Ukraine mobilizes volunteer ‘IT Army,’ crypto community in war with Russia

Ukrainian leaders are sourcing power from a volunteer “IT Army,” fundraising through cryptocurrency donations and using public pleas on social media to leverage global attention as they fight an adversary adept at online attacks. 

The country’s novel digital tactics are part of an “on [the] fly” approach to respond to the Russian invasion that changed Ukrainian life overnight, Ukraine’s deputy minister of digital transformation, Alex Bornyakov, told The Hill. 

“Till the last moment, we didn’t believe it was going to be a full scale war,” he said. 

“Even the day before the war, we were just living the normal life and planning meetings, planning our actions — all like regular life. And once it started, we realized that we have to act completely differently than it was before,” he added. 

Like so many others, Bornyakov said he was woken up early in the morning three weeks ago by the sounds of explosions. Two days after the first attacks, he was evacuated from Kyiv to a safer location in Ukraine. 

From that first day, there was an outpouring of Ukrainians reaching out asking how they could help the digital ministry’s efforts, he said. 

“This is their country they wanted to help. They want to defend their homeland,” he said. 

The ministry channeled the enthusiasm of volunteers to create the IT Army, which now consists of more than 300,000 people. 

The volunteers receive different tasks and communicate through Telegram, a platform that provides end-to-end encryption messaging. 

“This is a perfect example of why encryption really matters,” said Alexandra Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“Encryption has been under attack in the U.S. and around the world for a while. It’s in the crosshairs in the public policy debates. And this moment I think is really going to help illustrate the circumstances in which secure communications really, really, really matter, and hopefully educate policymakers to be more aware of that fact,” she added. 

It’s helping to provide a way to get outside information into Russia as the Kremlin cracks down on news media sites and social media platforms. 

For example, The New York Times this week launched a dedicated channel on Telegram to provide reporting on the war from its continuous live blog. 

Getting news media outside of Russia’s state-controlled outlets to Russian civilians is part of the IT Army’s goal as well, Bornyakov said. 

“We spend a lot of effort to promote the truth among the Russian people in all possible ways over the internet so they won’t live in this bubble, so they understand what’s really going on. Because they are really in this bubble and being fed with this propaganda that we are fascists or some sort of very bad people that deserve to die, but it’s not true,” he said. 

Ukraine is also leveraging its stature within the global cryptocurrency community to fundraise for humanitarian aid programs and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 

The Ministry of Digital Transformation has raised more than $54 million through cryptocurrency, according to the official fundraising website. 

“There were a lot of people that wanted to help with crypto because in Ukraine there is a powerful blockchain community,” Bornyakov said.  

“And today crypto is playing a vital role in Ukrainian defense,” he added. 

For further efforts to fundraise through blockchain technology, the Ukrainian government is going to launch non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, of the war. Each NFT will include a news piece from a “trusted source” and a piece of art, Bornyakov said. 

The proceeds from the NFTs will go toward the same funds to support humanitarian and military efforts. 

The ministry and Ukrainian leaders broadly are also using more mainstream social media platforms to bring awareness and urge support. 

Social media has been used for roughly a decade to show destruction in war-torn areas, but the way leaders are directly “marshaling social media as a tool,” marks a difference from how the power of platforms have been used in the past, Givens said. 

“The fact that [President Volodymyr] Zelensky is broadcasting every day, using his cell phone to capture video of himself out and about and rally the troops in that manner — and doing so with a global audience in mind, not just his domestic audience in mind …. [feels] more new as opposed to just capturing the devastation,” she said. 

Ukrainian leaders are using Twitter to directly reach out to tech companies. Mykhailo Fedorov, vice prime minister of Ukraine and minister of digital transformation, tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk asking him to provide Ukraine with Starlink satellite internet stations to “address sane Russians to stand.” 

Musk followed up by sending stations, and Federov tweeted showing they had arrived. 

“At this point in the conflict, they’re using every strategy they can to try and get people’s attention and mobilize support, and doing so in a relatively transparent and relatable and accessible way I think does increase the world’s focus on those efforts,” Givens said. 

Bornyakov said the work being done on the digital front can’t be compared to the fight on the battlefield, but it’s become more important as a tool to counter Russian disinformation and cyberattacks. 

“If we lose the media support, we’re going to lose the support of our people,” he said. 

“They were trying to convince that our government is incompetent, and we don’t have to trust it. They failed,” he added. 

“And it’s due to media efforts and showing what’s really going on. Without that there would be no support from Ukrainian regular citizens. And then they can just go into any city and without any struggle, and just occupy them. So it’s really important for people to know what’s really going on.”

Tags Alex Bornyakov Blockchain Cryptocurrency Elon Musk Mykhailo Fedorov NFTs non-fungible tokens Russia-Ukraine conflict Social media Telegram Ukraine Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation

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