Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov speaks at the Ukraine30 Tourism Forum in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 11, 2021.
Hennadii Minchenko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
He’s 31 and has one of the most important jobs in the war. Meet Ukraine’s top ‘digital general’
Mykhailo Fedorov handles cyber defense, tracks Russian troops and tries to change Russian minds. And he’s convinced Ukraine “will win.”
May 30, 2022
Mykhailo Fedorov was born in 1991, the year Ukraine became an independent nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As his country’s economy grew, powered in no small part by an IT boom, Fedorov became a tech entrepreneur, setting up a digital marketing firm in Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine. What he learned there he applied, in 2018, to the political campaign of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, then an actor vying for the presidency.
Today, as Zelenskyy leads his country’s resistance against Russia’s invasion, Fedorov is still there, at the president’s side, as the country’s minister for digital transformation.
But his job title understates what he does: Now 31, Fedorov is, after the Ukrainian leader, perhaps the most prominent face in the country’s wartime administration, leading a digital “army” that covers everything from cyber defense to tracking the position of Russian forces. Fedorov is, in effect, the country’s top digital general. And the effort he spearheads is both vast and critical: Some 30,000 people from around the world, he told Grid in an email interview, are now involved in Ukraine’s digital battles.
Fedorov is also applying his digital savvy to repair war-damaged communications, chronicle alleged war crimes and reach ordinary Russians cut off from the truth about the Kremlin’s brutal campaign in Ukraine. “As far as we are concerned, as long as there is internet in Russia, we have the opportunity to get through to people,” Fedorov told Grid. “To directly tell ordinary Russians what is actually happening.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: With Russia’s invasion, your role has gone from helping build up Ukraine’s IT sector to defending your country’s information infrastructure. Could you describe to us how the cyber war with Russia is playing out right now?
Mykhailo Fedorov: They’ve been hitting us for years, even before this invasion. Last year, if you talk about cyberattacks, Ukraine was among the world’s top targets. That was because of Russia. They kept mounting cyberattacks to try and hurt us.
With the invasion, the cyberattacks have of course become more intense. Take the first two months of the war — we saw more than 430 separate cyberattacks by at least six different groups of Russian hackers. It is a massive campaign against Ukraine.
Most of the cyberattacks are carried out to coincide with missile strikes and ground assaults by Russian forces on this or that particular target. The goal is the same, whether in cyberspace or on the ground: to damage our resources and critical infrastructure. Russian hackers have targeted everything, from central government institutions to state and local authorities, as well as the defense sector, the telecoms sector and our media.
They haven’t yet succeeded in a large-scale cyberattack because of what we are doing with our cyber army to resist them, and to move as fast as we can to restore service when Russia does manage to disable a system or hit a network inside Ukraine.
One of the main things that has changed for us is that before the invasion, our focus, when it came to cyberspace, was almost entirely on defense. Now we are also trying to fight more aggressively against Russia in cyberspace. It is a massive effort, and it involves people around the world, volunteers who are helping us in cyberspace to make sure that Russia doesn’t win on this front. We have around 30,000 people — Ukrainian and international IT professionals — who are working here and internationally to make sure we succeed in cyberspace, that Russia doesn’t get the upper hand.
And we will almost certainly continue to fight in cyberspace even after the war on the ground comes to an end. Like I said, we have been engaged in cyber warfare with Russia since before this invasion. There is nothing to suggest that they won’t continue to attack our digital systems even after they are forced to retreat from the ground, after their tanks leave Ukraine.
G: As you say, you’ve expanded your operations with the digital army. Could you tell us more about that — what else has changed since the invasion, when it comes to Ukraine’s cyber efforts?
MF:A lot, and not just in terms of fighting back against Russia. We are also using our digital resources to document what the Russians are doing in Ukraine. We have introduced new apps that warn people about Russian attacks, and two weeks after the start of the war, we introduced a new system to collect photos and videos of what the Russians were doing inside Ukraine, and where they were operating, using geolocation services.
Ordinary Ukrainians have been using our apps to send us information about the movements of Russian troops with just a few clicks. We check the information and verify it, and then we pass it on as quickly as we can to our armed forces. Around 300,000 people have used this system to help us gather information since the beginning of the war.
People are also helping us gather information about Russian war crimes. The world has seen the horrors that Russia has unleashed in places like Bucha, Irpin, Gostomel and in other parts of the country. To make sure we are documenting everything, we have been asking people to send us information digitally. The idea is to document all the war crimes by the Russian troops. So the effort is not simply to fight back, but also to make sure we do not let them escape accountability. We are documenting everything we can.
G: You’re also involved in trying to penetrate the Russian information — or misinformation, to describe it more accurately — wall, and to get the facts through to ordinary people in Russia, particularly those whose kin have been deployed in Ukraine. Could you tell us more about what you are doing in this area? What have been your biggest challenges in this area — and any notable successes?
MF:We are, yes — we are conducting information campaigns to reach Russian audiences to spread the truth about the war in Ukraine. It is an effort to get around the Russian TV propaganda in the country. Now they have tried to cut off independent information inside Russia. Russian President [Vladimir] Putin’s regime has gone after social media and other channels. But as far as we are concerned, as long as there is internet in Russia, we have the opportunity to get through to people. To directly tell ordinary Russians what is actually happening.
I cannot give you many details in this area. But we have many gifted professionals who are helping us with this. There are plenty of tools we can use and are using. We’ll be able to tell you more after the war.
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G: What’s been happening with the Starlink satellite kits that were shipped to your country by Elon Musk?
MF:Currently, more than 12,000 Starlink dishes are in use in Ukraine. In recent years, we have worked a lot to increase the reach of the internet across Ukraine. But during the war, we need the Starlink dishes and their network to help us make sure that everything remains connected, as there are power outages in areas where hostilities are taking place.
They have helped us make sure that critical infrastructure can stay online. The biggest role they are playing — and this is all being done for free — is to help us restore communication in previously occupied territories, places where Russians have tried to cut off Ukrainian people from the outside world.
In many settlements around Kyiv and in the Chernihiv regions, where some really fierce fighting took place, communication was possible thanks to the Starlink dishes provided to us.
G: Looking ahead, what, from your perch at the digital ministry, does Ukraine most need right now? What is at the top of your wish list for the outside world?
MF:More support, more sanctions on Russia, more to isolate the Russian economy, to seriously undermine its economic and financial capacity to continue with this aggression against Ukraine.
With this invasion of our country, the world has been clearly divided into black and white. Every business, every state must decide — either support Ukraine, stand with us, a democratic country, or work with the Russian Federation and finance the killing of civilians for no reason in a war of aggression.
G: With the war now entering its fourth month, what gives you hope right now? And what are your biggest fears, particularly as Russia steps up its attacks in the east?
MF:What gives me hope is the way we have been able to resist the Russians for all these months. We know for sure we will win. As our President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says, life will overcome death, and the world will overcome darkness.
Our main resource in this war is the bravery of our people, ordinary people who have taken up the fight, on the ground and even with our digital army. Everyone is involved. They are under fire, but they are not giving up.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.