Valeriya Ionan, a deputy minister at Ukraine’s Ministry for Digital Transformation, was breastfeeding her two-month-old son Mars when the first explosions boomed over Kyiv in the early hours of February 24. “I didn’t get at first what was happening,” she says. Cold truth soon dawned: Russia was invading Ukraine.
Ionan, a 31-year-old MBA who previously worked in marketing, hastily set up a call with other leaders at Ukraine’s digital ministry. The department, staffed by tech-savvy millennials and led by Mykhailo Fedorov, a 31-year-old founder of a digital marketing startup, was established to digitize government services and boost Ukraine’s tech industry. Now it had to figure out what digital bureaucrats can offer in wartime.
The projects the ministry came up with have made it a linchpin of Ukraine’s fight against Russia—and the country’s broad support among world leaders and tech CEOs. Within three days of the first missiles falling on Kyiv, Federov and his staff launched a public campaign to pressure US tech giants to cut off Russia, began accepting cryptocurrency donations to support Ukraine’s military, secured access to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service, and began recruiting a volunteer “IT Army” to hack Russian targets. More recent projects include a chatbot for citizens to submit images or videos of Russian troop movements. “We have restructured the Ministry of Digital Transformation into a clear military organization,” says Anton Melnyk, an adviser to the department.
Most companies publicly targeted by Fedorov, including Apple, Google, and Facebook’s parent company Meta, have now shut down operations in Russia, restricted Russian government accounts, or halted sales in the country. Apple, Google, and Facebook did not respond to requests to comment. Crypto donations to Ukraine reached about $100 million last week, and Musk has shipped two batches of satellite internet receivers to patch connectivity gaps. The successes of the ministry’s pivot still leave one larger question unanswered—as Russia’s forces keep advancing, will these clever digital defense projects matter?
Comedian turned politician Volodymyr Zelensky handed Fedorov the newly-created Ministry for Digital Transformation in August 2019, shortly after the entrepreneur helped him win the presidential election with a slick digital campaign. Fedorov was charged with delivering on a vision for easy-to-use online government services Zelensky called “the state in a smartphone.” “He [Fedorov] was this young technocrat, from the business side of the digital sector, and a lot of people were really skeptical,” Tanya Lokot, an associate professor in Digital Media and Society at Dublin City University. “Many of the young officials Zelensky appointed didn’t have much experience of actual governance, or of being in government.” Fedorov declined an interview request.
Fedorov, who also serves as Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, tapped the country’s thriving tech scene to staff his ministry. By hiring founders, marketers, social media experts, and computer programmers, he created a department unlike any other in Ukraine’s government. “There were no old people, and lots of businesspeople,” says Max Semenchuk, a blockchain entrepreneur who works as an adviser to the ministry.
The ministry’s staff, who sometimes wore matching hoodies as they worked in the government’s western Kyiv offices, came to think of themselves as a formidable unit of “freaks” inside the government machine, says Mstyslav Banik, the ministry’s head of e-services development, who has known Fedorov since they both worked in digital marketing. In a startup or big corporation their obsession with speed and leveraging the internet would seem unsurprising; inside the government bureaucracy it was a revolution.