Ukraine’s Mykhailo Fedorov talks about corporate sanctions and running a government during wartime

An interview with the country's vice prime minister and minister of Digital Transformation

The Russian army started invading Ukraine three weeks ago. And the conflict has been multifaceted from day one. In addition to the ground war, the Ukrainian government quickly reacted on the digital front. Representatives asked for cryptocurrency donations, called out tech companies so that they would suspend sales and services in Russia and organized a digital resistance.

One of the public figures that embody the government’s reaction to the Russian invasion is Mykhailo Fedorov. In 2019, he became Ukraine’s first minister of Digital Transformation at the age of 28. He is also the vice prime minister of Ukraine. The country’s deputy minister for Digital Transformation Oleksandr (Alex) Bornyakov has also played an important part in Ukraine’s government — TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden interviewed Bornyakov last week.

“Our vision with President Zelensky — before the war — was to build the world’s most convenient country in terms of digitally available public services,” Mykhailo Fedorov said in an interview with TechCrunch earlier today.

While many of those projects are currently on hold, the Ukrainian government already sees the benefits of its digital transformation efforts. Fedorov is also very active on the digital diplomacy front. He is well aware that Big Tech companies have become quite powerful when it comes to international relations. That’s why he is doing whatever he can to have them on Ukraine’s side.

In a wide-ranging interview on Zoom and with the help of a translator, Fedorov also shared some insights about what it’s like to participate in a government during wartime. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

TechCrunch: Where are you right now? Can you tell us about your current personal situation?

Mykhailo Fedorov: I’m at the very center of action. I can’t quite give you a geolocation for security reasons but let me assure you we stay in touch with the president’s team 24/7 about all the projects.

I’m sure your daily life is very different right now from what it was a couple of months ago. Can you tell us about your day-to-day job and role during the war against Russia?

We are a very young ministry. We have been created by President Zelensky when he was elected to implement some crucial parts of his program. Before the election I was the head of his digital campaign. After he got elected, we joined forces to implement our shared vision of a digital country.

And our vision with President Zelensky — before the war — was to build the world’s most convenient country in terms of digitally available public services. And our goal was to create a government where services would be available in a double tap. They would be semi-automated with as little interference with public officials as possible. In other words, we tried to be more resemblant of an Uber than a government as you would expect it to be.

Is there any way you can leverage those digital public services to help Ukrainians during this time of crisis?

We have created something like a factory to launch public services. That’s enabled by our app which has 15 million users. And it’s also enabled by the interactions of all of the government-run databases that we’ve been able to implement through this period of time, and also by our management structure, which has been fine-tuned to basically launch new services and provide these things.

For example, during wartime, we’ve been able to launch such services as cash payouts to people who have been forced to resettle from areas that were badly affected by combat. Also, we’ve been able to embed free public television and free radio. We also added the possibility to raise money for the army through official channels.

We have services that allow us to track and report on the enemy movements as well. It’s basically crowdsourced intelligence, and we’ve been able to launch that in just a couple of days since the war erupted.

Because our internal ID is a very specific document and not everybody has it. But during war time, we’ve been able to launch an additional document that has all of the vital information for internal mobility and getting public services no matter who you are and where you are and what your status is. We’re also working on a service to basically provide an inventory of your property if it has been damaged or destroyed by the war for future processes.

These services imply that you can get a good connection to internet services where you are right now. What’s the current status of both cellular and landline connectivity?

I would say that we are very stable and confident at the moment because of our telecom industry. I think they are real heroes because they work around the clock. And whenever there’s an outage, they go out and fix it.

So we are able to maintain stable internet connectivity throughout most of the country. We also have the largest number of Starlink terminals anywhere in the EU.

What’s the plan for sensitive data that you hold from both the army and the government? Is data based in Ukraine right now? And do you have plans to relocate data to foreign countries to prepare for a worst case scenario?

Building a digital state increases your exposure, your surface of attack, which means that we have been always very mindful and very serious about cybersecurity. Also, as we we have been building our digital state, we have been constantly targeted by the Russian Federation with cyber attacks.

I think that, in the future, governments will resemble tech companies, not classical governments. Mykhailo Fedorov

Without elaborating, I would like to say that our data is safe. We have backups. We have means to ensure consistency and safety of the data. This means that our services will remain reliable and available for Ukrainian citizens no matter what happens.

I want to change the topic and talk about corporate sanctions against Russia, because you’ve been calling out companies on Twitter and in media outlets saying that companies from Europe and North America should suspend sales in Russia right now. Where does this idea come from and do you think it’s effective?

We call this project digital blockade. And we believe that this is a very crucial component to winning this war. And I think that, in the future, governments will resemble tech companies, not classical governments.

Digital platforms provide some vital services. They have become so embedded into the fabric of society. Once you start removing these services from the aggressor, one by one, you actually damage their fabric of society and you make it very uncomfortable for them to go along with their daily lives.

We’d like to think of this as a completely new and unexplored battlefield. And this is a complementary measure to sanctions which we expect is going to push the development of Russia back decades.

When you create these unfavorable conditions in Russia, you’re likely to cause the tech talent to move elsewhere. Mykhailo Fedorov

I also think that high-tech businesses create tremendous added value. And that’s why Tesla is worth more than Gazprom. People who create this added value, the tech talent, they’re actually very mobile and nomadic. When you create these unfavorable conditions in Russia, you’re likely to cause the tech talent to move elsewhere.

This is why we are committed to making this digital blockade as thorough and as comprehensive as we can. Up until the moment when Russian tanks and soldiers leave our country and stop killing our people.

Are there some companies that haven’t done enough in your opinion and should do more to suspend sales and stop doing business in Russia?

I think one company I’d particularly like to call out is SAP. It’s a German company that provides ERP to banks and major enterprises. Basically, they contribute to the aggressive war by providing IT infrastructure to Russian companies and also by paying taxes in Russia. Thus, they support the army that is murdering Ukrainian nationals and civilians.

Can you talk about the tech industry and tech community in Ukraine right now? Because obviously we tend to cover a lot of what’s happening in the tech community and we would like to know how tech talent in Ukraine is reacting right now.

There are about 300,000 tech talent in Ukraine. Most of these international companies have been able to stabilize their operations and ensure business continuity in Ukraine. Even though it’s been challenging but most of them are managing to do it.

We try to cater to the needs of our tech companies by providing them with broadband internet, with safe locations, with some tax stimulus, as well as with mobility. So basically, we aim to be their one-stop shop — should they have problems.

Yesterday, a report came out saying that the Ukrainian army has been using Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology. Can you tell us more about this partnership with Clearview AI?

I would say that this project is currently in very early development. I would not be in a position to comment on the progress but once we have results I would be glad to share results.

What kind of use cases do you have in mind when leveraging Clearview AI?

I would start off by saying that most of these use cases would not be public, not something that we’d be able to share publicly.

But something that I can just give you a sneak peek would be our work with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We would be trying to identify Russian forces who have been killed or taken prisoner in Ukraine. As you know, the Russian government starts to deny their presence, send them without documents, etc.

Another one would be checking people who cross our roadblocks. Another one would be looking for missing persons.

I want to ask you about cryptocurrency donations as well. Can you give us an update on your strategy when it comes to cryptocurrencies?

As of now, we have been able to raise $55 million. And all of that has been directed toward the needs of the Ukrainian army.

We are also trying to become a crypto friendly country. I can even give you some specifics. The Parliament has adopted a law on virtual assets. I think the president is about to sign it into law in a matter of days. So we strive to be as friendly to virtual assets as possible. And we are continuing this effort during war time as well.

You talked about passing a new law on cryptocurrencies in Ukraine. How does it work tight now as a government member? How do you pass new laws and how do you work as a team with the rest of the government?

That’s an excellent question. During wartime our government is working in overdrive mode basically. We’re working 24/7 — no weekends. While our cabinet meetings were held weekly before the war now they’re held daily.

I’d like to say thank you to the entire tech community because I believe that the tech community has chosen our side. Mykhailo Fedorov

Just like the brave servicemen and women in our armed forces are defending our country day and night without any weekends or holidays. We’re doing likewise.

We are working on the military front; we are working on the tech front. We are also working on the economic front. And our government has been working especially hard to liberalize the economy and remove all hurdles, roadblocks and bottlenecks in our economy. We are simplifying tax rules. We are opening up our customs and — gee — we’re even trying to develop our country economically despite the war.

I think I’ve asked everything I wanted to know about the current state. If you’re willing we can talk regularly every week or every couple of weeks to share an update. But for now, I want to thank you for your answers.

Sure I’d like to organize a follow-up call. And I’d like to also just say a few words in conclusion, if you could put those in your article.

I’d like to say thank you to the entire tech community because I believe that the tech community has chosen our side, which is obviously the side of good. We can feel it with our hearts and we can feel it by the actions of the tech community, and we are very grateful for that.