As war drags on, Ukraine’s postal service perseveres

As banks close, post offices are stepping up to provide financial services while the state agency delivers mail and humanitarian aid.

Igor Smelyansky, CEO of Ukrposhta, sits at his desk in Kyiv [Shelby Wilder/Al Jazeera]
Igor Smelyansky, CEO of Ukrposhta, sits at his desk in Kyiv [Shelby Wilder/Al Jazeera]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Igor Smelyansky, the CEO of Ukrposhta, Ukraine’s postal service, sat in his office overlooking Kyiv’s Independence Square.

The company’s headquarters is situated in a sprawling, grand Stalinist-era building. Today it lies empty.

Employees first left to work from home when the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.

Then, just as staff prepared to return, the Russian invasion began on February 24, forcing 20 percent of Ukrposhta employees to move. Some fled Ukraine, others relocated to the relatively safer western areas of the country as Russian forces approached – hoping to seize the capital.

But Smelyansky has remained at his desk nonetheless.

Air raid sirens wail in the distance, sounds Ukrainians have learned to live with.

Smelyansky looked down at the city.

“I believe [Russian president Vladimir] Putin hasn’t destroyed Kyiv because he still wants it for himself,” he said. “A great place for a parade, no?”

Despite the unpredictable, ever-changing logistics of war, the Ukrainian postal service has remained operational.

The state agency even serviced occupied territories until the beginning of August, when Ukrposhta ended transactions in Russian-controlled regions citing the increased risks to employees.

“We tried to negotiate since we’re both a humanitarian and a business operation, but the Russians don’t honour agreements,” said Smelyansky.

With at least 15 staff having already been killed, Ukrposhta has not been spared tragedy.

“In Zaporizhia, two employees were murdered while delivering mail in a postal truck when a Russian tank opened fire,” Smelyansky said.

A collection of personalized stamps inside Igor Smelyansky’s office [Shelby Wilder/Al Jazeera]
A collection of personalised stamps at Igor Smelyansky’s office [Shelby Wilder/Al Jazeera] 

Roughly 500 post offices have also been destroyed or damaged by Russia’s operation, but the service has established mobile offices to meet customer needs while branches are rebuilt.

These days, Smelyansky runs on little sleep and starts his mornings with 5am logistics meetings.

“We’re still conducting operations in areas with active hostilities. We speak with the military to determine damaged or blocked routes and what roads are too dangerous because [for example] Russian forces are nearby.”

Ukrposhta’s functional success stems largely from improvising and adapting.

“We have a non-democratic decision-making style. I don’t believe in long discussions and asking: ‘How do we get there?’ We’ll get there. Let’s just set the goal and move forward,” said Smelyansky.

With that mindset, Ukrposhta has been an essential lifeline during the crisis, delivering mail and humanitarian aid.

Where banks have closed, post offices serve as the only financial service provider, and roughly three million Ukrainians rely on Ukrposhta to deliver their pensions.

But when Russian forces encircled Chernihiv, in northern Ukraine, 79-year-old resident Tamara Borovyk was left with little money to buy medicine or food.

“Endless shelling came with the siege,” she said, referring to the month-long blockade. “And when rockets hit the main post office, I couldn’t receive goods or my pension. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without my children’s support.”

As it perseveres, Ukrposhta has received assistance from inside and outside the country.

The agency partnered with Ukrzaliznytsia, the Ukrainian Railway, to transport post across the country while leaning on European partners for support with mail deliveries abroad.

Ukrposhta had not used Ukraine’s railway in 21 years for post deliveries but ingenuity kicked in as a shortage of trucks, impassable roads, and a nationwide curfew became the norm.

The renewed bond also established a system for refugees to receive emergency funding.

“It’s like a military operation. Once passengers get aboard, usually in Luhansk or the Donetsk region, a Ukrainian railway steward collects the data [names, phone numbers] and then transfers the information to us in real-time. We prepare the emergency funds, ensuring financial support awaits when people disembark,” said Smelyansky, boasting of how they established this process in three days.

So far, more than 700 million Ukrainian hryvnia ($19m) of financial aid has been distributed to more than 74,000 internally displaced people.

Wartime art inside Igor Smelyansky’s office [Shelby Wilder/Al Jazeera]
Wartime art inside Igor Smelyansky’s office [Shelby Wilder/Al Jazeera] 

For international assistance, Ukrposhta joined forces with the Ukrainian charter airline Windrose Airlines for flights to the United States.

Outbound planes export goods from Ukrainian entrepreneurs and small businesses, while return flights carry humanitarian aid.

The Universal Postal Union (UPU), a specialised UN agency, simultaneously launched an emergency fund to help reconstruct postal infrastructure and restore Ukrainian services. This support has included waiving charges for the delivery of postal items to Ukraine, the distribution of large amounts of goods, the raising of funds and strategic support.

Masahiko Metoki, UPU’s director-general, emphasised its shared solidarity and commitment to ensuring “international postal exchanges are unhindered by [Russia’s] military actions.”

While Russia’s war of attrition grinds on, Ukrposhta looks ahead to upcoming challenges.

Above all, he fears the shelling of gas plants.

“Due to shortages, fuel is being imported from other countries, so we must think of ways to conserve.”

Another test is updating Ukrposhta’s database to ensure up-to-date customer information since entire cities and villages have been destroyed and abandoned.

Ukrposhta has also increasingly faced cyber-attacks after releasing a series of now famous war stamps, commemorating the sinking of a Russian warship.

Proceeds from the limited-edition stamps have raised funds for infrastructure restoration projects, humanitarian aid deliveries, and education.

Despite being on a Russian military hit list, Smelyansky frequently visits the front lines to meet staff and hear directly from those in need.

“It’s important to go, not only to support our employees and armed forces. But because people tell me what they need. Assessing the situation requires being on the ground.”

He nodded towards a bulletproof vest and helmet that had recently arrived.

“The postal service doesn’t stop, and war is no excuse. If anything, it’s an opportunity to be better and to adjust. My job will be easy once we win the war.”

Source: Al Jazeera