On February 24, Russia launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine after months of a military build-up on its borders.
The attack began with cyberattacks that targeted Ukrainian government departments with floods of internet traffic and data-wiping malware, followed by a ground, sea and air incursion. News outlets in Ukraine are also reporting outages caused by cyberattacks, which the Ukrainian government says it has “unambiguously linked” to Moscow.
The invasion was met with sharp rebuke from the United States, the European Union and NATO allies, with broad, unprecedented financial and diplomatic sanctions promised against Russia, sanctions that are likely to affect business, trade and finance across the region.
The impacts of the invasion are also, undoubtedly, being felt across Ukraine’s wider tech ecosystem, which includes not only hundreds of startups and larger tech firms, but also research and development offices for some of the world’s biggest technology brands.
As the situation on the ground changes rapidly over the next few hours and days, TechCrunch will continue to bring news and analysis on how the conflict unfolds across the tech and startup community.
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A director at one major tech company, who asked us to not name the company for the safety of its employees, confirmed to us that it is in the process of working out how to evacuate all of its staff in Ukraine. The situation is being hampered by the fact that all airspace is now out of bounds, and public transportation is largely out of action. The current plan is to figure out how to get staff across the border either to Hungary or Poland.
The situation is also going to spell major economic fallout for startups in Ukraine.
Readdle, the company that makes PDF, email and other productivity tools, is one of the better known bootstrapped startups out of Ukraine. Based out of the southern city of Odessa, the company’s main spokesperson and managing director, Denys Zhadanov, canceled a phone interview for this story, saying that there were too many emergencies that needed to be handled at the moment. He did, however, speak with TechCrunch by text message.
“We’ve made business continuity plans a while ago and [are] executing them now,” he said. “All Readdle products and services at Readdle are up and running, and there’s no evacuation for the team [being undertaken] at this point.”
Zhadanov noted that Readdle has grown into an international company, with people employed in 11 countries. A “big chunk” of the team, he said, is still based in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is home to the finest engineers, designers, and other tech professionals,” he added. “I know that many tech CEOs have made a conscious decision to stay in Ukraine. Many of them are helping and donating to help the county and its people.”
In Ukraine, there are many more home-grown startups that are also feeling the fallout (and bear supporting if you’re so inclined). They include Ajax, a home wireless security company; the AI-based grammar and writing engine Grammarly; the face-swapping app Reface; pet camera system Petcube; People AI, the sales and marketing intelligence startup; and language tutor marketplace Preply. These companies have raised funding from some of the world’s biggest VCs and one question will be how and if those relationships will be impacted with the latest developments.
Software house MacPaw, which develops Mac software and utilities, said in a blog post that while its headquarters is in Kyiv, its infrastructure is hosted on Amazon Web Services and physically located outside of Ukraine. Its payments processor, Paddle, is based in the U.K., and anticipates that “nothing is going to change” for its users. “At this moment, we’re staying strong, united, and ready to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said MacPaw in an email to TechCrunch.
One company with a presence in Ukraine declined to talk on the record to TechCrunch, citing the rapidly changing situation on the ground.
In addition to startups, there are larger tech companies that have both R&D operations out of the country as well as teams providing more localized services, ranging from content to ad sales.
For those with consumer-facing platforms like Google’s YouTube or ByteDance’s TikTok, the question will be how they are being used — or misused — with disinformation, or conversely censorship, and how the companies are handling that kind of traffic. On top of that is the question of services overall, how they are staying up and whether they are running the risk of getting shut down due to sanctions or interruptions of internet service. We’ve reached out to Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Facebook, Google, Meta and Snap for comment and will update this as and when we learn more. When reached, Microsoft declined to comment.
A few other points to note for now:
Google, by the looks of it, has around 200 people working in the country, covering both R&D for global services and localized operations. It has faced a number of issues over the years with censorship around YouTube in Russia, although that, so far, has not had an analogue in Ukraine.
Uber, which has operated in Ukraine since 2016 and is present in nine cities, paused operations within the country. Uber offered Kyiv-based employees and their immediate families temporary and voluntary relocation to other parts of Ukraine or other countries. For gig-working drivers and the riders they serve, Uber advice is to stay home.
“Our focus continues to be doing whatever we can to protect the safety of Uber riders, drivers and employees. We have a cross-functional team monitoring the situation very closely and will restore service as soon as it is safe to do so,” Uber told TechCrunch.
Lyft has also taken precautions for its Ukraine-based employees.
“Our priority is the safety and wellbeing of our team members in Ukraine. We’re providing financial support for emergency preparedness and for those who wish to temporarily relocate, increased time off and additional mental health resources. We’re closely monitoring the situation and will continue to evaluate our response as necessary,” Ashley Adams, a Lyft spokesperson, told TechCrunch. Per Reuters, Lyft is estimated to have around 60 employees in Ukraine and wrote in a December blog post that it had plans to expand its Kyiv office, which opened in April. Beyond the engineering office, though, Lyft doesn’t operate rideshare services in the country.
TikTok and its parent ByteDance typically do not disclose how many employees it has by country, and so it’s unclear how many they have in Ukraine. But they do have a very popular app — which last year was estimated to have a reach of 30% in the country, doubling over the previous year. TechCrunch chronicled last year how it emerged as a key battleground around Navalny-fueled, anti-Putin activism.
“The safety of our community and our employees is our top priority,” a spokesperson from TikTok said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We take action on content or behavior that threatens the safety of our platform, including removing content that contains harmful misinformation, and will continue to monitor and dedicate resources to the situation as it evolves.”
Facebook head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher tweeted about the actions the platform will take in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Gleicher said that Facebook established a Special Operations Center with native speakers to “closely monitor the situation and act as fast as possible.” The platform also deployed a feature in Ukraine that allows users to lock their account, meaning that those who are not a user’s friend cannot download or share their profile picture, or see posts on their timeline. This is the same strategy that Facebook used in August to try to protect users in Afghanistan. Meta also temporarily removed the ability to view and search the “Friends” list for users in Afghanistan and rolled out pop-up alerts for on Instagram with instructions about protecting their accounts. So far, those two measures haven’t been adopted for accounts in Ukraine.
Twitter is warning users in Ukraine to protect their online accounts, such as using multi-factor authentication and disabling location in tweets. It’s a sharp turnaround from 24 hours earlier, when Twitter confirmed it mistakenly suspended accounts that are sharing details about Russia’s military activities prior to the invasion.
And, internet giant Cloudflare chief executive Matthew Prince said the company had “removed all Cloudflare customer cryptographic material from servers in Ukraine,” hours after the invasion began, as part of an effort to protect customer data and communications in the event that the data center is compromised. Cloudflare opened its Kyiv data center in 2016, which remains operational according to the company’s status pages. Cloudflare provides content delivery and network security to organizations and governments.
Updated with remarks from Facebook, TikTok, Uber, and Lyft.