“We are the first in the world to introduce this new warfare. And it’s powerful, yet simple at the same time,” he told me. “It’s impossible to disrupt it or break it down.”
When we spoke, Bornyakov had been evacuated from Kyiv along with other members of the government and could not disclose his location. He hadn’t slept in days. Even as his country suffers unspeakable damage and casualties, he sounded resilient and confident that the Ukrainian government’s efforts over the past several years have strengthened the country’s position against Russia on the digital battlefield. But we also talked about whether Ukraine’s infrastructure will be able to withstand increasingly aggressive Russian cyberattacks, as well as the thornier challenge of penetrating Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s disinformation campaign to sell his own citizens on the invasion. Here, Bornyakov is less optimistic, offering personal stories about his family in Russia as evidence that Putin’s falsehoods are shaping Russian public opinion.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Elise Labott: Thanks for taking some time. How are you doing?
Alex Bornyakov: We’re holding up. We are not living any more like regular people. I don’t have a weekend. It’s 24/7. This has all been terrible and tough, but we’re trying to stay positive.
EL: Can you say where you are?
AB: We were evacuated from Kyiv, but I can’t disclose my location at this point. Even here, we sometimes hear sirens, and we have to go to a shelter.
EL: How are communications channels holding up in Ukraine?
AB: Generally, throughout the country, the communication is pretty stable. And it was actually quite good during the first days of the war because I think the invaders had this vision that they would just walk into the cities, and people would be throwing flowers, and they would just win. And there would be this great picture of — and I quote — “liberating” Ukrainian cities. But they didn’t think that when you conduct a war, you shut down the enemy’s communication infrastructure. They didn’t even bother with that.
When the war first hit, it was 5 in the morning. I was woken up by explosions. My first thought was that we need some communication channel, because they’re going to just ruin it all. But after a couple of hours, by 9, everything was working. We were getting our news, and everything was stable. We could communicate with each other. We could actually organize our actions, and I think this was a huge miscalculation for their side because this gave us some time.
But even though stable, it’s still pretty bad. Many people are trying to get in touch with each other and exchange a lot of information and spread it — so this is overloading our tech infrastructure. But it works in the war zone. We are able to reach out to different parts of Ukraine. There haven’t been any huge gaps or failures.
EL: What are your contingency plans for communications if Russia launches a huge attack on Ukraine’s communications infrastructure?
AB: I can’t talk about that. But we do have contingency plans.
EL: Ukraine has been the target of Russian cyberattacks for years. So, you have been working on improving cybersecurity for some time, right?
AB: Yes, since 2014 [after Russia seized Crimea]. Before this, major communications and cell companies in Ukraine were owned by Russians. One major company was purely Russian-owned, and it was sold to Vodafone. Another was Kyivstar, a major communications company that Russians owned a huge share of. So, a process started to abandon Russian-owned infrastructure. I joined the Ministry of Digital Transformation in 2019. One of their ministry’s goals was to cover 95 percent of Ukrainian territory with high-speed broadband internet. So, of course, we did a lot to completely isolate ourselves from Russian equipment, ties, everything. And well, that was a smart move.
EL: And you’ve also worked on developing Ukraine’s tech sector. There are a lot of tech companies working in Ukraine.
AB: We have the Diia City initiative. It is one of our major projects in the ministry to attract tech companies to Ukraine. We introduced special legal frameworks for international IT companies to incorporate here, and we offer the lowest taxes in the region. Unfortunately, we haven’t had enough time to ramp it up, but I think we were going to come back to this project very soon.
EL: It seems like you are getting a lot of help from the tech companies now with the war.
AB: Yeah, they are really helping. There are a lot of volunteers, startups, established companies that work in cybersecurity and are sharing their products with us. I always say to everyone, Russia didn’t start fighting us a week ago. They’ve been trying to disrupt our infrastructure for, like, eight years. And we can be immune to this because the cybersecurity became so advanced in Ukraine because of Russia’s [previous] attacks. But right now, we do have [extra] demand for such services, equipment, experience and everything, and everyone has really been very helpful.
EL: Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has given Ukraine his Starlink satellite internet terminals. How did you get in touch with him, and has the Starlink been helpful in keeping the internet up?
AB: Well, this was really a new-age connection. We didn’t have any way to really get in touch with him. There was an attempt made about six months ago, but there was no success through official channels or through different people who know him. What happened is that Myko [Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation] tagged him on Twitter. And he responded. It was just amazing. And we really appreciate his response. I take it very seriously because some of the cities were surrounded, and the only way to communicate there was with satellites. Russians are not really experts in that technology. So, their blocking systems are not working on Elon’s satellite.
EL: Tell me about the IT Army of Ukraine, this group of hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are now fighting a digital war against Russia, in collaboration with the Ukrainian government.
AB: Well, it’s really fascinating: We are the first in the world to introduce this new warfare. And it’s powerful, yet simple at the same time. And I think it was possible in Ukraine because, first, we had this very developed IT industry with these cybersecurity companies and a lot of talented engineers. The second aspect is the willingness of people who wanted to defend their home, and they wanted to do something. So, we just channeled this energy.
When the war started, we got an enormous amount of requests asking, “How can we help you fight this Russian aggression?” All of these communications were overwhelming. And we have a lot of things to do, so we don’t have time to manage them. So Myko said, “Listen, we need to just channel them. Let’s make a Telegram channel. Let’s invite them and give them tasks to execute.” And that’s what we did. The Telegram channel now has more than 300,000 people.
EL: You just give them the targets? If you aren’t managing them, how do you maintain control over such a grassroots effort?
AB: This is what is really amazing about it. We don’t have a chain of command or any structure at all. So, [Russia] can’t fight it. It’s impossible to disrupt it or break it down. You can’t bomb it or cut off connections or take down a top person — because there is no top person. It’s just a group of people throughout Ukraine and outside Ukraine who have resources. We don’t have any evidence of this, but we think some of them are organizations. We just lay out what we think is crucial and what we want them to do. And they just do it. There is no personal contact with them.
EL: Well, that can be a blessing and a curse, right? If you aren’t vetting them, how do you make sure there is no Russian infiltration?
AB: The architecture of this thing is designed so it’s not possible to infiltrate it. I mean, how can you infiltrate a distributed group of people? It’s impossible. We don’t need to be afraid of spies or infiltration because we know what our goals are, and we just tell people what to do. You can’t break the chain of command because there is none, and it’s immediately spreading.
EL: It is a youth-led movement?
AB: Yes, yes. Most of them are under 30 years old.
EL: They seem to have had some success taking down Russian banks and other sites, at least temporarily. Do you have bigger Russian targets in your sights?
AB: Yeah, but we will see what happens. So far, our actions are proving efficient. I would like to point out that we are defending ourselves. The Russian are attacking our infrastructure. So, we decided to fight back because if they are busy defending themselves, they are not going to have the ability to attack us. That was one of the reasons behind this idea — because, as I said, we are being overwhelmed with offers of assistance.
EL: President Alexander Lukashenko has been supporting Putin, and Russian troops are operating from Belarus. Do you consider Belarus a target?
AB: I can’t talk about it. It’s a complex situation.
EL: Are you worried that you can take this too far — that you take down so much infrastructure that it backfires and Putin hits you even harder?
AB: As I mentioned before, we have been working on our cybersecurity for years. But of course, there is a probability of breaching security with massive attacks. We had one yesterday on our special communications security service. And, of course, they fight back — of course. But Russia will be limited in its resources because it has to respond to different threats. We know they have capabilities, but if we attack them, they will be attacking us less.
EL: Tell me about your fundraising efforts. Why did you choose cryptocurrencies as a preferred means of donations?
AB: Because the of urgency of what’s going on. I like the global financial and banking systems. I use Apple Pay and everything like that. But in wartime, you have to make decisions very fast, and crypto allows us to avoid waiting days for bank transfers. So, you can immediately use the funds. So, we decided to create a crypto fund. We have several funds now.
EL: How much have you raised?
AB: About $250 million by the National Bank of Ukraine [which has been accepting non-crypto donations] and $55 million in crypto. Plus, we have about $15 million more from another crypto fund. So about $65 to $70 million from crypto.
EL: What are you using this money for?
AB: For supplies for the civilian volunteer army.
EL: Let’s talk about disinformation. Russia used it as a precursor to this war. How are you working to combat it?
AB: Misinformation was really a core reason for this war because the Russians created a false picture of what’s going on in Ukraine. And they convinced their citizens that Ukrainians are some sort of Nazis. We are not Nazis. We are just people who want to live freely in their country, and we don’t want to attack anyone. We just want to live peacefully and be part of the Western world. We want to be part of the European Union.
When this first started, we realized we had to react — and react quickly. So, at the ministry, we started instantly working on restricting opportunities for the dissemination of Russia’s false propaganda and social media. I’m sure you know Twitter has blocked the ability to register new accounts in Russia. Meta has started blocking some Russian propagandists and aggressors. Instagram implemented methods to restrict Russian propaganda. YouTube blocked some Russian TV channels. These were some of our recent requests to these big social media channels, and I think we were pretty successful.
EL: The Russians are also trying to create division in Ukraine among your citizens with conspiracy theories.
AB: They have been doing a lot of these things for years. They were working on different fronts. They were creating Telegram channels talking about our government. They were buying media and TV companies. They had newspapers, they had magazines, they were owning a lot of media infrastructure in Ukraine. They were saying Russia is doing great, and Ukraine is doing bad. And they were creating a civil conflict to get us to abandon our desire to become a part of the European Union.
EL: Ukraine has also been accused of stories that aren’t true — like promoting the supposed fighter pilot known as the “Ghost of Kyiv,” and exaggerating Russian casualties. The Ukrainian government is endorsing these stories on social media. I don’t want to equate it with the lies Russia is spreading — like that Ukrainians are Nazis. But how do you draw the line between telling the truth and creating a narrative to raise the morale of the Ukrainian people?
AB: There is no evidence that Ukraine was targeting Russian citizens with false propaganda or false images. We’re not trying to fight their wave with another wave. We just want to stop them. Our best defense is shining a light on what the Russians are really doing in Ukraine. When people see them on the streets and see video of how they behave and that they are really occupying Ukraine — you don’t need to lie. You don’t need to exaggerate. You just show what’s going on, and that’s all.
EL: Russia also has been using cyberattacks against Ukrainian military communications. Is your ministry coordinating with the Ukrainian army?
AB: I can’t really comment on that.
EL: Are you asking for help from NATO?
AB: Cyber defense is being taken care of by a different group of people, and those are secure systems. I work with the private companies like Meta, Google, Twitter and others. They have been helpful, but this is not really happening on a government level. We talk to them. We explain. We try to convince them to act.
EL: Russia is cracking down on all free media and open discussion of the war. Are you doing anything to push the true story of what is going on in the war out to Russian citizens or change the narrative?
AB: With the help of the IT Army, we managed to run a bunch of media campaigns to show the truth. The Russians denied they are having casualties, so our army launched a campaign to show this in the Russian media. And they proved successful, because after delivering this evidence — videos and pictures of Russian soldiers — to the Russian audience, the people are starting to ask questions. The Russian Ministry of Defense has been bombarded. Did you see someone changed their name on Apple Maps to the “Ministry of Fascism”? Now Russia is bombarding Apple to change it back.
EL: The more Putin cracks down on access to information and the internet, the more Russians will be completely isolated from the rest of the world. How will you be able to penetrate that to provide factual information?
AB: I’m afraid it’s impossible. They live in their own world. It’s a weaker version of Mark Zuckerberg’s version of the metaverse. It’s the metaverse of Russia. The IT Army of Ukraine puts out a lot of information about what’s really happening in Ukraine. One of the things we wanted to achieve is just create some buzz. But what Russians see is just different.
I’m honestly kind of upset. We thought, this is just Putin craziness. Maybe people in Russia don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine and once they know, maybe they will go out into the street. But no, they know what’s going on. Not all of them, but a lot of people know what’s going on in Ukraine, and they just continue to be indifferent. So, I didn’t know how to fight this. Honestly, I think it’s a matter of time.
EL: Are you hearing from any Russian hackers, or is the IT Army communicating with anyone in Russia who wants to help?
AB: I’ve heard about some communication from Russia, but not, like, massive amounts. It just some individual voices that say they are sorry about what is going on and they don’t support it. Yesterday I heard from one of our bloggers that there is a petition against the war signed by 30,000 people in the Russian IT sector. I’m not sure if it’s true, but maybe that is a good sign.
EL: Do you think there is any way to penetrate the Russian IT sector and get some of them on your side?
AB: That doesn’t work. I have family in Moscow, and I asked them what they think about what is going on in Ukraine. They said they support Putin. So, I told them to just fuck off and that I don’t want to talk to them anymore — because they also went crazy. If they support Putin killing us, how can we be relatives after that? This is my personal story. It’s my family and my brother who are over there.