Event | Ukraine has the high ground on the cyber front – minister
The Kremlin underestimated Kyiv.
Since the start of its invasion in late February, Russia has launched over 3,000 malicious web attacks on Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. But none succeeded in creating a significant breach of Ukrainian cyber defenses, according to Oleksandr Bornyakov, Ukraine's deputy minister of digital transformation.
A misplaced sense of hubris, Bornyakov asserted, caused Kremlin planners to believe Russian troops could achieve a lightning victory in Ukraine, occupying Kyiv within three days of the start of the invasion. But following weeks of intense resistance by Ukrainian forces around Kyiv, the Russian advance on the Ukrainian capital was repulsed.
“The Russians underestimated us,” Bornyakov said, speaking at a video roundtable this month sponsored by the Picker Center at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs. “They were thinking they would destroy us on the cyber front also in three days. But, in fact, they were not able to penetrate or take over any Ukrainian part of its digital infrastructure.”
In previous comments at a forum hosted by the Wall Street Journal, Bornyakov described how in the early days of the invasion, Ukraine mobilized about 200,000 IT specialists to launch counter-attacks against Russian targets. Ukraine’s IT army recorded a series of successes, including taking down the Kremlin’s official website and disrupting the Russian government’s digital services. “It turns out, they were not ready” for cyberwarfare, Bornaykov said.
Despite the war, Ukraine has been able to maintain cellular and internet service. The donation of thousands of Starlink satellite units have helped minimize disruption to Ukrainian digital networks, Bornyakov said. The Starlink system is operated by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Meanwhile, Bornyakov reported, cell service providers in Ukraine have enabled consistent communication by jointly agreeing to waive roaming fees: In areas where one provider has experienced damage to infrastructure, it is now easy for users to switch to another provider without any penalties.
The government also is continuing to operate the Diya App, which Bornyakov described as putting “government into a smartphone” for Ukrainian citizens. The app, which launched in 2020, enables citizens to access a wide range of government services, eliminating the need to stand in lines while significantly reducing instances of petty corruption.
Since the start of the war, officials have adapted the app to help those displaced by the fighting. Users can upload photos of damaged property and register for expedited assistance, Bornyakov said.
Individuals likewise can use the app to identify the safest evacuation routes out of war zones, as well as get news updates about the fighting. Diya is also serving a grimmer purpose; citizens can upload visual evidence of potential war crimes committed by Russian forces to a Ukrainian government database.
Diya is additionally proving useful as a crowd-funding tool. The Ministry of Digital Transformation reported that over 178,000 individuals have donated over $6 million via the app. The donations are helping provide Ukrainian forces with body armor and other equipment.
Bornyakov also reported that the Ukrainian government is developing alternative digital means of raising funds for Ukraine’s war effort. One major initiative, dubbed Aid for Ukraine, has received over $60 million in cryptocurrency donations, including $2.5 million worth from Vitalik Buterin, a co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain. About $3.8 million in such donations have been used to purchase over 400,000 military ration packs. Another initiative is enabling Ukraine to receive funds from the sale of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. The government has also struck a deal with Etsy to help Ukrainians, including refugees and displaced persons, earn on the e-commerce platform.