How Ukraine’s tech experts joined forces with the government despite differences : NPR – cnn hollywood

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Across Ukraine, tech experts are at the forefront of the defense against Russia, from drones to cybersecurity. But it’s after the war that their innovation might help bolster Ukraine’s future.



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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden made an appeal today to Congress before its holiday recess. He’s asking lawmakers to approve funding to Ukraine as the country continues to battle Russia’s invasion.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: History is going to judge harshly those who turn their back on freedom’s cause. We can’t let Putin win. Say it again – we can’t let Putin win.

CHANG: Biden’s remarks came after he met virtually with G7 leaders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but his push was not successful. The Senate failed to pass a key procedural hurdle on a $110 billion package this evening, as many Republicans are leery of spending more money on Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, many in Ukraine’s tech sector are contributing to the country’s defense while dreaming of a future beyond the war. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin brings us that story.

SERGII KRYVOBLOTSKYI: Hi, I’m Sergii.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: I’m at an office in downtown Kyiv. It feels like a Silicon Valley startup – complete with fancy coffee machines, nap pods and even a few office cats – except the bottom floor is now a bomb shelter. We’re talking about an innovative new product, SpyBuster.

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KRYVOBLOTSKYI: I started to develop it by myself because I don’t want to, like, bother other guys and girls.

MCLAUGHLIN: Sergii Kryvoblotskyi is the head of technical research and development at MacPaw, a Ukrainian software company. He made an app that scans your phone for other apps connecting to servers in Russia and Belarus to sniff out potential spyware, thus SpyBuster. You might recognize the inspiration for the name.

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KRYVOBLOTSKYI: The Ghostbusters, you know, this icon of ghost. OK, that’s a pretty catchy name.

MCLAUGHLIN: Companies like MacPaw are a major part of the war. They volunteer time, services, technology, but they’re also a key part of Ukraine’s future. They need to figure out how to help win the war but also revive Ukraine’s economy. They want to bring home Ukraine’s growing diaspora of refugees and expats because technology and IT might be the country’s best hope. Right now, though, they need to make it through each day.

OLEG STUKALENKO: Even if it’s a good day, it feels like something heavy is around, just around your shoulder.

MCLAUGHLIN: That’s Oleg Stukalenko, the head of MacPaw’s new cybersecurity division.

STUKALENKO: So maybe my hope, my idea for that is just removing that weight.

MCLAUGHLIN: Removing that weight, the war. Stukalenko is weary but confident that Ukraine’s tech experts will win the day. But not everyone is so sure. At a cafe 20 minutes away from MacPaw’s office, I sit down with Mykyta Knysh. He used to be in government intelligence, and now he’s a cybersecurity businessman and hacktivist. We meet in the afternoon. He’s not exactly a morning person.

MYKYTA KNYSH: Hackers normally works until 4 or 5 o’clock, and so it’s actually my starting of the day (laughter).

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

KNYSH: You’re the first person I meet today.

MCLAUGHLIN: His first meeting of the day. Knysh is smoking a hookah pipe seemingly endlessly in between jokes and curse words. To say he was skeptical of the government and its willingness to work with Ukrainian cybersecurity experts would be putting it lightly.

KNYSH: The hackers are not able to test any type of websites if they’re not allowed.

MCLAUGHLIN: Not allowed. Basically, he’s saying the government didn’t want to let him and his colleagues test their servers for vulnerabilities. In fact, back in 2020, the government raided his and other experts’ homes, thinking they’d hacked Odesa airport when they actually tried to report a security flaw to try to secure it, they said. But more importantly, Knysh says the government didn’t listen to hackers’ warnings that war was coming in the winter of 2022 and that they were unprepared for what’s happened since.

Ukraine’s government officials would contest that. By all accounts, they’ve done a good job defending the country’s networks. But Knysh wants to go on the offense. That’s partly why, he says, he took matters into his own hands and started a hacker collective called HackYourMom soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Knysh is an extreme example of an outspoken critic. There are others who are less willing to speak up, who have similar concerns about corruption and lack of skill inside the government. In fact, multiple top cybersecurity officials, including one I met with while in Kyiv, Victor Zhora, were recently arrested. They’re facing corruption charges. It’s part of a longtime battle inside Ukraine’s borders.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Broken, broken, broken (laughter).

NATALIIA KUSHNERSKA: Bureaucracy.

MCLAUGHLIN: But many more are optimistic that war might actually be an opportunity for a new generation to lead, for an industry to be revolutionized. I meet Nataliia Kushnerska in an office building on the outskirts of Kyiv. It feels like a tech campus. I’m here to learn about a new tech incubator, it’s called Brave1. It’s designed to streamline the pipeline between technologists and the Ukrainian military.

KUSHNERSKA: I would say, sometimes, we’re calling ourselves, like, translators, you know, from a technology market to military market.

MCLAUGHLIN: She’s the project manager. And she’s already juggling more than 400 applications for funding and inclusion in the incubator.

KUSHNERSKA: There are already some really nice solutions within electronic warfare. We’ve found some solutions within antennas. Solutions within robotic systems was our first one. Now we’re working to understand AI.

MCLAUGHLIN: There’s everything from underwater drones to robots. Some products have been adapted from their previous uses, too. Drones built for agriculture turned into high-end surveillance systems. Virtual reality programs designed for gaming turned into training modules. Nataliia Kushnerska has to figure out how to turn those ideas into reality.

KUSHNERSKA: Actually, my previous job was Ministry of Economy of Ukraine, so I was a adviser to the first deputy minister. My best skill is actually to make things happen.

MCLAUGHLIN: The ultimate goal is to organize a torrent of innovation, make sure it’s practically useful during the war. It’s a running joke in Ukraine that everyone has their own drone factory in their garages. Some are taking things a step further. Roman Sulzhyk, the Ukrainian former manager of the Moscow Exchange, left Russia for good in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea. Now he’s using his skills in finance to invest in Ukraine’s future, its technology. He’s betting big on Ukrainian drones.

ROMAN SULZHYK: For example, one of the companies I invested in is a company that makes these heavy – they’re rebuilding agri-drones to actually carry 30 kilograms of explosives. It’s – like, it’s unreal. When the thing flies, it’s absolutely silent. And this is what Russian call Baba Yaga, like boogeyman, because it looks, you know…

MCLAUGHLIN: The Baba Yaga, the boogeyman. We meet at an old office building in Kyiv overlooking Taras Shevchenko Square, honoring the famous Ukrainian poet. Some of the decorative elements of the facade have been blown clear off after a Russian missile hit a children’s park just below. But now the park is rebuilt. Sulzhyk has a grand vision for rebuilding all of Ukraine.

SULZHYK: Rebuilding of Ukraine will have to be across Europe, like, international project. I mean, I want to see people from all over the world and companies from all over the world coming here, helping. You know, this has to be – you know, Ukraine has helped unite Europe, you know, over these last few years, helped unite NATO. And I really hope that actually, you know, rebuilding it, that our politicians won’t stand in the way.

MCLAUGHLIN: He makes a little dig at the ongoing corruption scandals. Then Sulzhyk gets a little emotional, a little wistful, making the pitch for Ukrainians to come home, too.

SULZHYK: But, you know, we will open up the country to capital, to people. And, yeah, our guys will come back as well because it is, I personally think, the best place on earth to live. It’s so beautiful.

MCLAUGHLIN: Perhaps that dream will one day be reality after the war.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Kyiv.

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