Interview with Alex Bornyakov, Deputy Digital Minister of Ukraine: “Cryptocurrencies have been key since the beginning of the war”

From a site in Ukraine that has not been disclosed —for security reasons—, we interviewed Alex Bornyakov, Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, about the importance of technology in this war, considered the first fully digital. A Ministry that he has led since 2019, and that had to change its approach and policies from one day to the next to adapt to the invasion of Russia that they have suffered since February 24, 2022.

There are people who the first thing they do when they wake up is look at their mobile to see their WhatsApp messages, the likes on their social networks or the events of the morning. But Bornyakov was never informed of current affairs as soon as he woke up. That was for later. Now, instead, it's the first thing he thinks about every morning. In knowing what the latest news is about the war in Ukraine , his country

It is not the first time that Ukraine, specifically this Ministry, has had to take technological measures linked to Russia. In 2014, after the country ruled by Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, virtually all telecommunication companies in Ukraine were Russian-owned. When Bornyakov entered the Ministry in 2019, he began the process to disassociate himself from Russia in this regard. This measure to break the ties with Russia has become one of the most intelligent moves of this cabinet.

Since the Russian invasion began, the goal was not only to digitize all official services, but to do everything possible to fight the war in Ukraine. “We want to support people who have to leave their homes because of the war, fight against propaganda and help on the 'cyber front' because they are also trying to attack our digital infrastructure,” he summarizes. the deputy minister.

Cryptocurrencies as a transforming factor in the war in Ukraine

One of the best known initiatives was the cryptocurrency fund to obtain aid. “Ukraine's IT sector is one of the strongest in the world and the blockchain community is very important. That's why we decided to create this fund and we had immediate feedback. So far we have raised more than 60 million dollars,” he explains.

The private company Kuna has helped the Government with technical support and this public-private alliance, Bornyakov believes, has been the key to success. “If we had done everything from the Government, surely it would have been a failure. But that is why we have a very good relationship with local companies and companies from all over the world. Alliances with them help avoid problems,” he points out in the interview conducted by Zoom.

The cryptocurrency fund has been one of the most important technological measures of the Government since the Ukraine war began. Thanks to him, they have obtained more than 60 million dollars; but for the deputy minister it has served for something else: “One of the lessons is that cryptocurrencies are not just risky investments. It can help us if our national bank has problems receiving money from abroad (which happened at the beginning of the war), that can be resolved quickly”.

The Ukrainian Technological Army led by Alex Bornyakov

The goals of Alex Bornyakov's team changed practically overnight. In the last two years, the Ministry of Digital Transformation focused on turning Ukraine into a digital state. They want a modern government in which all procedures can be carried out online. They also wanted to create the largest IT hub in Eastern Europe in this country, a project called Diia City. Now they want it too, but Russia has forced them to make an impasse to focus on other things first.

It is not the first time that technology has been shown to be a key tool in a conflict, but this is the first time that the war has reached a country with such an important technological capacity as Ukraine. For this reason, this Ministry has had to take measures that had never been considered before. The cryptocurrency fund to have more resources is an example.

Another is the Telegram channel that the government has developed to create an “information technology army.” IT Army of Ukraine is an open group for all in which the government defines activities for hackers to perform on a voluntary basis. Until now, 300,000 people from Ukraine and other countries have joined this channel.

Alex Bornyakov affirms that the tasks are aimed at preventing attacks on the digital infrastructure and fighting against propaganda. However, some experts have discouraged experts from joining the “tech army” in the midst of the Ukraine war.

“They need precise information because they are losing soldiers and a lot of money due to sanctions in this war of Vladimir Putin”

“While I fully understand the sentiment behind the actions of many in this IT army, two wrongs don't make a right. Not only could it be illegal, but it risks playing into Putin's hands by allowing him to talk about 'attacks by the west'” Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey, told The Guardian.

However, the deputy minister insists that the objective of the channel pursues lawful objectives and that, in terms of disinformation, they also want the Russian population not to be a victim of propaganda. “They need accurate information because they are losing soldiers and a lot of money due to the sanctions in this war of Vladimir Putin”, emphasizes Hipertextual.

On the other hand, it stands out above all that the Ministry has no relationship with the people who help them. From Russia, it is difficult to end this group because there is no physical person or organization behind it. The government just sends out the operations that are crucial to cyber protection and someone does them. Not even they know who the hackers or experts are who help them. It is free, professional and anonymous support.

The technological they don't look the other way

The war in Ukraine has had several unexpected partners, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft or Airbnb. Technological companies have played a key role in this conflict. In the most direct way with donations such as that of Elon Musk, who has sent hundreds of Starlink antennas to ensure internet connection in areas where connectivity is not guaranteed.

PayPal has made it easier to send payments to Ukraine to financially help victims of the war and Meta is working on a tool to connect Ukrainians in need help. For example, to refugees who are in another country and need support of any kind.

In a more indirect way, big technology companies such as Apple, Google or Microsoft have been part of the blockade to Russia. “This is one of our priorities and so far about 400 companies have left Russia,” Alex Bornyakov stresses. The conversations of the Ministry of Digital Transformation with the companies have been directed to this end since the war in Ukraine began. In fact, they have been given their own term, the “digital diplomacy”.

After a war, it is difficult to know what lessons have been learned. When violence covers everything, there is little left to learn. But if the Vice Minister of Digital Transformation had to choose which lesson can be taken at a technological level, he would say that security is the most important thing.

“If your security is weak, you can lose control of the media, electricity and many other things. Even official websites can have fake news due to a hack. Cybersecurity is key.”

Alex Bornyakov

Rebuilding the Ukraine destroyed by the war, a priority for Alex Bornyakov

The war in Ukraine will be over one day and at that point Alex Bornyakov and his team will have to get on with their work. The plans they had before, however, will continue to be in the background because there will be more important needs. “We will have to restore our communications infrastructure. They have finished with that in many cities, they have bombed it and there is nothing left, everything is destroyed. We also have to rebuild new communication routes, towers, cables , internet… All this will be the priority”, he points out.

The war will end one day, and Alex Bornyakov is clear about what the next step will be: reduce taxes on key companies, cryptocurrencies and restore telecommunications

The Ministry will also bet on reducing taxes for digital and energy companies. They will continue betting, of course, on alliances based on cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

There is a lot of work ahead. And sometimes it seems that the day is missing hours. Bornyakov remembers that not so long ago he had weekends. As deputy minister, he had some political plans. Now, the horizon is different.

He gets up every morning and the first thing he does is read the news to see how the war in Ukraine is progressing. It does not separate from the mobile because these news cannot be late. “If we miss it, we can't respond to what people need,” she stresses. She is aware that something has changed because she skips the notice that the screen usage time has increased. And, if the war doesn't end soon, it will continue to increase.