Ukrainian Minister Has Turned Digital Tools Into Modern Weapons of War

After the war broke out last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned to Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Fedorov for the lead role.

Mr. Fedorov, 31, the youngest member of Shree. Zelensky’s cabinet immediately took charge of Ukraine’s defense parallel boredom against Russia. He launched a campaign to get support from multinational businesses to exclude Russia from the world economy and isolate the country from the global Internet, aimed at everything from access to new iPhones and PlayStation to Western Union money transfers and PayPal.

To achieve Russia’s isolation, Mr. Fedorov, a former tech entrepreneur, uses a mix of social media, cryptocurrency and other digital tools. On Twitter and other social media, he forced Apple, Google, Netflix, Intel, PayPal and others to stop doing business in Russia. He helped create 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 more than $ 60 million for the Ukrainian military.

In this work Mr. Fedorov a Mr. Zelensky’s most visible lieutenants, the use of technology and finance as modern weapons of war. In effect, Mr. Fedorov is developing a new playbook for military conflicts that shows how a gunless country can access the Internet, crypto, digital activism and Frequent post on Twitter To help reduce foreign invaders.

In his first in-depth visit since the invasion began on Feb. 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 question the war. He praised companies that had moved out of Russia, but said that Apple, Google and others in the country could move forward with measures such as cutting off their App Stores altogether.

Technical and commercial blockades, he said, are “an integral part of preventing aggression.”

Mr. Fedorov, speaking via video conference from an undisclosed location somewhere around Kiev, also allayed concerns that his actions were alienating urban Russians who are likely to oppose the conflict.

“We believe that as long as the Russians are silent they are involved in aggression and killing of our people,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov’s actions are not the only reason multinational companies such as Meta and McDonald’s have withdrawn from Russia, provoking the human toll of the war. Economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and others have played a central role in isolating Russia.

But Peter Singer, a professor at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University, said Mr. Fedorov was “incredibly effective” in calling on companies to reconsider their Russia ties.

Mr. Said the singer. “If there is such a thing as ‘cancel the culture’, the Ukrainians can claim to have honored it in the war.”

In a 45 minute visit to Zoom, Mr. Fedorov, wearing a loose fitting gray fleece with black zippers, sits against a wall with wooden panels. He said he gets about three to four hours of sleep a night, often interrupted by alerts on an iPhone every 30 minutes or so that he keeps next to his bed. He said he was concerned about his father, who has been in intensive care since last week after a missile struck a nearby house.

“I’ve brushed my shoulders with horror,” he said. “War has knocked on my door personally.”

Mr. Fedorov grew up in Vasilyevka, a small town near the Dnipropetrovsk River in southern Ukraine. Before entering politics, he started a digital marketing company called SMMSTUDIO which designed online advertising campaigns.

This work led him to a job with Mr. in 2018. Zelensky, then an actor who was running unexpectedly for the presidency of Ukraine. Mr. Fedorov became the director of Digital’s campaign, using social media to portray Mr. Zelensky as a youth symbol of change.

After Mr. Zelensky was elected in 2019, he is Mr. Fedorov, then 28, became Minister of Digital Transformation, entrusting him with the task of digitizing Ukrainian social services. Through the government app, people can quickly pay for tickets or manage their taxes. Last year, Mr. Fedorov visited Silicon Valley to meet with leaders, including Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Fedorov immediately forced tech companies to pull out of Russia. He decided with Mr. Zelensky’s support, he said, and two men speak every day.

“I think this choice is as black and white as ever,” said Mr. Fedorov said. “This is the time to take sides, either for peace or for terror and murder.”

On Feb. 25, he sent letters to Apple, Google and Netflix asking them to block 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, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, asking for help in acquiring the Starlink satellite Internet systems created by Mr. Musk’s company SpaceX. Technology can help Ukrainians stay online even if Russia damages the country’s main telecommunications infrastructure. Two days after contacting Shri. Musk, shipment of Starlink equipment arrives in Ukraine.

Since then, Mr. Fedorov said he periodically exchanged text messages with Mr. Musk.

Mr. Fedorov also had a phone call last month with Google vice president Karan Bhatia. Google has made some changes since then, including restricting access to certain Google Maps features. Fedorov said there was a security risk because they could help Russian troops identify crowds of people. The company has since suspended sales of other products and services, and on Friday blocked access to the Russian state media globally on YouTube.

Mr. Fedorov has traded emails with Matt’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, a parent of Facebook and Instagram, about the 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 that because companies are “emotional as well as rational in decision making.”

But while many companies have stopped doing business in Russia, more can be done, he said. Apple and Google should pull out their App Stores from Russia, and software created by companies like SAP is being used by scores of Russian businesses, he noted.

In many cases, the Russian government is isolating itself from the world, including by blocking access to Twitter and Facebook. On Friday, Russian regulators said they would also block access to Instagram and call Meta an “extremist” organization.

Some civil society groups have questioned whether Mr. Fedorov’s tactics could have unintended consequences. “Shutdown can be used in oppression, not in democracy,” the Internet Protection Society, an Internet freedom group in Russia, said in a statement earlier this week. “Any sanctions that disrupt the Russian people’s access to information only strengthen Putin’s regime.”

Mr. Fedorov said this was the only way to put the Russian people into action. He praised the work of Ukraine-backed hackers who are loosely coordinating with the Ukrainian government to hit Russian targets.

“After cruise missiles started flying over my house and the homes of many other Ukrainians, and things started to explode, we decided to retaliate,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov’s work is an example of how to take a stand against Ukraine’s large Russian military, said Max Chernikov, a software engineer who is supporting a group of volunteers known as Ukraine’s IT Army.

“He behaves like every Ukrainian – does more than his best,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov, who has a wife and a young daughter, said he was optimistic about the outcome of the war.

“The truth is on our side,” he added. “I’m sure we’re going to win.”

Daisuke Wakabayashi And Mike Isaac Contribution Report.

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