Ukrainian engineer Artur Kiulian has been building tech startups for the past decade Now, he’s fielding desperate pleas for help from his compatriots. “No one was prepared for this,” Kiulian, who is based in the U.S., told Rest of World. “It’s surreal, it’s crazy; I still can’t believe this is happening, but we’re doing what we can.”
Kiulian is one of the founders of UkraineNow, an online platform that is matching volunteers in Ukraine and overseas with civilians in need in the country, where a Russian military onslaught has killed at least 350 civilians and displaced 350,000 others. While the Ukrainian government deals with the tanks on the street, he said, he and his colleagues are trying to create some order in a chaotic environment. “It’s totally self-organized, decentralized. It’s fighting misinformation. It’s figuring out the refugees’ help when they cross the border,” Kiulian said.
Kulian is one of many Ukrainians at home and abroad who have rallied to help coordinate humanitarian efforts, battle misinformation, protect critical systems from cyberattacks — and fight back in the cyberconflict that Russia launched in parallel with its ground assault.
“Everyone in Ukraine is now actively participating in supporting our nation,” said Ira Supruniuk, communications lead analyst at TechUkraine, an NGO set up by the government to promote the local IT sector. “Big and small businesses are here; they do all their best to be helpful in these challenging times,” Supruniuk told Rest of World from a bomb shelter in Kyiv.
Ukraine has a significant presence in the global tech industry, and the country worked fast to rally international support. On February 26, Mykhailo Fedorov, the minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine and the country’s vice premier, used his Twitter account to ask Tesla founder Elon Musk to make his Starlink satellite broadband service available to users in the country, to help keep them connected, despite Russian attacks on their infrastructure. Musk complied.
Researchers at Elliptic, a blockchain analysis company, said that $13.7 million has so far been donated to the Ukrainian war effort through anonymous Bitcoin donations. Just one Ukrainian volunteer group, Come Back Alive, which provides equipment to the country’s army, has received more than $4 million in bitcoin donations since Russia launched its invasion, according to Elliptic.
Fedorov has appealed to major crypto exchanges to block addresses of Russian users, asked Mark Zuckerberg to ban access to Facebook and Instagram in Russia, and contacted the CEOs of Rakuten (which operates Viber) and PayPal to request they block their services. Last week, Facebook stopped accepting advertising from Russian state media, while Twitter suspended all advertising in both Ukraine and Russia. Both services have been blocked in Russia. YouTube has also stopped Russian state media from monetizing its channels.
On his Telegram channel, Fedorov made a call for volunteers for a Ukraine cyber army, asking for help counterattacking Russian websites and services. He posted a list of targets, including banks and ministry websites. Numerous Russian websites have gone down over the past few days, with the hacking group Anonymous claiming responsibility.
But a lot of the effort has gone into trying to keep people safe. UkraineNow received 15,000 requests for help in its first 72 hours of operation, Kiulian said. With bombs and missiles landing on major cities, the organization’s current priority is evacuating people from conflict zones and matching them with volunteers who can assist them with transportation.
Across the border from Ukraine, other organizations are also gathering to provide help to civilians fleeing the country. The Polish government said on Saturday that more than 115,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed into Poland.
Warsaw-based NGO Tech To The Rescue (TTTR) has been trying to find a home for some of them through an initiative dubbed “Airbnb for migrants” as well as securing transportation, legal help, medicine, and essential items. “There are millions of people willing to help, but the efforts need to be coordinated — this is what we’re focused on. Poland will likely receive 4 million Ukrainian refugees: they all need a place to stay and help with documents,” said Monika Kubacka, TTTR’s press representative.
The organization launched a #TechForUkraine campaign that matches IT companies with NGOs supporting Ukrainians. Kubacka said they already have 722 entities and companies from 40 countries ready to help in their database and are now working to bulletproof the NGOs that are helping Ukranians from cyberattacks and secure their data.
Kiulian from UkraineNow said that his organization had been fending off cyberattacks trying to take it offline. He cautioned that, while the tech sector is working hard to try to assist Ukrainians, it needs help, too, as companies and individuals eschew paid work to stand up to the invaders. But, he said, “There is no point in working when your home is being destroyed.”