Kyiv’s “IT army” is waging a battle for eyeballs in Russia, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov said.
“Our capacity to reach the citizens of the Russian Federation to tell them the truth increases every day,” Fedorov told POLITICO’s Tech 28 event in Brussels on Wednesday.
Before the war, Fedorov said, “we were directing our efforts on Ukraine. But while there are Russian tanks on the territory of Ukraine, we will increase our capacity to reach the citizens of Russia.”
Fedorov, whom POLITICO named the No. 1 “rulebreaker” on its annual ranking of the 28 power players behind Europe’s tech revolution, said, by contrast, Russia had abandoned its goal of reaching a wider audience.
“We have already won the information war with Russia,” said the 31-year-old Fedorov, a former digital marketing executive who has transformed his ministry into ground zero for the digital war against the Kremlin. “Because today Russia is only aiming for the domestic consumers to impose on them their fake narratives, but they can’t do that with the rest of the world.”
He continued: “When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, we started the battle on the cyber front.” The government is working closely with the private tech sector in their operations, Fedorov added: “We’re giving them targets, we’re discussing with them, we’re trying to protect them in cyberspace … This is actually a real army that has formed.”
Ukraine’s IT companies are “heroes as much as our armed forces who are defending us at the front” at the moment, with firms “continuing to operate in basements, in bomb shelters.”
Asked whether there was a risk that Ukraine’s army of volunteer IT engineers and hackers would go too far — for instance, by harming Russia’s ordinary citizens with cyberattacks — Fedorov said, “I don’t see any risks for the democratic world. There is of course a huge risk for the Russian Federation. We will try to do our best to stop Russia and to show to the Russian public that their troops are killing our civilians.”
Fedorov, who has used social media to call out firms that continue to operate in Russia, said he won’t rest until “all digital and tech companies leave Russia and stop cooperating with Russia,” which he said would set the country back decades: “When companies leave Russia, the GDP falls, and the country can’t finance the army.”
Probed on whether there is a risk, if all Western internet and media companies leave Russia, of harming the country’s opposition activists, Fedorov said, “I am not afraid of that. As long as there is Wi-Fi internet in the Russian Federation, their opposition and our [Ukraine’s] information companies will manage to bring the truth to the citizens of the Russian Federation.”
He added that Russians would still be able to access free information using virtual private networks, or VPNs. “You cannot stop technologies as long as there is access to Wi-Fi,” Fedorov said. “We will continue to communicate the truth, because we need to break through the propaganda.”
Fedorov, who famously convinced SpaceX founder Elon Musk to give Ukraine access to his commercial internet network of Starlink satellites, said more than 11,000 of the terminals were now operating in Ukraine.
“Starlink is supporting the critical infrastructure and IT infrastructure of Ukraine … Even if there’s no fixed internet, through generators, using Starlink, we can restore any connection in Ukraine,” Fedorov said. “A lot of medical hospitals are using Starlink.”