Ukraine’s youngest Cabinet member knows there is more than one way to beat Russia in the war — and the tech-savvy Minister of Digital Transformation is fighting back on several virtual fronts.
From overseeing a project securing drones to the rollout of public service apps and combating Russia in the cyber sphere, Mykhailo Fedorov is defending Ukraine in ways its military cannot. And that includes in the propaganda war.
“Our information resources are under attack constantly,” Fedorov told The Hill during an exclusive interview this week. But “we are teaching Ukrainians the basic digital literacy, [and] our media are working efficiently.”
“It’s an unprecedented thing, and we are keeping Ukrainians united and unified in the information field,” he continues. ”Everything is working.”
And the millennial digital minister is not just on the defensive. Last year, he organized a vast information technology (IT) army made of about 200,000 volunteers who are engaged in cyberwarfare with Russia.
The hackers, who communicate on Telegram, target Russian infrastructure and websites to hit back against Moscow, which has waged a steady campaign of online warfare and has knocked out critical services in Ukraine.
Fedorov says this volunteer IT army has been massively successful in the effort to “distract the attention of Russian hackers from our information systems,” and has picked up lots of global attention.
“This project has a very big and bright future,” he says.
Fedorov, 32, hails from Ukraine’s southeastern Zaporizhia region, where he studied at Zaporizhzhia National University in the faculty of sociology and management.
In 2015, he founded a digital marketing startup called SMMSTUDIO, which he ran for about four years until he was elected a member of parliament.
He was tapped to lead the Ministry of Digital Transformation when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formed the department in 2019 with the goal of fully digitizing Ukraine’s public services.
But when Russia invaded in February 2022, Fedorov had to react swiftly to the new reality of war.
From the ground up, he built a digital campaign pressuring companies like Microsoft and Apple to cut off services to Russia.
Fedorov also helped shape Ukraine’s online campaign to shame Russia and call out its alleged abuses on Twitter and other social media platforms.
And he spearheaded the creation of the IT army within weeks of the invasion. Similarly, he quickly helped seal a deal with billionaire Elon Musk for the deployment of thousands of Starlink satellites, which have become the communication backbone of Ukraine’s military.
Fedorov has plenty of support. He pointed to startup tech companies that are innovating with military tech and beating Russia with new hardware and software at every move.
In a February piece with the Atlantic Council, Fedorov wrote that military tech “offers the best solutions to the threats created by Russia’s invasion” and is the most crucial component of modern warfare.
Fedorov says Ukraine will prevail because of its savvy approach to innovation.
“Ukrainians are both courageous at the battlefield and in the development of economy,” he told The Hill, and “we have the attention from all over the world.”
As Ukraine has remained largely triumphant in the war, Fedorov is moving up the ladder in Kyiv. Last month he was appointed as deputy prime minister of Innovation, Education, Science and Technology Development.
Possibly more important than fighting Russia, Fedorov also manages the crucial link between the federal government and the Ukrainian people across several digital platforms.
The roots of this effort can be found in a web portal and phone app called Diia, which around 19 million Ukrainian citizens use to quickly and easily access public services. Ukrainians are using it to get information about Russian movements, make payments or secure loans for damaged property, with more services rolling out all the time.
This fits neatly within Fedorov’s mission to make life safer and easier for citizens through accessible digital tools — whether it’s a pandemic or a war.
“It’s important to understand that Ukrainians are a very digital nation,” he says. “This is the opportunity to respond quickly to the problems which emerge [and] this is why the government should function.”
“An opportunity to interact with the citizen in several clicks is fundamental during any crisis,” he adds. “We saw it during COVID. And during the full-scale invasion, confirmed again.”
Fedorov has also employed an air raid alert app that warns Ukrainians of an incoming Russian missile or drone strike. Since October, Moscow has frequently attacked Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.
One feature of the app includes Mark Hamill, the legendary “Star Wars” actor who portrayed Luke Skywalker, warning residents of incoming strikes.
“He’s an active ambassador,” Fedorov says of Hamill. “We value his help and investment because he’s really a celebrity. He resembles and embodies the person from the future.”
United24 is another major initiative for Ukraine. Fedorov says he has raised more than $320 million from online donations across the world supporting Ukraine’s military, medical field or reconstruction efforts.
Through a website, donors to the initiative get to choose which category they want to put money toward. Most of the funds are being used to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces, according to Fedorov, followed by medical aid and then reconstruction.
Another major part of the fundraising initiative is the Army of Drones project — which Hamill is also the face of — and Fedorov said that effort has resulted in more than 3,000 drones for the Ukrainian military. At the same time, Ukraine is building up its domestic production of drones, he says.
When the dust settles, Ukraine will have to rebuild a war-torn country.
Kyiv will need at least $1.8 billion to repair its telecommunications infrastructure, according to a December United Nations report.
Fedorov is working on this issue, too, and says he’s a supporter of Rise Ukraine, an international coalition dedicated to creating a digital reconstruction management system that keeps track of projects and provides accountability and trust to stamp out corruption and address potential misuse of funds.
“That is why digitization is incredibly important here. It’s the foundation for this transparency and anti-corruption,” he said.
“We are pitching the recovery of Ukraine because we need to reconstruct better than it used to be.”