and ask for specific capabilities rather than throwing a bunch of shit at Ukraine which is what is happening now. They need weapons systems that are not just weapons systems, but will give them a capability edge like standoff surveillance, long-range drones that can operate from 100 to 300 kilometers. There are a number of areas where we can really help them and give them an insurmountable edge, like long-range MQ-9 missiles. Then you've got the capability to look for, find, and finish targets deep behind Russian lines. That is a game changer. Interdicting Putin's logistics supply system, knocking out his dwindling cache of artillery and ammunition. You give them these things and you will see huge Ukrainian accomplishments on the battlefield.
PM: Do you take Putin’s threats of nuclear war seriously?
AM: I think you have to take Putin seriously because Putin can't imagine a universe which does not have Putin at its center. I'm speculating here, but there's no sense in Putin's mind, “Oh hey I'll resign and the world will go on.” No, that would be worse than nuclear war in his mind. That's my concern. Putin's not restrained in the same way Khrushchev was during the Cuban missile crisis. There was a point when Khrushchev knew that it was better to take a loss of face than to go ahead and risk everything.
PM: Do you believe that if the US and NATO went all in and really turned the heat up on the Russians that it would escalate to a nuclear war?
AM: Hard to tell. But when you think about it, you're not seeing what would be the impetus for escalation: U.S. troops actually involved. What am I talking about? I'm talking about advice, the U.S. government has already giving advice! It's just not giving fucking useful advice! I'm talking about weapon systems. The U.S. government is already giving them weapon systems. They kill people. They're just not very effective weapon systems. I'm not talking about a paradigm shift, I'm talking about doing what we are already doing more effectively. Do you really think the Russians are now saying, “We really don't have to do anything because the U.S. government is so fucking incompetent.” No, the Russians aren't saying that. They're banging the drums saying, “Look what they're doing! Look what they're doing!”
PM: The first time we spoke, you said that you and some of your original team members join the war effort in Ukraine with a sense of atonement.
AM: I don't think any of us would have articulated that up front, but certainly all of us, and I would hope most Americans, would have sympathy for the underdog. Philip Caputo, in his book A Rumor of War, talks about going through a village, searching all the houses. When he saw that the villagers and kids were scared, he had this feeling of “this isn't what I was brought up to believe in. As a kid I heard stories of the redcoats doing the same thing.” Caputo writes about feeling like he is on the wrong side even then as a platoon commander in 1965. All of us have had that same feeling when you move through a city that's been devastated by U.S. artillery with civilians dead in the streets. Unless you're some kind of psychopath, nobody likes seeing civilians and the local population terrified of you. Those of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have all seen that. We've been on the side of the big guns, and those guns are not always used with discrimination as much as we would like to pretend that they are. We've all lived with the unstated, but prevalent ethos of “as long as it is not an American life, it doesn't matter.” It is very refreshing now to be the mouse and not the cat. That is exactly what I was thinking the other day. We were trying to find our way through the streets of a city that was being pounded by the Russians to find a family and get them out. Every street we chose got targeted by artillery, in one case an SU-25 [Russian close air support fighter plane]. We were a mouse and we're trying to find our way through this maze, and the cat, all-seeing and all-powerful, can put his paw down on any of those streets and stop us. That, strangely enough, frightening though it was, was comforting.