By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The world’s eyes are on Ukraine as Russia seems poised to invade its neighbor.
But for those who live there, daily life is being conducted as if nothing is amiss, according to a Wyoming man who conducts business in the country.
“I know it might seem a little weird for Americans watching it on CNN and stuff, but you know, Ukrainians are a little more relaxed about the situation,” said Nick Piazza, a Cody native whose investment banking business, SP Capital Management, is based in Ukraine.
In a phone call with Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday, Piazza said he recently returned after spending three weeks in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, as Russia aggressively stepped up its military activity on the Ukrainian border.
“As I left, there was a short period where international flights were canceled because international insurance companies weren’t insuring those flights,” he said. “And they’re doing a navy exercise in the Black Sea that has all but blocked Ukrainian ports. So it’s been tough on Ukraine.”
Russia appears to be ready to maintain a long-term battle with Ukraine.
“They’ve put up hospitals, fuel depots, you know, things you do when you’re preparing for a potential intensive, longer term conflict, so those are all very disturbing,” Piazza told Cowboy State Daily.
But Piazza said that Ukranians are displaying a quiet resolve.
“This is something Ukrainians have been doing for a while,” he said. “Much like people from Wyoming, from the Bighorn Basin, they’re very big on the idea of being free from the Soviet Union. And I think we need to remember that they’ve already lost roughly 15,000 people to this kind of hot and cold conflict with Russia since 2014.”
Piazza grew up in Cody, but moved to Ukraine after graduating from college, when colleagues introduced him to the opportunities for investment banking in that country.
“There was a big demand for investment in Ukraine, and I got involved with some people that taught me the trade,” he said. “And since about 2012, I’ve been doing my own investments, a bit of asset management and direct investments in Ukraine.”
In spite of the threat of military action, Piazza said he and his 20-plus employees are conducting business as usual.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with Russia,” he said. “You know, they invaded Ukraine in 2014, and they never really left. They took Crimea and the area known as the Donbass in the east, so it’s something that’s been part of our daily lives for the better part of 10 years.”
Piazza moved to Ukraine for business in 2004, but said after the invasion in 2014, he moved his wife, who is a native of Ukraine, back to Cody.
“It was Russian snipers that came in 2014 and were shooting people on the main street, which basically led me to coming back to Cody,” he recalled. “I’d just had my first son and we thought that sniper fire was not the best atmosphere for toddlers.”
However, Piazza said he continues to spend about half of the year in Ukraine.
Piazza said the citizens of Ukraine are currently making low-level preparations for a potential invasion, including forming what he called “volunteer territorial defense battalions.”
“They’re getting, like, light arms training, basic military training in preparation to defend the country,” he said. “Additionally, from the Cold War era, Ukraine has a lot of underground bunkers and things like that in Kyiv, the capital city, that had over the years turned into strip clubs and casinos and things like that, that they’ve been kind of repurposing back to their original use to be ready.”
Piazza said his friends in the Ukrainian government have told him that they are preparing the western region of the country to shelter refugees, if necessary.
“The western regions of Ukraine are less likely to be attacked,” he said. “So there’s camps and tents and all the things you need to have set up there. So it’s not an atmosphere of panic, but it’s definitely an atmosphere of having Plan B, getting ready for the potential worst.”
Piazza added that although much has been made of the numbers of Russian troops surrounding the country, very little has been mentioned about the 200,000 Ukrainian troops prepared to defend their homeland.
“The number of people turning out for these territorial defense forces is really heartening, people getting small arms training,” he said. “I know several businessmen, guys that are kind of office workers that are doing this training and getting ready. There’s also a program in Ukraine, where a lot of businesses are kind of basically saying, ‘If you go and join the army, or this Territorial Defense Force, not only will we hold your job for you, but we’ll continue paying your salary.’”
As far as his business is concerned, Piazza said he is doing his best to protect his employees.
“We’ve put together different kinds of Plan Bs,” he said. “We’ve made it possible that the business will be able to operate in any kind of conflict situation, including moving servers, doing things like that. We’ve also put together kind of a small safe house for employees where they can get supplies, we bought satellite phones, things like that. So we’re dealing with it, but trying not to panic. And everybody’s hoping for the best.”
But he said none of his employees are considering leaving the country.
“All of them have told us that they want to stay,” he said. “Obviously, we have some contingency plans in place, but no one wants to leave their homeland. Home is home.”
Piazza said his wife’s family is still in Ukraine, and are at this time unwilling to leave their home.
“Her mother, her grandmother, most of her relatives are there,” he said. “We have spoken to them at length, and we’ve invited them to come stay with us, but they feel like they want to stay there, come what may. They’re not gonna run from their homeland.”
Piazza added that the conflict has been a unifying force for Ukrainians.
“I think this is a very big nation building event for Ukraine,” he said. “And I think it’s shown how serious they are about their sovereignty, and how much they care about being an independent country.”