Henry J. Cordes
February 4, 2024
On a chilly December evening in Kiev, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a surprise for Howard Buffett, leading the philanthropist son of Warren Buffett to a plaza near the presidential palace. There among the bricks on the “Walk of the Brave” was a plaque bearing the younger Buffett’s name, thanking him for the humanitarian assistance his charitable foundation has provided Ukraine in the face of Russia’s brutal invasion. “Also on this square are people who have been with us, worked with us and helped from the first days and months,” Zelenskyy told Buffett in his familiar accented English. “You are among these world leaders — friends of Ukraine.”
Ukraine and its people have indeed had a major supporter in Omaha native Buffett. Since Russia launched its invasion two years ago this month, his Howard G. Buffett Foundation has spent more than $500 million on humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shows Howard Buffett a plaque honoring him for his support for his country since Russia’s invasion. In effect, Buffett has used a portion of the fortune amassed by his investor father to feed Ukrainians, help the nation rebuild and meet other critical needs. To put it in perspective, Buffett’s half-billion-dollar contribution is more than some European countries have provided in combined humanitarian, military and financial aid.
In fact, looking at only humanitarian assistance, figures compiled by Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy show just seven nations worldwide have provided more such aid than Buffett: the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
- With his financial assistance, Buffett has helped restore Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure and clear civilian areas and farmland of mines the Russians left behind.
- He’s replaced windows blown out by bomb blasts, keeping Ukrainians in their homes.
- He’s provided equipment for security officials investigating Russian war crimes.
- He’s built and outfitted a rehabilitation hospital for soldiers and civilians who have lost limbs.
And at a time when some U.S. politicians’ support for Ukraine has been flagging, Buffett remains firm in his resolve. He has set aside another $300 million for Ukraine aid in 2024.
That’s the level of commitment Buffett has to a nation fighting a war that Buffett has called the most clear distinction between right and wrong he’s seen in his lifetime. He says if Russia’s
Vladimir Putin is not stopped now, there will only be more threats to peace and democracy in Europe. “I don’t know how you turn and look the other way when you see someone like Putin try to annihilate a population,” Buffett said in an interview with The World-Herald.
When it comes to Ukraine, Buffett hasn’t just sent money.
He hasn’t been afraid to stick his nose out for the country politically. During a London conference on recovery aid to Ukraine in June, he rebuked world leaders for not providing enough assistance — including military aid — to Ukraine. “If we are so short-sighted politically not to do what we should do to support Ukraine, I think we’ll pay for it in a few years, and I think people will look back and realize the mistake,” Buffett said.
Buffett has also put his own boots on the ground in Ukraine 10 times since the invasion, wanting to see the conditions and needs himself.
Those travels at times have put Buffett in harm’s way.
He’s seen the bodies of civilians killed when a Russian shell just minutes earlier landed at a bus station. He’s taken shelter during Russian missile attacks.
Buffett has seen villages completely flattened by the fighting.
He’s spoken to the victims of alleged Russian war crimes, including a woman whose mother was shot in front of her and another woman who was raped. “I think the civilian deaths and attacks on the civilian infrastructure is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said Buffett, whose foundation work has previously taken him to other war zones, including Kosovo, Sudan and Congo. “This has been a war on civilians and war on humanity, and I don’t say that lightly.”
Buffett has also taken time to document what he’s seen. The globe-trotting wildlife photographer always has his Canon camera at the ready. He is currently working on his second photo book featuring his images from Ukraine. Along the way, he has fallen in love with the Ukrainian people. The man who has traveled to 154 countries around the globe says he’s found them to be among the most engaging and resilient he’s ever met. He frequently tells the story of Ruslana Danilkina, a 19-year-old soldier who lost her leg to a Russian cluster bomb.
When Buffett and the former military radio operator ate lunch a year ago at the prosthesis and rehabilitation hospital Buffett helped establish, she said her goal was to get a new leg and return to the fighting. “To me, it just demonstrated the will of the Ukrainian people,” he said. “They’re fighting for everything they have. I don’t see the Ukrainian people giving up. I really don’t.”
Meeting Ukrainians’ needs, from food to artificial limbs
Howard Buffett, the middle child of Warren Buffett’s three children, has worn a lot of hats in his lifetime. He’s farmed in both Nebraska and Illinois, where he now lives. He served a term on the Douglas County Board in the early 1990s. He’s been a county sheriff, a wildlife photographer, a corporate executive and a conservationist. “I don’t think of it as rambling,” the 69-year-old said. “I love to learn, and I learn by doing things.”
He has also served for three decades on the board of Berkshire Hathaway, the company his father built. Howard will one day succeed his father as company chairman in a nonexecutive role, his primary job being to ensure Berkshire keeps its unique, investor-focused culture.
But for the past two decades, the Omaha Central High graduate has devoted most of his time to the charitable foundation he first established in 1999.
As Warren Buffett keeps his pledge to one day leave nearly all of his $125 billion-plus fortune to charity, he each year provides hundreds of millions of dollars to four different family foundations operated by his children.
While Susie Buffett’s Omaha-based Sherwood Foundation has largely been devoted to local causes, with a focus on children and education, Howard Buffett’s foundation has long taken a more global view.
So when Russian forces launched a massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Howard Buffett immediately took interest.
International conflict mitigation and food security are among the causes his nonprofit has targeted, and he says they are interrelated. A lack of food can often become a source of conflict in Africa and Central America, regions of the world where his foundation has long been active. “I’ve always said food is power,” Buffett said. “If food becomes scarcer and more expensive, you have more conflict.”
Buffett knew that Ukraine, as one of the world’s largest grain exporting countries, has been a huge supplier of food for developing nations. That made the war a real threat to global food security.
In July 2022, when a grain deal brokered by Turkey reopened the Black Sea for shipping, Buffett’s foundation stepped in. It provided more than $20 million through the United Nations World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development to cover the cost of the first two shipments of grain from Ukraine, bound for Ethiopia and Yemen.
Buffett made his first trip to Ukraine two months after the war began. He said he’s always taken the view that rather than just give money, he needs to show up to assess the needs for himself.
It’s also not unusual for Buffett to financially go all-in on a country.
His foundation is uniquely positioned to move quickly in a crisis. He doesn’t answer to any bureaucracy or need to get approval from a big board. He doesn’t need to ask anyone for money. And he’s willing to take a risk to make a difference.
True to his foundation’s focus on hunger, much of the assistance he’s provided in Ukraine has focused on food and agriculture.
The foundation has worked with another organization to provide nearly $100 million in humanitarian food assistance for refugees and civilians living near the front lines.
Buffett established a nonprofit in Ukraine called Victory Harvest, which provides combines and tractors to help Ukrainian farmers who have lost their equipment to the war. The nonprofit’s equipment has been used to plant 160,000 acres of grain crops and harvest 236,000 acres.
He’s similarly provided millions of dollars worth of seed and fertilizer for farmers who can’t obtain loans to get their crops into the ground.
He has spent $87 million to de-mine liberated farmland and villages. There are now more mines in Ukraine than in any other country. Buffett provided Ukraine’s security services the vehicles and equipment needed to clear mines and return land to agricultural production.
He spent $36 million to restart school food programs for students returning to the classroom, building big regional kitchens in Bucha and Lozova.
But Buffett has funded other needs beyond food.
He provided nearly $40 million worth of generators in response to Russia’s targeting of Ukraine’s civilian electrical infrastructure.
He donated nearly $17 million to help law enforcement authorities investigate and document Russian war crimes. That includes purchasing 18 rapid-result DNA testing machines to help identify bodies the Russians left behind in mass graves in Bucha and other occupied territories.
Buffett’s foundation also provided nearly $30 million to help build and equip a rehabilitation hospital in Lviv that is providing prostheses for many of the 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who have lost limbs in the war. “It’s fascinating to see how deeply Howard involves himself personally in the investments he is taking part in,” Andrey Stavnitser, a Ukrainian businessman who founded the center, said during its dedication. “I can see that he is invested in our work emotionally.”
Buffett’s foundation also has provided more than $60 million to rebuild infrastructure.
When Russian shells or missiles fall in a town or village, some buildings and homes are destroyed, but many more have their windows blown out.
A foundation staffer brought Buffett an idea for a window replacement program as a way to quickly get thousands of Ukrainians back into their homes. To date, the program has helped replace 120,000 windows, and funding has been provided for 60,000 more. “My staff is smarter than me,” Buffett said. “You can keep more people in their own homes by replacing windows than any other way.”
He also provided money to help rebuild Bucha’s main street and to replace two police stations destroyed in the fighting. In the scale of Ukraine’s destruction, those things have been small. But Buffett feels they have symbolic value. During wartime, sometimes people need to see proof there’s hope for the future. ‘
We are not providing Ukraine everything they need to win this war,’ Buffett says
In the course of his work in Ukraine, Buffett has five times met with Zelenskyy, whom he calls an amazing leader.
Two years into the conflict, Buffett sees no sign Zelenskyy is slowing down. He’s waging war, lobbying on the international stage to lobby for support, and working to keep up the morale of the troops and his nation. “He is relentless,” Buffett said. “I don’t know when he sleeps.”
Zelenskyy’s intelligence and “great sense of humor” have also shown through in their meetings. Buffett said he hopes to one day spend some time with him outside the bounds of war.
Buffett is even more impressed by Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, who Buffett has worked with on the school food program.
Buffett has much hope for Ukraine’s future. But he fears that could be compromised if the world loses the political will to aid Ukraine in its fight.
When Buffett took the podium at the international Ukraine recovery conference in London in June, he went well beyond talking about the need for the world to help rebuild Ukraine. He called it an imperative for global leaders to provide the military assistance Ukraine needs to win the war.
His talk came just weeks after Ukraine had launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive. Ukraine did so without the fighter planes and other air assets typically needed to support such a massive military undertaking, largely because the United States and other western nations have been slow to authorize such assistance. Buffett questioned such hesitation in the face of Russia’s war of aggression. “We are not providing Ukraine everything they need to win this war,” Buffett said then. “And worse, we are asking Ukraine to fight this war in a way that we would not fight it ourselves.”
He also accused Russia of creating the largest humanitarian crisis in his lifetime, executing thousands of civilians, stealing children and raping women of all ages. “These are facts,” Buffett said to applause, “and Russia must be held accountable.”
After the counteroffensive bogged down — predictably, in Buffett’s view — the war has turned into a stalemate.
That has some conservative members of Congress now questioning further military aid to Ukraine. A bipartisan bill that would pair Ukraine aid with changes in U.S. border policy faces significant GOP opposition. Meanwhile, the Pentagon says it is out of money for Ukraine.
Given that many believed at the start of the war that Ukraine would fall in a matter of days, Buffett said the fact that Ukraine has held off one of the world’s largest militaries is amazing. And strategically, he said, the United States has benefited significantly from the military aid it’s provided.
The aid amounts to about 5% of the U.S. defense budget, with much of it in the form of old ammunition and weapons systems from the nation’s stockpile that can now be replaced with new ones.
In return, Ukraine has been able to significantly degrade — both militarily and economically — one of the world’s most hostile powers while also stalling Russia’s ambitions in eastern Europe. “The narrative has made it sound like we’ve just dumped money into Ukraine,” Buffett said.
While some suggest the stalemate means it’s time for peace talks, Buffett sees that as wishful thinking. There can be no peace with Putin, who cannot be trusted, Buffett said. “There isn’t any deal they could make where Putin would keep his word,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘You can’t make a good deal with a bad guy.’”
An unexpected recognition
During his most recent visit to Ukraine, Buffett received word that Zelenskyy wanted to meet with him. The Ukrainian president showed up at the appointed time at day’s end. “We’re going to take a walk,” Buffett recalled Zelenskyy telling him.
Buffett’s plaque lies alongside those of many Western leaders and diplomats, among them President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Buffett called the honor unexpected, amazing and humbling — adding that he doesn’t do what he does for the recognition.
He also feels what he has done pales in comparison to the sacrifices thousands of Ukrainians like Ruslana Danilkina have made to keep their nation free. “It’s a little hard to accept,” Buffett said. “I see so many people who have given so much.”
Henry J. Cordes has spent more than 30 years as a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, writing about crime, sports, the Statehouse, politics and public policy. He has five times received the University of Nebraska’s Sorensen Award for the state’s most distinguished journalism and has won national awards for deadline reporting, sports writing and investigative reporting. He previously authored two books on Nebraska football history, “Unbeatable” and “Devaney.”