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When Russia invaded, this former House staffer rushed to Ukraine

Steven Moore shifted from helping friends escape to bringing in critical supplies

From left, Kyle Parker, Steven Moore and two members of the Georgian Legion in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 9, 2022.
From left, Kyle Parker, Steven Moore and two members of the Georgian Legion in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 9, 2022. (Photo courtesy Kyle Parker)

Steven Moore is hanging out at his favorite Kyiv coffee shop when I call: Idealist Coffee. Over the video call, Moore gives a quick tour of a brightly lit cafe with a clean aesthetic that screams Apple Store. Idealist is packed on this afternoon in early March; it’s very popular with American expats in Kyiv like Moore, even though there’s another coffee shop called Chicago right next door. Still, there are times Moore prefers the less vibrant option.

“Idealist closes during air raids, Chicago does not,” he said. “So that’s a key consideration when choosing a coffee shop.”

Like any old Hill staffer, Moore runs on coffee, especially when the adrenaline from another Russian bombardment wears off. A year ago, when most Americans looked on in horror as Russian tanks streamed across the Ukrainian border in front of CNN cameras, the old chief of staff to former Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., jumped on a plane to Eastern Europe.

Moore built a network of friends in Kyiv when he spent a year doing public opinion research for a news organization there in 2018. During the buildup to the war, as the White House issued repeated warnings about the approaching invasion, Moore’s Ukrainian friends were still largely in a state of denial. He would ask if they were worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly hostile rhetoric and reports of armies massing to the north and east.

“And they said, ‘We’ve had 100,000 troops on our border for eight years. I’m not worried,” Moore said. “Nobody in Ukraine thought it would happen.”

Until the bombing started.

Surviving the Iraq War

“When the Russians invaded, nobody knew what to do,” Moore said. “But I had spent two years in Iraq at the beginning of that war. I’ve been to several other war zones — including the House of Representatives. I knew what to do.”

Moore had set up the International Republican Institute office in Baghdad just weeks after the Baathist regime fell. It was there that he learned how to survive in a war zone and what kind of supplies a besieged local population would need.

Days after the Russian invasion, Moore flew to Romania with the goal of first helping his friends flee to safety and then supplying an insurgency once the occupation began. “I believed the same thing that everyone else in the world believed: that the Russians were going to roll through Ukraine in three weeks,” Moore said. “As it turned out, I was happily wrong.”

Rushing into a war zone to help out the side you expect to lose isn’t what you expect from a political operative with no military experience, but Moore’s friends say they aren’t surprised. “He’s someone with a strong sense of justice,” said Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, who has known Moore for about 20 years, going back to when they were both Hill staffers. “Whenever he can make a difference, it doesn’t matter how dangerous it is, he’s there.”

There have been close calls along the way. Moore still gets PTSD from an incident early into the war, which led him to stay in Ukraine indefinitely. A few weeks after his arrival, all of Moore’s friends who wanted to get out, had. “So, I’m like, what do I do now? Do I declare victory and go home?”

That’s when a friend called, saying a small medical clinic in the Kyiv suburbs treating the wounded needed supplies. Surprised that some of the bigger NGOs couldn’t help, Moore drove to Romania to get what was needed. As he returned to the clinic, the drumming of Russian artillery grew closer.

“It’d be boom, boom, BOOM,” Moore recalled. “The ground would shake.”

After surviving such an “intense experience,” Moore returned to relative safety away from the front to see news reports on how much money big charities in the West were raising for Ukrainian relief. He wasn’t seeing much of it on the ground. “I was on the front, and they weren’t,” Moore said. “It was just frustrating.”

So Moore decided to stay, creating the Ukraine Freedom Project to fund the work and partnering with a friend’s philanthropy in San Diego to collect donations. So far, it’s raised a little over $350,000 in cash and $700,000 in in-kind donations, Moore said. That’s translated into medical supplies for more than 20 hospitals, 200 tons of food, and generators for 20 families, villages and hospitals — all of it to areas on or near the front and mostly in the hard-hit region of Kharkiv.

Ukraine Freedom Project

Moore has also helped supply military volunteers with Starlink transceivers and other non-arms materiel like body armor. Basically, his goal is to fill in the gaps that some of the larger NGOs are missing. “I’m an old-school Republican, y’know? Big government, big organizations, they just don’t do a good job,” he said. “Some of the best work is being done by small organizations.”

The Ukraine Freedom Project doesn’t pay Moore (although it does cover his rent and other living expenses in Kyiv). So recently his side gig is doing business development work for a friend’s company back in the States. “I start my [pitch] emails ‘Greetings from Kyiv,’ which usually gets you an open,” he said.

Kyle Parker, a staffer with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said individual efforts like Moore’s do more than just deliver humanitarian supplies, especially with the American presence largely limited to a skeleton staff manning the embassy in Kyiv.

“There’s that intangible, incalculable moral support that I [believe] means just as much to the Ukrainians,” Parker said. “I’m proud to come from a country that has people like that, that rush in to help.”

Parker shared his own harrowing experiences of traveling along the front with Moore.

Shortly after Kherson’s liberation, the pair of Americans visited a pediatric hospital there. When the Russians first invaded, the medical director heard that soldiers were looking for her. She hid instead of fleeing, helping secret away medical equipment to protect it from looters.

As they discussed what the hospital needed to continue treating sick and injured children, Parker could hear “the rapid thunder that seems to be coming from the edge” of an incoming artillery bombardment.

“The shelling was so intense, and the building was shaking,” Parker said. “I was wondering: Is it possible that a Russian drone saw the commotion around our visit?”

After that meeting, Moore had plans to meet up with another humanitarian group on the front lines and spend the night with them, with Parker planning to tag along after a separate meeting with a local prosecutor documenting war crimes. But when the meeting with the lawyers fell through, the Ukrainian troops escorting Parker around were ready to bug out to safer ground, and he wasn’t about to argue. “I could hear my wife talking to me, y’know? ‘Don’t take unnecessary risks,’” Parker said.

Moore stayed. He later regaled Parker with the story of squatting with his NGO pals in a Russian collaborator’s not-so-abandoned apartment — it was so thoroughly bugged that the traitor allegedly called the Ukrainians staying there to complain about their treatment of his deserted pet cat. At least, that’s what Moore’s hosts told him over a few bottles of wine that night.

“Steven, obviously, must have had nerves of steel, and he got through it with good humor,” Parker said.

Moore can recount other brushes with death, which in war can come without much warning, even when you’re far from the front — like when he spent much of New Year’s Eve sheltering in a Kyiv subway station as rockets rained down above.

He tells these survival stories with a laugh. It’s not the laugh of someone with a death wish reveling in adrenaline-fueled glee (although, maybe, there is a little bit of that); Moore’s full-throated guffaw comes from the involuntary reaction our bodies make when our minds try, and fail, to make sense of a situation so incongruous and absurd as war. It’s the same laugh elicited by a skilled magician’s sleight of hand, a laugh of absolute wonder.

Moore has more to give

Despite the perils, Moore plans on staying. “If I didn’t help, it would have been difficult for me to live with,” he said. “I’ve been to five war zones [and] conflict areas. And this is the most obvious example of good versus evil I have ever seen.”

That moral clarity isn’t shared by some of Moore’s former colleagues in Washington. While Moore has met with a few supportive Republicans on CODELs to Ukraine — including Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, as well as Reps. French Hill of Arkansas and Ken Calvert of California — some have grown more skeptical of America’s continued succor for Ukraine.

A House resolution from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz that calls for ending U.S. military and financial aid has garnered 10 co-sponsors, all Republicans. The growing opposition in Congress comes as polls show Republican voters increasingly embracing isolationism as some conservative commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson question U.S. support.

Republican congressional leadership has been more supportive — especially Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has called for more military spending. Hudson, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee and sits on the Helsinki Commission, lamented waning support for Ukraine in the United States. “I think a lot of Americans are detached from the realities on the ground over there and the suffering of the people,” he said. “I think we as Americans have short attention spans.”

The front-runner for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump, has criticized nearly every intervention the Biden administration has announced, while another potential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has sounded skeptical notes on support.

Moore has watched in disappointment as GOP support for Ukraine has flagged. For members of Congress losing their nerve or worried about the costs, Moore has one piece of advice: Have your people call him.

“I have been in their shoes,” he said. “I understand what the questions are they’re trying to answer, and I can help them answer that in a way that is convincing and compelling.”

Moore said he understands some of the calls for increased accountability around U.S. spending — ensuring that the money is being spent well is fine. And, he argued, it undoubtedly is.

“For an amount equal to about 15 percent of this year’s [Defense Department] budget, the Ukrainians have taken the second most powerful army in the world and turned it into the second most powerful army in Ukraine,” Moore said. “And not one U.S. soldier has been killed doing that. To me, that’s a fiscal conservative’s dream.”

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