Shaming Apple and Texting Musk, a Ukraine Minister Uses Novel War Tactics

After war began last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine turned to Mykhailo Fedorov, a vice prime minister, for a key role.

Mr. Fedorov, 31, the youngest member of Mr. Zelensky’s cabinet, immediately took charge of a parallel prong of Ukraine’s defense against Russia. He began a campaign to rally support from multinational businesses to sunder Russia from the world economy and to cut off the country from the global internet, taking aim at everything from access to new iPhones and PlayStations to Western Union money transfers and PayPal.

To achieve Russia’s isolation, Mr. Fedorov, a former tech entrepreneur, used a mix of social media, cryptocurrencies and other digital tools. On Twitter and other social media, he pressured Apple, Google, Netflix, Intel, PayPal and others to stop doing business in Russia. He helped form a group of volunteer hackers to wreak havoc on Russian websites and online services. His ministry also set up a cryptocurrency fund that has raised more than $60 million for the Ukrainian military.

The work has made Mr. Fedorov one of Mr. Zelensky’s most visible lieutenants, deploying technology and finance as modern weapons of war. In effect, Mr. Fedorov is creating a new playbook for military conflicts that shows how an outgunned country can use the internet, crypto, digital activism and frequent posts on Twitter to help undercut a foreign aggressor.

In his first in-depth interview since the invasion began on Feb. 24, Mr. Fedorov said his goal was to create a “digital blockade” and to make life so unpleasant and inconvenient for Russian citizens that they would question the war. He praised companies that had pulled out of Russia, but said Apple, Google and others could go further with steps such as completely cutting off their app stores in the country.

A technological and business blockade, he said, “is an integral component of stopping the aggression.”

Mr. Fedorov, speaking via videoconference from an undisclosed location somewhere around Kyiv, also brushed off concerns that his actions were alienating urban Russians who might be the most likely to oppose the conflict.

“We believe that as long as Russians are silent that they are complicit to the aggression and to the killing of our people,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov’s work is not the only reason that multinational companies like Meta and McDonald’s have withdrawn from Russia, with the war’s human toll provoking horror and outrage. Economic sanctions by the United States, European Union and others have played a central role in isolating Russia.

But Peter Singer, a professor at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University, said Mr. Fedorov had been “incredibly effective” in calling for companies to rethink their Russia connections.

“No celebrity, let alone nation, has ever been more effective than Ukraine at calling out corporate brands to name and shame them into acting morally,” Mr. Singer said. “If there is such a thing as ‘cancel culture,’ the Ukrainians can claim to have honed it in war.”

In the 45-minute interview on Zoom, Mr. Fedorov, wearing a loosefitting gray fleece with black zippers, sat in front of a wood-paneled wall. He has gotten about three to four hours of sleep a night, he said, often interrupted every 30 minutes or so by alerts on the iPhone that he keeps next to his bed. He said he has been worried about his father, who has been in intensive care for the past week after a missile struck the house next door.

“I’ve brushed shoulders with the horror,” he said. “The war has come knocking on my door as well personally.”

Mr. Fedorov grew up in the small town of Vasylivka in southern Ukraine near the Dnieper River. Before going into politics, he started a digital marketing company called SMMSTUDIO that designed online advertising campaigns.

The work led him to a job in 2018 with Mr. Zelensky, then an actor who was making an unexpected run for Ukraine’s presidency. Mr. Fedorov became the campaign’s director of digital, using social media to portray Mr. Zelensky as a youthful symbol of change.

After Mr. Zelensky was elected in 2019, he appointed Mr. Fedorov, then 28, to be minister of digital transformation, putting him in charge of digitizing Ukrainian social services. Through a government app, people could pay speeding tickets or manage their taxes. Last year, Mr. Fedorov visited Silicon Valley to meet with leaders including Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Fedorov immediately pressured tech companies to pull out of Russia. He made the decision with Mr. Zelensky’s backing, he said, and the two men speak every day.

“I think this choice is as black and white as it ever gets,” Mr. Fedorov said. “It is time to take a side, either to take the side of peace or to take the side of terror and murder.”

On Feb. 25, he sent letters to Apple, Google and Netflix, asking them to restrict access to their services in Russia. Less than a week later, Apple stopped selling new iPhones and other products in Russia.

The next day, Mr. Fedorov tweeted a message to Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, asking for help in obtaining Starlink satellite internet systems that are made by Mr. Musk’s company SpaceX. The technology could help Ukrainians stay online even if Russia damaged the country’s main telecommunications infrastructure. Two days after contacting Mr. Musk, a shipment of Starlink equipment arrived in Ukraine.

Since then, Mr. Fedorov said he has periodically exchanged text messages with Mr. Musk.

Mr. Fedorov also had a call last month with Karan Bhatia, a Google vice president. Google has since made several changes, including restricting access to certain Google Maps features that Mr. Fedorov said were safety risks because they could help Russian soldiers identify crowds of people. The company has since then also suspended sales of other products and services, and, on Friday blocked access to Russian state media globally on YouTube.

Mr. Fedorov has traded emails with Nick Clegg, the head of global affairs at Meta, which is the parent of Facebook and Instagram, about the unfolding war.

Apple, Google and Meta declined to comment. Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

Public shaming has been effective, Mr. Fedorov said, because companies are “emotional as well as rational in decision making.”

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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On the ground. Russian forces, battered by the local resistance, have stepped up their bombardment across Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite imagery of a convoy north of Kyiv suggests that Russia is repositioning its forces for a renewed assault there.

A punishing measure. In a move to escalate the economic pain on Russia, President Biden called on Congress to suspend normal trade with the country, in a coordinated move with the Group of 7 and the E.U. The change that would raise tariffs for many Russian products.

Iran nuclear deal. A European Union official said that talks on reviving the 2015 deal had paused following the invasion. Russia, a signatory to the accord, has tried to use final approval of the deal as leverage to soften sanctions imposed because of the war.

Disinformation push. Russia falsely claimed that the Pentagon was financing biological weapons labs in Ukraine — a lie repeated by Chinese diplomats. The Biden administration called out both countries, saying the United States might provide cover for a potential biological or chemical weapons attack on Ukrainians by Russia.

But while many companies have halted business in Russia, more could be done, he said. Apple and Google should pull their app stores from Russia and software made by companies like SAP was also being used by scores of Russian businesses, he has noted.

In many instances, the Russian government is cutting itself off from the world, including blocking access to Twitter and Facebook. On Friday, Russian regulators said they would also restrict access to Instagram and called Meta an “extremist” organization.

Some civil society groups have questioned whether Mr. Fedorov’s tactics could have unintended consequences. “Shutdowns can be used in tyranny, not in democracy,” the Internet Protection Society, an internet freedom group in Russia, said in a statement earlier this week. “Any sanctions that disrupt access of Russian people to information only strengthen Putin’s regime.”

Mr. Fedorov said it was the only way to jolt the Russian people into action. He praised the work of Ukraine-supporting hackers who have been coordinating loosely with Ukrainian government to hit Russian targets.

“After cruise missiles started flying over my house and over houses of many other Ukrainians, and also things started exploding, we decided to go into counter attack,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov’s work is an example of Ukraine’s whatever-it-takes attitude against a larger Russian army, said Max Chernikov, a software engineer who is supporting the volunteer group known as the IT Army of Ukraine.

“He acts like every Ukrainian — doing beyond his best,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov, who has a wife and young daughter, said he remained hopeful about the war’s outcome.

“The truth is on our side,” he added. “I’m sure we’re going to win.”

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Mike Isaac contributed reporting.

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