Weeks after Russia invaded, Ukraine’s youngest cabinet minister launched a complaint to the Chinese drone company DJI, claiming that Russia’s military was using its popular technology to target missile attacks.
DJI has long attempted to keep an arms-length from geopolitics, especially as China maintains a pro-Kremlin lean during the war in Ukraine. But the company responded within hours, offering to attempt to block drone flights by installing a geofence throughout the country. With a single provocative tweet, Fedorov had notched another victory.
“Following these attacks, you would get a growing and a burning sense of injustice and a sense of just preservation of yourself, your nation and your freedom,” he said through an interpreter during an exclusive Zoom interview with The Washington Post. “This sense will be something that propels you to fight for your very existence as a nation.”
With such shrewd online maneuvers, the deputy prime minister has emerged as one of Ukraine’s most visible leaders, a digital savant marshaling global tech companies and local resources in a conflict he has begun to call “World Cyberwar I.” Thanks to his office, Ukraine boasts a formidable offensive online, even as its forces play defense on the ground.
But while Fedorov gained fame using his Twitter as a cannon to pressure Apple, Facebook and other companies to build a “digital blockade” against Russia, his tactics now are evolving into a robust behind-the scenes offensive as the war enters its second month.
In recent weeks, his ministry has embarked on an extensive outreach campaign, sending more than 4,000 requests to companies, governments and other organizations, each one personally signed by Fedorov. His office is in touch with thousands of CEOs of smaller businesses, he said. And as American companies take steps to limit business in Russia amid public pressure and sanctions, Fedorov’s team is focusing on an unlikely ally: large Chinese companies, like DJI and Alipay — Russia’s best hope for blunting the impact of broad economic sanctions leveraged by the West.
At the age of 31, Fedorov transformed into a wartime minister overnight when Russian tanks advanced into Ukraine on Feb. 24. Having run the innovative digital campaign broadly credited with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise win, Fedorov is turning his marketing skills toward winning the hearts and minds of the world.
His once-bureaucratic office, staffed by a team of tech-loving civil servants, has been fully reinvented as a digital war machine. Sending messages on Twitter and Telegram, his ministry is recruiting an “IT army” to stave off Russian cyberattacks and fight digital battles. Fedorov’s ministry built apps to deliver government services, and he and his team have quickly reworked them to respond to the grim toll of war: A tool used in peacetime for registering cars and accessing other government documents now allows displaced Ukrainians to get relocation funds and track the movements of Russian troops. All the while, Fedorov’s social media megaphone keeps the attention of his nearly 300,000 Twitter followers on the carnage in Ukraine.
Wearing a plain black T-shirt and smartwatch, Fedorov spoke to The Post from an undisclosed location, due to security concerns. He appeared upbeat, at times smiling as he mentioned his country’s successes, then shifting to a solemn tone as he reflected on the toll of Russian attacks. He sleeps four hours a night, calling the odd nights when he catches five hours of rest a “luxury.”
But this work is the only path forward, Fedorov said, explaining that he cannot imagine his life outside of a “free Ukraine.”
His early pressure campaigns have led some of the country’s most notable (and public) wins, a motivating force for Fedorov during a grueling conflict that has left members of his family injured. Major U.S. businesses including Microsoft, Amazon and Apple have taken steps to limit the sales of new products in Russia. Texting with Elon Musk, Fedorov was instrumental in bringing thousands of Starlink satellites to Ukraine — including one he used to connect to the Internet during his interview with The Post.
In a recent victory, PayPal announced it would allow Ukrainians to receive payments on its services after multiple discussions with his team and some public pressure on Twitter.
He has divided his ministry up into smaller teams, each focused on different priorities, to help manage the broad outreach to companies — including to roughly 500 tech companies. He has sent so many letters at this point that he can’t keep track of who the ministry has proactively contacted. Fedorov couldn’t remember, for instance, if he had sent a letter to Clearview AI before the company announced it was providing facial recognition software to Ukraine during the war.
Fedorov’s tactics have not been without controversy. Initial calls for companies to pull services from Russia were met with broad criticism from businesses and Internet freedom experts alike. “Limiting Russian people’s access to independent information will leave them with only state propaganda, which is currently inciting them to war with Ukraine,” Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel of the Internet freedom nonprofit Access Now, told The Post.
As the Kremlin seeks to muffle independent news about the war and push state propaganda downplaying its invasion into Ukraine, many experts view these tech services as an essential means for ordinary Russians to understand the war. But Fedorov stands by his efforts to cut Russia off from these services, arguing that such deprivation will force citizens to demand a resolution.
“There’s going to be a tipping point when most of these people realize that there’s something wrong with their government, something wrong with their president and something wrong with the situation, and they’re going to go out and take action and stop the war,” he said.
Even with all the new responsibilities, he remains committed to his ordinary government work and deeply optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects in battle. He spoke frequently about his hopes for peacetime, calling for Facebook and YouTube to open new tech offices in Ukraine “after this is over.” He is excited about an ongoing census project, enabled by Apple technology, which he intends to complete on schedule.
Facebook and YouTube did not immediately respond to requests for comment. DJI spokesman Curran Daly said in a statement that the company “does not support any use of our products that harms people’s lives.”
“We have taken and will continue to take action against what we consider the wrongful use of our technology,” he said.
But the war has forced Fedorov to take on a new slate of responsibilities, including recruiting an army of IT volunteers to aid Ukraine’s efforts to disrupt major Russian websites. Fedorov says that the ministry now has a “vast array of tools at our disposal” and that the volunteers of various skill sets are working “in a very coordinated manner” to disrupt Russia online.
“I think that their cyber toll is going to grow until their tanks finally leave Ukraine and stop killing Ukrainians,” he said.
Cybersecurity experts are split on whether volunteers are justified in launching offensive cyberattacks against Russia, The Post has reported.
Fedorov said the Ukrainian government has been building up its cyberweapons since before the war, saying the country has been “under constant attacks” from Russia during his 2½ years as digital minister. But the war has forced a change in strategy.
“When tanks started rolling in, when planes started dropping bombs and cruise missiles started blowing up our houses, we realized that we have to go on a counteroffensive,” he said.
The digital services that Fedorov’s team pioneered in peacetime — designed to ease communication between citizens and the government — have proved equally useful in war. Previously, people could access their passports through a government app, called Diia. Now, that app helps users access emergency funds and provide personal identification documents that they may have lost amid Russian shelling. Fedorov says his team is building a function to catalogue the damage the war has done to their homes and other property, so they can be reimbursed in the future.
With a background in digital marketing and experience managing Zelensky’s digital campaign, Fedorov has also been instrumental in keeping the war prominent in social media feeds around the world. On his Telegram and Instagram pages, he has shared images of wounded children and even a video showing simulated attacks on major landmarks in Poland, suggesting the impacts of the war could soon be felt beyond Ukraine.
“Today it’s Ukraine, tomorrow it will be the whole of Europe,” he wrote on Telegram, captioning the video. “Russia will stop at nothing.”
During the interview, he called the ongoing weeks-long international support for Ukraine online “unprecedented,” adding that he can “actually feel” the support of the Western community through sanctions and beyond.
“These are the things that continue driving us in our fight against one of the most powerful armies in the world,” he said.