A Ukrainian minister has turned digital tools into modern weapons of war
After the start of the war last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned to Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov for a key role.
Mr. Fedorov, 31, the youngest member of Mr. Zelensky’s cabinet, immediately took charge of a parallel strand of Ukraine’s defense against Russia. He launched a campaign to rally support from multinational corporations to sever Russia from the global economy and cut the country off from the global internet, targeting everything from access to new iPhones and PlayStations to computer transfers. Western Union money and PayPal.
To achieve Russia’s isolation, Mr. Fedorov, a former tech entrepreneur, used a mixture of social media, cryptocurrencies and other digital tools. On Twitter and other social media, he pressured Apple, Google, Netflix, Intel, PayPal and others to stop doing business in Russia. He helped form a group of volunteer hackers to wreak havoc on Russian websites and online services. His ministry has also set up a cryptocurrency fund that has raised over $60 million for the Ukrainian military.
The job made Mr. Fedorov one of Mr. Zelensky’s most visible lieutenants, deploying technology and finance as modern weapons of war. Indeed, Mr. Fedorov creates a new playbook for military conflicts that shows how an underarmed country can use the Internet, cryptography, digital activism and frequent messages on Twitter to help undermine a foreign aggressor.
In his first in-depth interview since the invasion began on February 24, Mr Fedorov said his goal was to create a “digital blockade” and make life so unpleasant and inconvenient for Russian citizens that they would put question the war. He praised companies that had pulled out of Russia, but said Apple, Google and others could go further by taking steps such as shutting down their app stores in the country altogether.
A technological and commercial blockade, he said, “is integral to stopping aggression.”
Mr Fedorov, speaking via video conference from an undisclosed location somewhere around Kiev, also brushed aside concerns that his actions were alienating urban Russians who may be most likely to oppose the conflict.
“We believe that as long as the Russians remain silent, they are complicit in the aggression and murder of our people,” he said.
Mr. Fedorov’s work is not the only reason multinational corporations like Meta and McDonald’s have withdrawn from Russia, with the human toll of the war causing horror and outrage. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and others have played a central role in isolating Russia.
But Peter Singer, a professor at Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War, said Mr Fedorov had been “incredibly effective” in calling on companies to rethink their relationship with Russia.
“No celebrity, let alone a nation, has ever been more effective than Ukraine in calling out corporate brands to name and shame them for acting morally,” Singer said. “If there is such a thing as ‘cancel culture’, Ukrainians can claim to have perfected it during the war.”
In the 45-minute Zoom interview, Mr Fedorov, dressed in a loose gray fleece with black zippers, sat in front of a paneled wall. He slept about three to four hours a night, he said, often interrupted every 30 minutes or so by alerts on the iPhone he keeps next to his bed. He said he was worried about his father, who has been in intensive care for a week after a missile hit the house next door.
“I came close to horror,” he said. “The war has come knocking at my door also personally.”
Mr. Fedorov grew up in the small town of Vasylivka in southern Ukraine, near the Dnieper. Before entering politics, he started a digital marketing company called SMMSTUDIO which designed online advertising campaigns.
The work led him to a job in 2018 with Mr. Zelensky, then an actor who was making an unexpected run for the Ukrainian presidency. Mr. Fedorov became the digital director of the campaign, using social media to present Mr. Zelensky as a young symbol of change.
After Mr. Zelensky was elected in 2019, he appointed Mr. Fedorov, then 28, as minister of digital transformation, tasking him with digitizing Ukraine’s social services. Through a government app, people could pay speeding tickets or manage their taxes. Last year, Mr. Fedorov traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with executives, including Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Fedorov immediately pressured tech companies to pull out of Russia. He made the decision with the support of Mr. Zelensky, he said, and the two men talk to each other every day.
“I think this choice is as black and white as ever,” Fedorov said. “It is time to take sides, either for peace or for terror and murder.”
On February 25, he sent letters to Apple, Google and Netflix, asking them to restrict access to their services in Russia. Less than a week later, Apple stopped selling new iPhones and other products in Russia.
The next day, Mr. Fedorov tweeted a message to Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, asking for help in obtaining Starlink satellite internet systems made by Mr. Musk’s SpaceX company. The technology could help Ukrainians stay online even if Russia damages the country’s main telecommunications infrastructure. Two days after contacting Mr. Musk, a shipment of Starlink equipment arrived in Ukraine.
Since then, Mr. Fedorov said he has periodically exchanged text messages with Mr. Musk.
Mr. Fedorov also had a call last month with Karan Bhatia, vice president of Google. Google has since made several changes, including restricting access to certain Google Maps features that Fedorov said posed security risks because they could help Russian soldiers identify crowds of people. The company has since suspended sales of other products and services as well, and on Friday blocked access to Russian state media globally on YouTube.
Mr Fedorov exchanged emails with Nick Clegg, head of global affairs at Meta, which is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, about the ongoing war.
Apple, Google and Meta declined to comment. Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
Public shaming has been effective, Mr Fedorov said, because companies are “emotional and rational in decision-making”.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
On the ground. Russian forces, battered by local resistance, have stepped up their shelling across Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite imagery of a convoy north of Kiev suggests Russia is repositioning its forces for a fresh assault there.
But while many companies have halted operations in Russia, more could be done, he said. Apple and Google are expected to pull their app stores from Russia, and software made by companies like SAP was also used by dozens of Russian companies, he noted.
In many cases, the Russian government cuts itself off from the world, notably by blocking access to Twitter and Facebook. On Friday, Russian regulators said they would also restrict access to Instagram and called Meta an “extremist” organization.
Some civil society groups have questioned whether Fedorov’s tactics could have unintended consequences. “Shutdowns can be used in tyranny, not in democracy,” the Internet Protection Society, an internet freedom advocacy group in Russia, said in a statement earlier this week. “Any sanction that disrupts the Russian people’s access to information only strengthens Putin’s regime.”
Mr Fedorov said this was the only way to spur the Russian people to action. He praised the work of Ukraine-supporting hackers who loosely coordinated with the Ukrainian government to hit Russian targets.
“After cruise missiles started flying over my house and over the houses of many other Ukrainians, and things started exploding, we decided to counterattack,” he said.
Fedorov’s work is an example of Ukraine’s attitude to a larger Russian army, said Max Chernikov, a software engineer who supports the volunteer group known as the IT Army of Ukraine. .
“He acts like all Ukrainians – doing beyond his best,” he said.
Mr Fedorov, who has a wife and a young daughter, said he remains hopeful about the outcome of the war.
“The truth is on our side,” he added. “I’m sure we will win.”
Daisuke Wakabayashi and Michael Isaac contributed report.