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Ukraine wants tech companies invested in Russia to be labeled as “supporters of the bloody war,” its digital minister told POLITICO, continuing his quest to slap a “digital blockade” on Russia and cut the country off from Western technology entirely.
Ukrainian Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov has been at the forefront of a public diplomacy campaign by Kyiv to isolate Russia internationally. He has called on tech giants like Apple, Google and Netflix to restrict their products in Russia, pleaded with tech moguls like Elon Musk for support and promoted Ukraine’s “IT Army” of volunteer hacktivists launching cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure.
“When the war started, we shifted towards wartime priorities such as the digital blockade and the need to divest from Russia,” Fedorov said in an interview from an undisclosed location. “Maybe on each website and each document, there could be a label [saying] that this company doesn’t mind supporting the killing of civilians in Ukraine by Russian forces,” he said.
Fedorov, who is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s right-hand man on digital, has in past weeks named and shamed companies across the world — from Silicon Valley giants to Europe’s leading IT services provider SAP — for failing to cease services in Russia entirely.
The public pressure on tech firms has already yielded results: Apple has halted iPhone sales in Russia, Netflix has paused all productions in the country and Google has suspended all advertising in Russia — to name just a few examples of tech firms pulling certain services out of the country.
But there have also been calls for caution to cut off Russia completely from the digital space — with digital rights organizations such as Access Now saying it would push Russians further into isolation as Moscow builds a “sovereign internet” architecture.
Soaring tech sector
Fedorov’s campaign against the tech sector’s ties to Russia is a sharp turn from the tech-friendly image Ukraine’s government had been seeking to portray in the years leading up to the war, when it had emerged as a potential haven for venture capitalists looking for booming tech assets. Figures for 2021 from Ukraine’s IT association say that the country’s IT industry grew by 36 percent during that year, from $5 billion to $6.8 billion in exports.
When Zelenskyy took office in 2019, his young, progressive team of government officials bet big on the digital economy to boost the country’s growth.
His digital minister — only 28 years old when he took office — was a novice in politics, having instead worked in digital marketing and managed Zelenskyy’s online campaign for office. But he understood the tech sector.
Ukrainian government officials in 2019 already met with top Google and Apple executives in California, Fedorov said, including Apple head Tim Cook. “We had lots of ongoing projects. One of which was a planned census of the Ukrainian population enabled by Apple tech,” Fedorov said.
After being appointed minister, Fedorov was charged with updating the country’s public sector digital infrastructure, bridging metropolitan and rural divides, and attracting the Continent’s best and brightest to Ukraine’s burgeoning startup ecosystem.
“Just before the war, we announced Diia City, which we believe is the best legal and tax regime for tech and creative industries,” Fedorov said. “We have pitched it all across the globe, including to Silicon Valley.”
At the heart of Diia City is a patchwork of attractive tax rates and access to investment, intended to bring innovation to a country still untangling itself from the remains of the Soviet Union. These efforts form part of Ukraine’s broader Diia initiative, which aims to make all public services in the country available online.
In many ways, Ukraine was rolling out a transformation that mimicked the one by the Estonians, who launched an ambitious program of digital transformation after also suffering Moscow’s aggression in an infamous 2007 cyberattack that hit Estonian organizations including its parliament, national newspapers, banks and broadcasters.
Rewriting tech rules in wartime
Since the onset of the war, Ukraine’s digital strategy has drastically changed. Its digital aspirations are now being overhauled to fit its fight for survival and independence. Its tech policy has shifted to defending networks at home and disrupting those of its aggressor, Russia.
The minister’s calls for a “digital blockade” have faced some resistance already, though. Civil rights groups have warned shutting Russia off from Western tech platforms will isolate the country, including its domestic opposition groups, even more.
Another point of contention is Ukraine’s cavalier military tactics in cyberspace.
“We had two major cyberattacks on the eve of the invasion,” Fedorov said, speaking prior to Monday’s attack on state-run telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom. “But since the active combat started we have decided to respond in kind, launching counterattacks in cyberspace,” he added. “These attacks have proven to be very powerful and quite effective. And we have seen the number of Russian cyberattacks decrease both in quality and quantity.”
The minister’s comments show Kyiv has given mixed signals on offensive hacking operations against Russia: Other government officials previously said its services haven’t conducted cyberattacks on Russian critical infrastructure, but many have at the same time promoted and encouraged activist hacker groups that are launching such attacks on a daily basis.
“This is a community effort where there are both individuals and companies joining us,” Fedorov said of the citizens’ army of cybersecurity experts and rebel hackers under the banner of the so-called IT Army of Ukraine.
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