Richard Branson and Howard G. Buffett discuss supporting Ukraine and the fight for global justice and democracy

Howard Buffett photographs the wall of a detention facility where Russian occupiers held some of the thousands of Ukrainian citizens imprisoned since the start of the war. Some were subjected to execution and others to various forms of torture.
Richard Branson by the sea on Necker Island, smiling at the camera
by Richard Branson
1 March 2023

Howard G. Buffett met with President Zelensky just months after war broke out in Ukraine. After witnessing the devastation and heartache caused by this unjust war, Buffett, chairman and CEO of The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, has donated millions to help support the people of Ukraine.

Richard Branson recently interviewed Howard, discussing the things he’s seen on recent visits to Ukraine, the work the foundation has invested in, and ways he and the foundation are working to support the fight for global justice, democracy, and the rule of law.

Richard Branson: I’ve been in awe of everything you’ve been doing on the ground in Ukraine – can you tell me how your commitment to Ukraine began and how it’s evolved since the start of the war?

Howard Buffett: Thank you, but I know you would agree that it’s the courage and resiliency of the Ukrainian people that is truly inspiring. They have defied the prediction of many so-called experts who said Russia would win this war and win it quickly.

When the war started last February, it was clear it would have dramatic consequences for two primary areas that our Foundation funds: global food security and conflict mitigation. After my first trip to Ukraine in April to get a sense for how we might provide funding support, we immediately decided to shift about half of our 2022 giving – nearly $150 million – to Ukraine for a wide range of humanitarian aid efforts; demining, war crimes investigations, support for farmers working to harvest crops, and grain purchases to ensure Ukrainian grain could continue to be exported to feed hungry people in Africa and the Middle East. The rationale for this was simple: we felt with more than 20 years’ experience working in these areas that we were the right Foundation to engage on this in a big way. I also recognised this is the single largest humanitarian crisis and conflict that has occurred in my lifetime.

For 2023, we plan to double our support to Ukraine because the cost of not doing everything humanly possible to help end this war and help Ukrainians survive the onslaught from Russia is just too high. We are continuing to provide immediate humanitarian support to frontline communities as they are liberated but we are also focusing on infrastructure projects that will address both short-term and long-term needs. We will also continue to support demining efforts – I don’t think most people appreciate that even if the war ends today, Ukraine will be demining for decades to come.

Richard Branson: You’ve also personally travelled to Ukraine many times now, what are some of your reflections from these trips?

Howard Buffett: I’ve made five trips over the last year. It helps me to see things first-hand and build relationships with people on the ground who are implementing our projects. It’s the way I’ve always approached our grant making and because we focus on working in conflict and post-conflict areas it’s something I’m used to doing.

What I’ve seen also makes me work faster to get our funding where it needs to be. The scale of the destruction to mostly civilian areas is impossible for people outside of Ukraine to understand. It’s literally everywhere. It’s shocking to see how many schools, hospitals, churches, apartment buildings, grocery stores, power stations and gas stations have been shelled. Even places that haven’t been hit have been affected – one apartment building may suffer a direct hit but that explosion will also shatter all the windows in the apartment buildings nearby. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, or worse, left to live in uninhabitable conditions in the middle of winter.

On my last trip I was on the front lines, including in Bakhmut. The villages in these front-line cities are razed to the ground and most people have left. What is left behind are mass graves, destruction, hidden land mines, Ukrainian military working to defend the country, and local police and civilian emergency service volunteers trying to help the population that remains while investigating a staggering number of war crimes perpetrated by the Russians in formerly occupied areas.

At the same time, I’ve met some of the bravest, most resilient, and generous people I’ve ever encountered. You look at the destruction and the death toll and you think, how can they possibly prevail? And then you meet individual soldiers, mothers, and children and you think, what more can I do to help them?

Richard Branson: Can you share more about where you’re focusing your support and why you’ve chosen those areas?

Howard Buffett: We started with things we understand well: support to farmers and then food assistance. Then as we spent more time on the ground understanding the needs of farmers and frontline communities, we started adding complementary projects. We added support for demining because it’s closely linked to agriculture – you cannot farm a field that has land mines. We have a school feeding project because it’s a priority of the First Lady and it’s something we have done in many countries around the world. We partnered with the World Food Programme on grain exports both to help Ukraine sell its grain stockpiles but also to mitigate the downstream consequences to countries dependent on that grain for food.

When we saw Russia targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, we worked to source and import more than 2,500 generators – in fact your team made an introduction that helped us source some of the biggest generators we purchased. The Ukrainian Railways has been incredibly innovative and resilient throughout the war, so we partnered with them to create 92 warming centers in rail stations where people can rest, warm up, recharge their phones, and get basic supplies, and we also funded the conversion of train cars into mobile kitchens to reach difficult locations. Finally, we recognised early on the need to hold Russia accountable for war crimes, so we funded two different groups doing that work so those investigations and evidence collection happens even as the war continues.

Richard Branson: You’ve done amazing work to help the agriculture sector in Ukraine – can you share a bit more about what you’ve done and the impact?

Howard Buffett: I’ve farmed for 38 years, so knowing how much Ukraine exports in agriculture, my first thought when the war started was how are farmers, especially smaller farmers, going to get their crops harvested, especially when many are fighting on the front lines? So, we started with purchasing every combine and tractor we could find in Europe – including some that were originally destined for Russia. Then we sourced thousands of pounds of seeds so people could plant home gardens; thousands of ag bags so farmers had an easy way to add storage as the Black Sea blockade initially made exporting grain impossible and farmers were running out of storage. Eventually we created a program called “Victory Harvest” to coordinate all these activities. We basically built the plane as we were flying it, but I’m happy to say that our equipment harvested 70,000 acres of wheat, corn, and sunflowers that probably would have been left to rot in fields.

We also sourced equipment for spring planting and are looking at ways to support farmers with seeds and fertilizer. We have a program to make sure the equipment is maintained and repaired when needed. All of this was developed quickly because we knew the need was immediate – we weren’t sure any of it would work or if the equipment would get stolen or destroyed but those are the kinds of risks philanthropy must take in these situations if we want to have immediate impact. I would just add that all this support is targeted at smaller farmers who don’t qualify for the government-led support that is going to large farmers.

Richard Branson: You’ve also shined a spotlight on the brutal realities of this war on civilians – what would you like to share with the world from this important work?

Howard Buffett: “Brutal” and “real” are the right words. The trauma that is being inflicted on millions of Ukrainians who never asked for or wanted this war is staggering and will be felt for generations to come, even if the war ended today. It’s inescapable. It’s the displacement from their homes; it’s the separation from fathers and sons going off to war – many of whom will never come home; it’s the executions, rapes, torture, detentions, mass starvation, and threats of death from constant bombings or inability to access basic things like food, water, and heat in the areas Russia has occupied. One of the reasons our Foundation focuses on conflict mitigation is because no other human progress, no kind of development, is possible when people do not feel safe. I think what is so shocking is to see people who might as easily have been your neighbours back at home – accountants, bakers, mechanics, lawyers, farmers – have their lives completely upended in every way by this war.

Richard Branson: We’ve been so inspired with how you’ve worked with some great partners on the ground, like Andrey Stavnitser from Superhumans. Can you tell us a bit more about what they are doing, and any other partners you want to highlight?

Howard Buffett: I actually first learned about Superhumans from your team; then the First Lady introduced me to Andrey and the Superhumans team. They are building capacity to fit, and eventually manufacture, prosthetics for men, women, and children who have lost limbs. This will be a problem for many years even after active combat ends because of the proliferation of land mines. The demining process is painstaking – you have a country the size of Texas and every inch of it will have to be cleared to avoid future accidents. Until then, the regular bombing of civilian sites and of course active combat is creating a population in need of prosthetics. They chose the name “Superhumans” to emphasize the extraordinary feat of recovery rather than stigmatizing the loss of a limb. Two other partners we work closely with that I would highlight for different reasons: (1) the Bridgeway Foundation is another US donor we work closely with. Their CEO, Shannon Sedgwick Davis, has been invaluable to facilitating our engagement in Ukraine; and (2) Global Empowerment Mission (GEM) has done such a phenomenal job increasing their capacity to support recently liberated communities on the frontlines that we’re now just funding their entire Ukraine operations.

Richard Branson: Everyone I speak with wants to do something to help – how would you respond to this?

Howard Buffett: Ukraine needs every kind of help imaginable, so direct donations are always needed. Some great organisations we have worked with are the World Food Programme, Project Expedite Justice, and NovoUkraine. It’s also incredibly helpful when internationally recognized people like you visit and use your high profile to educate and advocate for support to Ukraine – thank you for that.

But the other way everyone can help is to understand that as Ukraine goes, so goes Western democracies. Every democracy in the world needs to be very clearly working on the side of seeing Ukraine successfully defend itself and its freedom. There are no winners if Putin achieves his goals in Ukraine, and he will not stop at its borders. My message to every voter and taxpayer in a free country is the best way to help is to make sure your elected government – whether you live in Europe or North America or somewhere else – has the political will to do whatever it takes to help Ukraine defend itself and end the war.