Americans stuck in Ukraine fled the war-torn country on buses this morning after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded with a torrent of airstrikes that none of them thought would happen despite days and weeks of growing tension.
DailyMail.com spoke with a group of 23 American citizens as they were being transported from Kiev to Romania in two vehicles – a minibus and a car – arranged by Bryan Stern, a 23-year Army and Navy veteran who saved 2,000 people from Kabul last year with his volunteer group Project Dynamo.
He collected the American evacuees at 5am in Kiev while ‘missiles fell from the sky’ around them. They are now driving for 18 hours to Romania, taking quieter, smaller roads in the hopes of evading Russian troops and fighter jets.
The State Department has not been able to provide an exact number for how many American citizens remain in Ukraine. Estimates range from between 10,000 to 30,000.
‘There are thousands of Americans and NATO ally-citizens that are left in Ukraine right now and it’s about to be Soviet-occupied Russia,’ Stern, a Navy Lt. Commander told DailyMail.com on Thursday while driving one of the two vehicles in his rescue operation.
‘We’re in the middle of what is probably the first rescue of Americans in the opening hours of World War III. We have 23 people in two vehicles. Everyone’s got a different story. What we have learned is that in these situations, people don’t leave when they should for all kinds of reasons. We don’t really judge and often we don’t ask.
‘We have one American woman whose father passed away yesterday. She flew to Kiev for his funeral and woke up to missile fire and now we’re evacuating her. She lives in New Mexico.
‘In this circumstance, some people didn’t believe it. Some wanted to wait it out. Some hedged their bets and thought “Putin isn’t that crazy.” What we’ve all been doing for the last two weeks is saying, “well, there is no way he would do this. Only a mad man would. So why am I going to leave and have my house get looted and robbed.” Unfortunately, all those hopes and dreams were all wrong.
‘The missiles landed at 5am. The sun came up, and we were rolling an hour after that with a bus full of evacuees,’ Stern told DailyMail.com over the phone this morning while driving with a car full of evacuees.
Across the country, there is a sense of disbelief that Putin struck.
‘We stopped for a coffee and the waitress said, “I just cannot believe it” and that is the feeling,’ Stern said.
American evacuees being rescued from Ukraine today on buses arranged by Project Dynamo, a volunteer group set up by ex Army Lieutenant Bryan Stern. Among the group were three kids who smiled from the backseat of the bus as Russian fighter jets flew overhead
Among people in the group of evacuees are American-Ukrainian business men and women and their families. None of them thought Putin would ever actually invade, and were stunned to wake up to airstrikes this morning
An explosion lights up the night sky over Kiev in the early hours of Thursday, as Russia launched an all-out attack on Ukraine from north, south and east with bombs, cruise missiles and rockets raining from the skies
The other vehicle is being driven by his translator, who also runs a bus company. Stern agreed to lead that man and his family to safety in exchange for use of the vehicle.
The group includes several children, a group of business colleagues and a Ukrainian-American woman who attended her father’s funeral in Kiev yesterday and woke up to airstrikes this morning.
‘None of them thought this would happen. There is just total disbelief. Deep down, we thought “he’s not Saddam Hussein. He is not that bad. But just like that, he achieved war criminal status,’ Stern said of Putin.
It remains unclear exactly how many Americans or Ukrainian Americans are still stuck in Ukraine. The death toll remains unclear but is already in the dozens.
The State Department said earlier this month there are between 10,000 and 20,000 in the country. Biden warned on February 10 that the government would not save anyone left behind, like it did from the Taliban in Kabul last summer.
Stern said on Thursday that the differences between the two operations are vast. On one hand, he said it was easier to prepare for the Ukrainian crisis because it was well-anticipated. On the other, the Russian Army is far superior and more sophisticated than Taliban fighters who had no real air presence and limited arsenal.
‘The downside is that we didn’t have to face the Russian war machine in Kabul. The Taliban did not have air missiles, they do not have air dominance. They have other issues, but they do not have the fierce military machine of the Red Army,’ he said.
Stern and his group had already been driving for eight hours when DailyMail.com spoke with them and they had another 10 hours on the road. Four Americans who they were scheduled to rescue could not meet them at their rally point this morning because they had no gas in their car.
It’s a good idea to not have military intervention right now. That’s a great way to make this war worse. Ukraine is not Afghanistan. The Red Army is not the Taliban
Some of those who did make it – a group of eight people – flagged them down in the street while watching them load the vehicle.
Stern said he has not asked the group if they feel abandoned by Biden, but he sided with the US military decision not to ‘rush in to World War III.’
‘I actually agree right now from the US government perspective that at least for now, in these early days, that the military is not here.
‘I wish the military was but I do agree that they are not – for now. This war, this is WWII. It’s OK to not rush into it right now as long as groups like mine can operate.
‘People can self-evacuate. This is a marathon not a spring. This is not “we left people behind in a warzone”.
‘That’s what Afghanistan was. In this context, I think it’s a good idea to not have military intervention right now. That’s a great way to make this war worse. Ukraine is not Afghanistan. The Red Army is not the Taliban. Closing the embassy as early as they did, that is probably not a decision I would have made I think that was a little bit hasty.
‘I would have held out a little bit longer but it also sent a message to Americans on the ground that the government is leaving. The President got on TV and said “leave now, we will not come and get you.”
‘As much as that pains me to hear, I appreciate the honesty of those statements. I haven’t asked them [if they’ve felt abandoned]… but I can tell you at least two people have cried in my arms.
‘Our plan is get across the border, then do a compass check from there. The situation is very dynamic. What’s true right now may not be in 10 minutes. Ten hours from now when we cross the border, I suspect that Ukraine is a very different country than it is now in a lot of areas that matter,’ he said.
The attack has come to Ukraine on all fronts, with bombs and missiles striking targets across the country, ground forces rolling in from Belarus, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, and paratroopers dropping on Kharkiv
President Biden this morning with the National Security Council. He is due to address the nation at noon today
The group is split in what they want to do next.
Stern said some plan to stay in Romania, in hotels, apartments or elsewhere, until the situation ‘calms down’.
Some are desperate to get back to America and must now find a way to get to a country where airspace is not limited, and they can take a commercial flight home.
Project Dynamo founder Bryan Stern is a 26-year American military veteran who has saved more than 2,000 people from Kabul since August and who is now driving evacuees out of Ukraine
He said he had not asked them why they did not flee sooner, and that he doesn’t judge them for it.
‘At least two people have cried in my arms.
‘We have a little girl, she’s 11, who is very scared. Of course they’d be scared.
‘There were missiles falling around them.’
He and his group have strategically taken lesser-known routes to try and avoid trouble.
They breezed through Ukrainian-police checkpoints while on the phone with DailyMail.com, but Stern said he worried for what awaited them at the border.
‘We have three young kids on the bus. I am hoping they are snoozing. We’re stopping every so often.
‘There’s a lot of traffic so we’re taking the smaller roads which are also less of a target. This is a marathon not a sprint.
‘I told the bus driver not to drive so fast that he blows a tire. You’re not going to outrun a helicopter or tank.
‘We’re moving expeditiously. There were maybe 2,000 Americans in Kabul but it’s ten times as many in Ukraine, maybe 50,000. This is a very, very large country and everyone is trying to get out at the same time.
‘I anticipate the mess and chaos of Kabul times 100.
‘This is a very large country with a lot of people and every single one of them, pretty much, does not want to live here anymore. You can’t go east, north, or south. It only leaves one direction.’
In this rescue operation, he must also contend with Russian cyber-security attacks and airstrikes.
Stern said he will return to get more Americans and others if he has the money to do so, and if it is safe enough.
He launched Project Dynamo last year while watching the catastrophe in Kabul unfold.
‘If I have a little bit of money and it’s a higher threat, then I will move them in smaller groups. There are thousands of Americans and NATO allies that are in Ukraine right now.
James Berk, a New Jersey native, lives in Kiev with his Ukrainian wife and their baby (left). It’s unclear if they are still in Ukraine. Earlier this week, the family drove west, towards Poland, as tensions flared. Katharine Quinn-Judge (right) is an analyst based in Kiev. It is unclear if she has been able to escape the conflict yet
A wounded woman is seen as airstrike damages an apartment complex outside of Kharkiv, Ukraine
Ukrainian security forces accompany a wounded man after an airstrike hit an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv
Damage to an apartment building in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv region, is seen in footage released by the Ukrainian national guard
Vladimir Putin is pictured in the early hours of Thursday morning declaring war on Ukraine, in what he termed a ‘special military operation’
‘Our team in America and Canada are building manifests. We’re trying to put people together. We don’t know exactly how many there are but put it this way – there are never a shortage of customers in a situation like this.
‘As long as we have money, we’ll continue to operate. After 23 years in the military, we say “no one left behind.” Our oath is to support and defend…whether or not in uniform.
‘It is against my grain to just sit and watch it on TV, knowing that we can help.’
Project Dynamo’s website – where people stranded in Ukraine can request assistance and where donations can be made – is found here.
On February 10 – some two weeks before the first airstrikes – Biden warned in an interview with NBC News: ‘American citizens should leave now.
‘It’s not like we’re dealing with a terrorist organization. We’re dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. It’s a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly,’ he said.
He was referring to how American troops were able to evacuate citizens from Kabul in August in a shambolic operation during which 13 US servicemembers were slaughtered.
Ukraine closed its airspace last night, before the first airstrikes, in anticipation of the conflict.
Many fled to Lviv, one of the western-most cities in Ukraine, earlier this week as the situation intensified. Lviv is around 62 miles from the Polish border.
Stern is still urging anyone with the means of getting out without help to do so.
‘The ability to get out is deteriorating by the minute.
‘If you’re an American stuck in that zoo, it’s going to be pretty terrible. That’s why we’re here, to mitigate that as much as possible,’ he warned earlier this week.
Russian soldiers raise a flag over the Kakhovka Hydroelectric plant after attacking it with helicopters
Ukrainian servicemen get ready to repel an attack in Ukraine’s Lugansk region
Stern, who performed multiple tours in both the Army and the Navy, added: ‘If you can get out, leave. We’re not a travel agency. If you have the means to go, go.’
Among those who were hesitant to leave earlier in the week is New Jersey native James Berk, who lives in Kiev with his Ukrainian wife and their one-month old daughter.
He fled west as tensions heated up earlier in the week but it’s unclear where he is now.
Pressure is mounting on President Biden to take a stronger stance.
In a statement on Thursday morning, former President George W. Bush said: ‘The American government and people must stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people as they seek freedom and the right to choose their own future.
‘We cannot tolerate the authoritarian bullying and danger that Putin poses. Ukraine is our friend and democratic ally and deserves our full support during this most difficult time,’ he said.
Former President Donald J. Trump said that the situation would never have escalated to this extent if he was still in office.
‘Some people are saying why didn’t this take place over the last four years?
‘It didn’t for a very good reason and I’ll explain that to you someday, but it wouldn’t have taken place and it wouldn’t have taken place right now.
‘It’s a sad thing for the world and the country and a lot of people that will be needlessly killed,’ he said on FOX last night in a phone-in interview.
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk