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‘It is a difficult time for everyone’ Former Charleston man living in Kiev has front-row view of Ukraine’s unrest

By David Gutman, Staff writer
Courtesy photo
Former Charleston resident Michael Willard is chairman of a Ukraine-based public relations company that bears his name.

Despite the war going on in their country, Ukrainians were shocked at the shooting down of a passenger jet and are convinced that Russian-backed separatists were behind the missile strike, according to a former Charleston resident who has lived and worked in Kiev for 18 years.

“In the last seven months, Ukraine has seen a revolution, an invasion of its sovereign territory by Russia (Crimea) and a war in the east of Ukraine, so we shouldn’t be too surprised by anything,” Michael Willard, chairman of a Ukraine-based public relations company wrote in an email. “We were, however, by the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft. It was a shock, and it is about the only topic of conversation in this city of four million.”

On Saturday, the Ukrainian government announced that it has proof that Russia provided the missile system used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines jet on Thursday, killing 298 people.

Writing on Friday, Willard was already convinced of Russia’s involvement.

“The overwhelming view of Ukrainians and expats with whom I have talked is an absolute certainty the separatists (we call them terrorists) shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile fired from a mobile platform and supplied to the separatists by Russia,” Willard wrote. “There seems to be no doubt about this.”

Willard said stories in Russian news media tell an entirely different story, one unhinged from reality.

He’s seen stories saying that Ukrainians shot down the plane while attempting to shoot the plane of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He saw a story saying that the Malaysian plane was carrying people who were already dead and that Ukraine shot the plane down as a provocation.

“The stories get wilder as the hours go on,” he said.

Willard is the chairman of Willard, a public relations and advertising company with offices in Kiev, Moscow and Istanbul. His company used to have a small office in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, which is now a rebel stronghold near where the plane went down.

He has lived in Kiev for 20 years, working with large multi-national companies like Danone, Philip Morris and Nestle on issues like government relations, crisis management and executive training.

“Business is slow due to the war and uncertainty,” Willard wrote in early July, a week before the plane was shot down. “Our Istanbul business holds its own, our Moscow business has gotten smaller and in Ukraine we believe we will see an uptick in the next six months if all goes well with the war in the east.”

Willard said that he, personally, can no longer work easily in Russia because of his support and work for Alexey Navalny, a political activist who ran for mayor of Moscow on a platform attacking Putin and political corruption. Navalny lost to a Putin-appointee in 2013, although he performed better than expected.

Willard lives about five minutes from Independence Square, in Kiev, known as the Maidan, where about 100 protesters were killed by police in February.

“Both my wife and I were down on the Maidan most evenings supporting the revolution, the day the worst fighting broke out we saw the smoke, heard the gunfire and the ambulances,” he wrote.

Referring to Putin as “the Lizard of Oz in the Kremlin,” Willard writes, “I believe he’s scared as hell, wondering what will happen when a petrol-economy collapses and he is left with only a gaggle of oligarchs as die-hard supporters.

“A hundred years from now, the history of Maidan and the 100 heroes who died in February will be a highlighted chapter, not unlike the stories of America’s revolution. It will be one of the country’s proudest moments.”

Willard was a top aide to two West Virginia senators, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Sen. Jay Rockefeller. He later ran Willard & Associates, a public relations and political consulting firm in Charleston.

He then joined Burson-Marsteller, an international public relations firm, working out of the firm’s Washington offices.

He moved to Moscow to run Burson-Marsteller’s Russian and Ukrainian businesses before starting his own firm in Kiev.

In 2011, he took a leave from his company for two years and served as the CEO of the Kyiv Post, the largest English-language newspaper in Ukraine.

He has written 10 books, including four novels, the most recent of which will be released later this year. Titled “The Legacy of Moon Pie Jefferson,” Willard said it is loosely based on his time working with Byrd in Washington. He said he plans to be in Charleston in January in conjunction with the release of the novel.

“The people are friendly, just like in West Virginia,” Willard wrote of his life in Ukraine. “I have talked to quite a few Ukrainians, even this evening [Friday] at a birthday party, they are all very sad and feel for the people killed in the crash and for their families who mourn them. It is a difficult time for everyone.”

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvagazette.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.


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