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Digital Frontlines: Ukraine’s Technological Counteroffensive

Dr. James Gough is a 2022 McCain Global Leader from the United Kingdom and a former military and aid doctor, having served with the British Army and the ICRC in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Bangladesh. He is currently the chief impact officer at multi-national scale up Infinite Lambda and the founder and CEO of One Shot Immersive, a social venture providing life-saving educational technology for humanitarian crises, conflict, and disaster.

Dr. Mariia Levchenko is a 2022 McCain Global Leader from Ukraine and the European Director of Outreach and Training at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding and the Executive Director and Founder of the Ukrainian NGO “Youth for Global Progress.” 

In 2023, Ukraine launched its much anticipated and over-hyped counteroffensive against Russia. Allies watched on expectantly, hoping for a breakthrough, knowing full well Ukraine did not have everything it needed (and asked for). True enough, a miracle did not occur.

On the contrary, a critical chapter of Ukraine’s counteroffensive unfolded with the severe cyberattack on Kyivstar, the country’s largest telecom provider. The December 2023 assault by Russian hackers marked a pivotal moment in digital warfare, emphasizing the urgent need for robust cybersecurity in modern conflict zones.

The hackers wiped out the core network systems, leaving millions of subscribers without essential communication services. The aftermath of this cyber onslaught laid bare the disruption it can cause, significantly impacting civilian life and posing a dire threat to national security.

This incident not only reiterates the evolving nature of warfare, but it accentuates the key role of technology in both offense and defense, showing just how critical a strategic recalibration and bolstering of Ukraine’s technological counteroffensive efforts are.

So far, Ukraine’s digital enablement has been instrumental not just in the war effort but in keeping people safe, protecting freedom of movement, stabilizing the economy, and securing international investment.

What Ukraine needs in 2024 is a strategy that integrates technological superiority as a cornerstone of its defense and offense –  a technological counter-counteroffensive led by global tech businesses.

Most global tech giants have clearly stated their allegiance through action. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have stepped up to support Ukraine, and their behavior is inevitably being seen in a geopolitical context.

However, the evolving role of social media platforms and digital content creators in shaping public sentiment cannot be overlooked. While platforms like Facebook and X have the potential to rally support for Ukraine, they have also been instrumental in propagating misleading information, complicating the understanding of the war.

This misuse of digital platforms does not boil down to developing a more vigilant approach to combating false narratives. Instead, strategic digital communication strategies, countering false narratives while promoting fact-checking, and transparency have never been more critical.

This is not merely about countering viral misinformation, but about fostering a well-informed and critically thinking public that can see beyond sensationalism and understand the deeper nuances of Ukraine’s situation.

The responsibility for this needs to sit directly with the tech companies themselves. Action in this area would place an outsized impact and positive influence on the outcomes of this war.

Moreover, many of the tech giants are largely ineffective without partners. They rely on a tech ecosystem that can optimize their services, as well as on experts who deeply understand the context of the environment.

Under normal circumstances, this ecosystem is organically created and can become significant fuel for national economies. Unfortunately, despite being seen prior to the war as a technology superpower, Ukraine’s ecosystem has been vastly diminished.

Bandwidth is stretched, and the supply of talent is significantly reduced. This creates an urgent need for a strategic revival of Ukraine’s technological landscape that emphasizes rebuilding and reinforcing the ecosystem. International collaboration, both in expertise and investment, is crucial in this regard.

The involvement of tech giants and their partners in educational and training programs could play a pivotal role in rebuilding Ukraine’s tech workforce, ensuring a steady flow of skilled professionals, essential for the nation’s technological resurgence.

It is just as vital, however, for smaller, more agile companies to be on the ground as well. The governments of NATO member states have the key responsibility to support said companies and incentivize their involvement by provisioning the tools and access they need to enter a country at war, secure funding, and conduct business that will keep driving innovation.

Such a technology-driven approach is more than a tactical adjustment. Placing emphasis on cybersecurity, communication infrastructure, medtech, and inevitably, warfare technology has the potential to reshape battlefield dynamics.

Empowering local tech entrepreneurs and start-ups through international collaborations and facilitating access to investment will catalyze a surge in indigenous technological advancements, reinforcing Ukraine’s long-term resilience and self-sufficiency.

This year requires a more hawkish attitude to the ongoing war. We are at a juncture where technology can turn the tides of war. Ukraine needs a paradigm shift, where technology becomes a key player in shaping the future of warfare and defense strategies. This phase will not demand the tugging of heartstrings, but direct and deliberate pragmatism to once again establish business entities in Ukraine.

This will provide government, civil society, and innovative Ukrainian start-ups with the confidence and technological firepower to fight on. The presence of international businesses in Ukraine is more than a symbol of support; it is a necessary step towards rebuilding the nation and empowering it with the technological prowess needed to withstand and overcome the challenges it faces.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Dr. James Gough and Dr. Mariia Levchenko, 2022 McCain Global Leaders
Publish Date
April 17, 2024