Ukraine’s Digital Battle With Russia Isn’t Going as Expected

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When Russian president Vladimir Putin launched his full invasion of Ukraine in February, the world expected Moscow’s cyber and information operations to pummel the country alongside air strikes and shelling. Two months on, however, Kyiv has not only managed to keep the country online amidst a deluge of hacking attempts, but it has brought the fight back to Russia.

Even Ukrainian officials are surprised by how ineffective Russia’s digital war has been.

“I think that the root cause of this is the difference between our systems,” says Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s 31-year-old minister for digital transformation. “Because the Russian system is centralized. It’s monopolized. And it leads to the scale of corruption and graft that is becoming increasingly apparent as the war continues.”

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Speaking to WIRED from near Kyiv, Fedorov says his country has been preparing for this moment since Russia first invaded in 2014. “We have had eight years,” he says.

In recent weeks, Fedorov and the Ukrainian government have deployed the controversial face recognition program ClearviewAI to identify killed and captured Russian soldiers. They have deployed thousands of Elon Musk’s Starlink terminals to keep the country connected, even amid Russian bombardment. They have crowdsourced intelligence collection, letting ordinary Ukrainians report troop movements. And, perhaps most critically, they have beaten back aggressive attempts to knock offline their internet, energy, and financial systems.

Fedorov, who also serves as deputy prime minister, ran Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelensky’s wildly successful election campaign in 2019, winning by nearly 50 points in the second round against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. He did so, in part, by leveraging authentic selfie videos to market the former comedian as an unconventional politician who eschews the normal trappings of politics. It’s exactly that style of video that Zelensky has uploaded regularly from the streets of Kyiv

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in recent weeks, offering a stark contrast with Putin’s stiff proclamations inside his palatial offices.

Ukraine has brought the war home to Russia in more cutting ways. In March, Reuters reported that Ukraine had purchased face recognition software from American company Clearview AI to identify the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in action—Kyiv later acknowledged that they were using this information to contact the families of the dead soldiers.

“We are pursuing two goals here,” Fedorov says. “First is: We are notifying their relatives, and telling them, basically, that it’s not a very good idea to go to war with Ukraine. So that serves as a cautionary tale. And secondly, it’s a humanitarian purpose—just telling them where their relatives, or friends, or children are so that they don’t try to get this information from the Russian authorities. Because, more often than not, they can’t.”

That decision hasn’t come without criticism. Contacting the families of soldiers killed in battle could be seen as harassment. Others have pointed out that being deployed in Ukraine is a PR coup for ClearviewAI, which has been embroiled in scandal over its liberal use by police forces across North America.

Fedorov, for his part, says Russia “can spin this whatever way they want. But the fact of the matter is, there are tens of thousands of Russians dying in Ukraine, and we are just providing this information to their families because that serves, among other things, a humanitarian purpose.”

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