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Ukraine is inventing a new way to fight on the digital battlefield

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. One constant theme of reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is surprise at and admiration for the Ukrainian military's effectiveness in fighting Russian troops. Our guest today, Time magazine correspondent Vera Bergengruen reports that Ukraine has also been successful in waging war on the digital battlefield. A key figure in the country's efforts is its 31-year-old Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, a man who'd previously run digital communications in Volodymyr Zelenskyy's successful presidential campaign.

Bergengruen writes that Fedorov's ministry is inventing a whole new way to fight a war online. They've recruited thousands of citizen volunteers in efforts to undermine Russian disinformation campaigns. They've shored up international support and gotten tech companies to block services in Russia. And their social media campaign of videos with President Zelenskyy has united and lifted the morale of Ukrainians. Vera Bergengruen previously reported for the Miami Herald, BuzzFeed News and the McClatchy newspaper's Washington Bureau, where she worked on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers investigation. She's now an investigative correspondent in Time's Washington bureau covering online disinformation and national security.

Well, Vera Bergengruen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

VERA BERGENGRUEN: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: A key figure in this fascinating story is this 31-year-old guy named Mykhailo Fedorov. Tell us about him.

BERGENGRUEN: One of the first things that struck me about Fedorov when I talked to him via video chat is just how young he is. He is the youngest member of Zelenskyy's cabinet. He's only 31. He ran his campaign back in 2019 to become president. And he clearly is just kind of a young techie guy who now kind of finds himself in the front line of this digital battle. And we spoke for - he was at an undisclosed location within Kyiv. And he was telling me all about his efforts to basically repurpose all of these digital tools that he spent years developing to fight a modern war. And he himself seemed to kind of think that it was crazy that he found himself in this situation.

But ultimately, it's clearly very effective. He's been able to take all of these ambitious efforts - you know, reaching out to Silicon Valley, trying to work - you know, their ambition is always to partner with Apple, with Google, with all of these tech giants that they admire in Ukraine, to do all of these kind of mundane bureaucratic projects. And then they turned it all around to help their country fight a war.

DAVIES: Of course, a big part of this is communication. I mean, it's - you're an advocate, and your audience is people abroad. It's people in Ukraine. It's people everywhere. Let's talk about some of the content that's been posted on social media in support of the Ukrainian resistance. Tell us about how they've built morale and united the country in this effort. What kinds of material have they been putting up?

BERGENGRUEN: It's been a mix of kind of what we would call standard war propaganda in the sense that all war content is often propaganda. So we've seen so many tales of heroism. You know, there was the mythical ghost of Kyiv who was, you know, allegedly a fighter pilot who was taking out all of these, you know, Russian targets. You know, we don't think he's real. But there's been all of these kind of war stories that have really galvanized people behind them. But so many of them have been real. So many of them have been really galvanizing messages.

You know, there was Zelenskyy himself, who's such an inspiring figure for many Ukrainians and for people abroad, and he just very naturally, you know, his - given that his background is as an actor, as a comedian, he naturally stepped into this role and almost seemed to have all these ready one-liners that immediately went viral. You know, his famous line, I don't - you know, I need more ammunition; I don't need a ride - when they offered to get him out of Kyiv.

We've got Ukrainians themselves, you know - there was - early in the war, there was this old woman who came up to a Russian soldier and told him to take sunflower seeds in his pocket, so when he died on Ukrainian soil, at least flowers would bloom. And there's all these moments kind of captured on camera and immediately making their way around the globe that have done the work of the Ukrainian government for them, in many senses, to really get the message out there, to show resilience, to show resistance. But a lot of this doesn't just happen by magic. It's not that it's not real. But the Ukrainian government is relying on a lot of digital savvy, a lot of existing infrastructure, to make sure that all of this information gets out into the world.

So, for example, one of the ways that I think they've been very effective is their digital ministers told me that Ukrainians actually don't really use Twitter as much as we do here, you know, especially the government. You know, they use it, but it's not as popular an app. They use other apps. But they know that people in the United States and in Western Europe are obsessed with Twitter. We're on it all the time.

So what they did is, you know, they went on Twitter. They made sure that everything that they would usually put out through other mechanisms is on this app in order to reach their target audience, which is mainly people abroad. So in other words, they've really been able to collect all of these examples of resistance, of resilience, of heroism, which are, you know, often, obviously, real stories. But they're relying on a lot of digital know-how in order to make sure that they reach the target audience.

DAVIES: You know, it's easy to forget that in the early days of the war, there was a wide expectation that the Russians would quickly take Kyiv, and people might have been expecting President Zelenskyy to, you know, leave and form a government in exile. The fact that he's stayed there and continued to make these videos saying, we are here, we're not going anywhere, we're fighting - that was pretty inspirational, wasn't it?

BERGENGRUEN: It was. And it's the thing that brought much of the world to Ukraine's side because, you know, when you try to imagine someone beside Zelenskyy or maybe someone who did leave or maybe someone who stayed but chose not to be so public, chose not to film these truly unprecedented videos of themself, you know, a world leader filming himself, you know, on the selfie mode on his smartphone, walking around Kyiv and giving these - you know, these messages to his people, you know, I think it's fair to say that a lot of the world, which is - ultimately, unfortunately, care less about what's happening in Ukraine. He's a very effective spokesman.

And, you know, again, in the early days of the war, so much of the world support hinged on Zelenskyy's messages both to the world through social media, to world leaders and to parliaments and to Congress. He did every single thing he could to get the message out there. But the style in which he did it is just so perfectly made for 2022. It's bite-sized. It's on video. He's wearing this, you know, olive T-shirt. He's not wearing a - when he's speaking - even when he's speaking to - you know, to the world governments, to world leaders, he's not wearing a suit. He's in the streets of Kyiv kind of filming himself. And all of this is just made kind of for maximum effect to really get the direness of the situation across.

DAVIES: I know there are updates on what's happening in the war that come along in a lot of these social media posts. The other thing, you know, is that, you know, the Russians are famously effective at disinformation. And you write that one of the things that Mykhailo Fedorov and the ministry have done is to blunt these efforts at disinformation, not just debunking them but pre-bunking them - that is to say, getting out ahead of the message. Give us an example of this.

BERGENGRUEN: Right. And this is something that I think Russia didn't really anticipate because they are masters of kind of chaos. We - you know, Dave, it's interesting. I feel like we all, you know, in the United States, in Europe, especially after 2016, had this impression of the Russians as master social media manipulators. Like, we don't really know what they're doing. They get in there, and we just can't prevent them from manipulating all of us.

But ultimately, all these experts and analysts I speak with say that they're kind of unsophisticated when it comes to social media. And what they really do is flood the zone with so much information that people don't really know what to believe. And in this case, Ukrainians were able to get ahead of it. We have to remember that Ukraine is very familiar with Russian tactics, much more than even we are in the United States, because they've been at the receiving end of it for years and years, and they've been at war with, you know, in parts of Ukraine with Russia for a long time. So they know that one of the most effective ways to get ahead of it is to not allow these disinformation narratives to take root at all.

So, for example, when rumors started circulating that Zelenskyy has fled, they immediately put him on camera. I think he even held up his phone while someone filmed them to show the date. So they knew that this was a, you know, a correct video and that it was accurate. And he shows himself and says, you know, I haven't fled. In another case, they warned people ahead of time that there were going to be rumors that Ukrainian soldiers were laying down their arms, that they were surrendering to Russia early in the war.

And even before Russia was able to fully blast this one-way megaphone of disinformation out there, before it could take root, they warned people about it, and it wasn't really effective. Instead of trying to fact-check it, it just ended up prebunking it, which meant it couldn't even take root. People knew about this narrative before they even heard about it. And it just ultimately ended up being ineffective.

DAVIES: One of the things you've written is that the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation has recruited regular citizens for this effort, up to 300,000. Is this right, kind of citizen volunteers in this - what you refer to as an IT army?

BERGENGRUEN: Yeah, this is actually Fedorov's words, an IT army, a tech army. And he's very proud of it. And it is - I have seen it. It's 300,000 people on the messaging app Telegram who are all - many of them are drawn from Ukraine's kind of entrepreneurialism tech class. They're people who worked at tech companies, who had startups, who are cybersecurity experts, and many of them are just ordinary citizens who raised their hands. They all only get there by being vouched for by other experts.

So they say that it's a pretty, you know, select group. But these are all people who are basically volunteering to use their digital skills in a range of different ways in order to either protect Ukraine's digital efforts from Russian attacks - and, again, they are very familiar with Russian attacks after eight years of this - or to actually attack Russian infrastructure or digital assets themselves.

DAVIES: You know, when we talk about an army, you know, armies - that is to say traditional armies - they recruit people. So they vet people. Not anybody - just anybody gets to come in. There's training. And there's a command structure, so that in theory, you have an idea of who's in your army, and you know they'll follow orders. To what extent does that model follow this IT army, or are they more like a guerrilla force that's out there? How does it work? What do they do?

BERGENGRUEN: From my perspective here, it does seem more like a guerrilla force. It seems like a lot of very smart techie people who know exactly how to use - you know, they basically give it a list of targets, and they go after them. But, you know, it is impressive when you speak to Fedorov, when you speak to other people inside the Digital Transformation Ministry. And they are ultimately more than 650 people who work for it. And they definitely are - before the war were pretty bureaucratic. They had different offices. They have different command structures. And they had a lot of very ambitious projects. And they've pulled people from all those projects to moderate this group, to give them lists of targets, to kind of see where it's going.

But you can obviously tell that in the chaos of the war - and again, we have to remember these people are living through it themselves. Some of them are out of the country, but most of them are there. And obviously, a lot of things kind of fall through the cracks. You know, at one point, I asked him how many letters he had actually sent to tech companies or how many targets they had given this group. And they didn't even, you know, they don't have a full number. It's obviously rather decentralized.

But at the same time, so far, it seems pretty effective. And if anything, what this does is, especially organizing through apps like Telegram - it means that when things come up, when things change, when Russia launches a new attack, they've got a ready-made group of people who are already alert and kind of mobilized to respond.

DAVIES: You know, there's an old saying that the first casualty in war is the truth. You know, governments lie and spin to gain advantage, as do, you know, combatants and armies. And you write that in this case, this digital effort, that the leader here, Mykhailo Fedorov, monitors Ukrainian messaging for any disinformation. What does he say about this? Why is this important?

BERGENGRUEN: It was really interesting speaking to him about this because, in many ways, a lot of these young Ukrainian digital ministers use the language of Silicon Valley. They use the language of, you know, American tech as well. Or they basically say - the way he phrased it to me was we are protecting our brand. Our brand is one of an honest people that are being attacked. It's a black-and-white war. And we have to completely have transparency and clarity about what is happening. We can't afford to mess up. We can't afford to be broadcasting our own disinformation because that will muddy the waters, and that will start putting us closer to the same level as Russia. And that is a really real fear with them.

And so what they do, according to what Fedorov told me, is, you know, they've got several teams set up that vet every single message that Zelenskyy or, you know, other digital ministers and regular ministers put out. They get the information in it. They make sure that it's accurate. They make sure that they're not really putting out videos out of context and things that could be misunderstood. So that doesn't obviously stop them from engaging in regular war propaganda, which is amplifying tales of, again, resistance, heroism.

You know, those kind of things are still out there. But they want to make sure that they can't really put anything out there that Russia can then turn against them and prove Russia's false allegations that the Ukrainians are lying about the war itself. So I thought it was really interesting that he framed it as we are protecting our brand. Our brand is Ukraine is the attacked nation, the wronged nation. And we are the ones who speak the truth.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Vera Bergengruen. She's an investigative correspondent in Time's Washington bureau covering online disinformation and national security. She'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with TIME investigative correspondent Vera Bergengruen. She's been reporting on Ukraine's success so far in waging digital war and resisting the Russian invasion.

One of the things that the digital information ministry in Ukraine has focused on is getting big tech companies, particularly American tech companies, to enforce a digital blockade of Russia. How has this gone?

BERGENGRUEN: Ukraine's digital ministry has been kind of shockingly effective at how quickly they've been able to get big tech giants to, you know, give in to some of their demands. And one of the reasons is that they are obviously very effective at social media itself. They've got people like Fedorov, the digital minister, or Zelenskyy himself directly tagging - you know, connecting to big tech companies - to Facebook, to Google, to Apple - on social media, on Twitter, kind of connecting them to the war crimes - to what they say are war crimes happening in Ukraine. They're saying, listen. Look at how your technology is being used by Russia. Every single dollar that goes towards the Russian government is being used for this war.

And they've been, you know, very effective at this. And just by tagging some of these companies, they've been able to immediately get a response, which is pretty surprising, at least from the outside. When you speak to them on the inside, they acknowledge that they've been in talks with these companies for a while, that they're pushing them, and that by the time they send out that tweet, they've already kind of, you know, often talked to them behind the scenes and really, you know, sent them personal letters and tried to push them to do the right thing, in their words.

DAVIES: So there's an inside game - personal - private negotiations, but they're not beyond shaming them publicly if they need to.

BERGENGRUEN: Right. And the public shaming, I mean, I think it's hard to overstate how effective it's been because, again - you know, for example, they're not usually that active on Twitter, but they took to Twitter because they know that is the way that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are going to amplify their message.

And, you know, these companies that usually take a very long time to take any kind of action moved extremely quickly by their own standards. You know, they've banned Russian outlets in Europe in many apps. They, you know, really quickly suspended Apple Pay in Russia. They basically ended up pulling so many of these services that ordinary Russian citizens rely on very, very quickly out of Russia. And this was almost - I mean, I think it's fair to say a lot of the credit goes to the public shaming that Fedorov and these digital ministers immediately started doing when the invasion began.

DAVIES: It was also interesting - you know, the digital ministry, for its efforts, needs to have its citizen digital soldiers connected to the internet, which is not easy given, you know, the ferocity of the Russian bombing and missile campaign. And one of the things you wrote about is that Elon Musk sent out - what? - several trucks to connect Ukrainians with his Starlink satellite-based internet service, right? Was this significant? How did this happen?

BERGENGRUEN: This is one of those things that, from the outside, looked almost shockingly, stunningly fast because we saw Fedorov send a tweet asking Elon Musk for help. And less than 48 hours later, he tweeted a photo showing, you know, a truck full of these Starlink satellite connectors. And it was pretty - you know, from the outside, it's kind of crazy that they were able to send that to Ukraine so quickly. When I spoke with him, you know, he acknowledged that he had been in talks with them for a while and that when they actually knew that it might happen, they were able to kind of put that on the outside.

But, you know, it has been effective. They've - some of these have been able to connect a lot of Ukrainians, you know, to the internet. One of the ministers I spoke with actually spoke with me through this Starlink connection that he had set up. And, you know, that's just an really easy way for people like Musk to make a pretty big difference because without the internet, all of these things that we've been talking about obviously are impossible.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take another break. Vera Bergengruen is an investigative correspondent in TIME magazine's Washington bureau covering online disinformation and national security. She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Vera Bergengruen, an investigative correspondent in Time magazine's Washington bureau covering online disinformation and national security. She's written recently about Ukraine's efforts to wage digital war in its resistance to the Russian invasion, an effort headed by its 31-year-old minister of digital transformation, who'd previously run digital operations on Vladimir Zelenskyy's 2019 presidential campaign.

You know, you told us about this massive IT army, this - these citizen volunteers that are involved in this digital effort. Can you give us a little more sense of what they do?

BERGENGRUEN: So even though it's described as an IT army and we think of them as hackers and people - you know, techie people just kind of going after these targets, it's much broader than that. One really interesting effort has been that they've recruited influential, you know, Instagram influencers. They've recruited people who have millions of followers. And, you know, think of people who post about skin care or models or, you know, people who post about their kids or schools, things like that, especially young women. They've recruited over 200 of them in a separate Telegram channel, and they coordinate them to broadcast the message that they want.

So think of 200 social media celebrities who are just being told, today we're going to talk about this. Or, you know, this thing that you're hearing about the bombing of this hospital is really important; we want you to talk to your followers about that. And these are people who, again, have millions of followers. And that is, I think, an underappreciated part of this. It's not just going after Russian targets or someone sitting in a dark room trying to hack into a Russian government system; it's a much more public-facing effort in terms of having a lot of these - again, imagine, you know, there's a model with 2 million followers who will go on Instagram and talk about, you know, what's happening on the ground in Ukraine or how she's being personally affected by it. And that is something that I think we're really underestimating in terms of its power.

And another way that they're using this IT army, for example, is to organize systems where they can recruit even more volunteers. So they're recruiting volunteers both, like we said, in terms of cyber experts but also, for example, foreign fighters. They are using Telegram in order to put out calls for foreign fighters to come into Ukraine to help fight with the Ukrainian army. And all of this is being coordinated by the digital ministry. So this kind of - this digital army, this IT army, is truly much broader than those very talented hackers who we know are going after Russian targets.

DAVIES: Who is Stepan, the Instagram cat?

BERGENGRUEN: (Laughter) Stepan is a Ukrainian cat whose owner set up an account last year on Instagram and TikTok and just shared funny photos of her cat, who's just very comical. So people really love following this cat. I mean, Britney Spears was one of this cat's followers. And then when the war started, suddenly these accounts took a very somber turn and started posting updates about the war. And, you know, through this, actually, the owner has been able to raise some money to help Ukrainians, I think a pretty significant amount.

But I think it speaks to a much bigger thing, which is many of us didn't even realize how many Ukrainians we were following. I mean, this happened not just with this Instagram-famous cat and TikTok-famous cat, but, you know, there's just a lot of content creators on social media who suddenly went dark or who suddenly started reporting from bomb shelters, when usually they were, you know, posting skin care tips or, you know, some other kind of content. And I think that has been one of the most effective tools as well in order to raise awareness and galvanize support for Ukraine because, ultimately, this is just something that a lot of people relate to. And I think, you know, people like this cat - well, not people (laughter). Accounts like this cat end up really reaching people who usually might not be tuned in to this war.

DAVIES: To what extent does the does the ministry, does this digital effort, try to appeal to Russian soldiers or their families?

BERGENGRUEN: Appealing directly to Russians has been a really big part of these efforts. And you can tell because they often speak in Russian, and they will make a point of it. So one of the biggest efforts has been a website and a Telegram channel that were set up in order to identify prisoners of war. So they want Russians, who often - you know, there's this digital iron curtain that's preventing them from knowing much of what's happening. They're not reading or watching the same news that we are. They're not really seeing, you know, the carnage in Ukraine.

And so one of the things that they did is they set up a Telegram channel - because this app is not blocked in Russia - and setting up a website where they just post videos and photos of prisoners of war, of young Russians usually, and they have them identify themselves, and then they try to blast that one way over the border so that people can kind of find, you know, their loved ones. And we know, anecdotally, that that's been very effective. You know, there's a lot of stories of mothers, of - you know, of families, of friends, sending each other these photos, saying, you know, oh, my God, that's my brother. You know, what's he doing in Ukraine? And it's been very effective to speak directly to Russians.

But in terms of the digital ministry, they often just make sure that they put their government officials, their most high-ranking officials, on camera, speaking in Russian directly to Russians. We saw this very effectively, I think, with Zelenskyy himself on the eve of the invasion, when he spoke in a very moving speech directly to Russians and told them, I know most of you don't want this war. And then we've seen it even from people like the defense minister, who spoke in a - in a video, in Russian, offering amnesty, offering monetary compensation if Russian soldiers lay down their arms.

And they've gotten even just regular soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders, to kind of post these videos that often go viral because, you know, they have - got a lot of bravado. They're saying - you know, they're giving a lot of threats. There's a lot of the usual kind of wartime messaging. They're set to this dramatic music. But ultimately, these commanders are saying, listen; we know you're young kids. We know you don't want to be here. Go home. You know, and all of this is often being done in Russian, which all of them speak. So it's - I think they're speaking very directly to Russians, trying their very best to break through this digital iron curtain to tell them that their government is lying to them.

DAVIES: Right. So these messages that are in Russian language to Russian people, to Russian soldiers and this list you said of captured Russian soldiers, videos of Russian soldiers, they get past the Russian censorship by doing - putting it on Telegram, this encrypted messaging app. Is that right? Yeah.

BERGENGRUEN: That's right. Yeah.

DAVIES: I also read, I think, that some have found a way to send text messages to Russian troops, who may be using cellphones, instructing them on how to surrender and providing these financial incentives if they bring equipment. There was one guy who supposedly - who actually surrendered a tank, right?

BERGENGRUEN: That's right. We've heard so many anecdotes like this because it is clear that many of these young Russian soldiers, many of them are conscripts. They had no idea they were going into Ukraine. And it's been such an ill-planned operation in many senses, you know, in terms of supplies. They're hungry. They're cold. They have no idea what they're doing there. Their vehicles keep breaking down. They're running out of gas. They're lost. And, you know, part of this is what the Ukrainian government wants to put out there.

But, you know, I think there's an overwhelming amount of evidence that this is true. And so Ukraine is reaching out directly to them, kind of, you know, telling them, listen. We know - we understand you don't want to be here. We understand you don't want to kill civilians, you know, and offering them alternatives. We have yet to see how effective this is going to be. You know, there have been efforts to offer them Ukrainian citizenship, to offer them amnesty, to offer them, again, money. And we have yet to see how effective this is actually going to be, because obviously it's not an easy thing to lay down your arms or to turn your back on the people you came with. But we do know that it is very appealing to many of them, just given how low morale is among Russian troops.

DAVIES: You know, we've mentioned Telegram a few times. This is a messaging app that's become widely used in the war. You want to just explain a bit about what it is and how it works?

BERGENGRUEN: It would be really difficult to picture this whole war without Telegram because, you know, unlike Twitter, unlike Facebook, there isn't any moderation. You know, it's just - it's basically the Wild West. It's a free-for-all. It's an app that doesn't - there's no algorithm that decides what you're going to see. And so in this sense, you - the way that it's - the way that it works is you follow different channels. You see them all in order. And some of them can turn off comments, in which case it just becomes a - you know, there's no discussion. It's just a one-way megaphone kind of blasting all this information out.

But it's extremely effective because it can't really be moderated. And this is a choice by the app a long time ago. It actually was founded by two brothers - two Russian brothers - who founded another very popular Russian social media network and who ultimately had to leave Russia, but who completely refused to allow censorship. And so it's a very effective tool in this sense because, you know, it allows you to upload large files, large video files, which obviously has been very useful in this particular context. People are using it to document war crimes, to show what's going on in the neighborhoods. It allows you to forward things very quickly. But again, the biggest reason that it's become so popular and so effective has been because it's not moderated.

And one of the kind of crazy things for those of us who've covered this space for a long time is that it was the app of choice for terrorists for a very long time - for ISIS, for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We saw them use these apps to organize. We - Telegram was used to plan attacks in Paris and in Berlin. And, you know, back then, it was notorious as kind of the app that was popular with terrorists. And there was a lot of pressure to moderate it, to make sure these people got kicked off. But now, in a kind of strange turn, the very things that made it a liability, that made it very dangerous, the very things that made national security officials from a lot of countries, you know, push the app to shut this down have been the reason that it's been so effective in this war.

DAVIES: Has the Russian government tried to shut down Telegram?

BERGENGRUEN: They've tried to shut it down in the past unsuccessfully because ultimately - it was kind of funny. Even their - you know, Putin's own spokesman ended up still using it behind the scenes, even when there was kind of a ban in name only on the app, because it's so effective. It's just - people really like using it. It's extremely popular in Russia and in Ukraine. There's kind of a familiarity with it because it was, you know, founded - it was - the owner is Russian, and it's a Russian native app ultimately.

But the main reason that they're not shutting it down, according to the analyst I spoke to, is that the Russian government needs Telegram because they've restricted Facebook, they've restricted, you know, Instagram, they've restricted Twitter, they've restricted - they've kind of restricted their own way of getting their message out and of getting Russian state media's message out. So if they were to block Telegram, Ukraine's narrative is the only one that exists. And so they actually, in the months before the war, made a concerted effort to have their main anchors, you know, of Russia Today, of Sputnik, of all of these Russian state media channels, set up their own Telegram channels so that they are a competitor on this app. So they can't - you know, I think one of the main reasons that they can't shut it down is because they need it to get their own message across to Russians, too.

DAVIES: You know, in the United States, where social media platforms are criticized for not moderating content and letting disinformation - to run free, Telegram is a place where anybody can put up a channel saying anything. And so you have this wild kind of competing megaphones, and it somehow works.

BERGENGRUEN: That's right. I mean, don't get me wrong. It is a cesspool. Those of us who spend a lot of time on Telegram, you know, just know how there's - there's just - it is a complete free-for-all in also a negative way. You know, anyone can post anything. There's absolutely no way to really suppress some content. But again, we are - currently, they are living through a real war. They are horrific - you know, there's horrific violence. There is just so much happening that usually, if they were to post it somewhere like Facebook, would probably be taken down or censored or suppressed.

And this is the only way to really get an unfiltered view of the war across. And it's not just to other Ukrainians or to Russians, but it's to the rest of the world. It's giving us a front seat to the most dark, messed-up, horrific aspects of the war. In some ways, I think we all have to admit that might be the only way for an app to be effective in the middle of a war.

DAVIES: And in the case of, you know, Russian families who are worried about their friends and family members who are serving in the Russian army, they find these channels that provide information about them - connect to it. And that's an effective way for the Ukrainian digital soldiers to - or the ministry to communicate with them, right?

BERGENGRUEN: That's right. And we've seen downloads of Telegram in Russia spike dramatically. And it really seems to indicate that people are starved for news that isn't being shown on these propaganda channels on state media.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Vera Bergengruen. She's an investigative correspondent in Time magazine's Washington bureau covering online disinformation and national security. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Time magazine's investigative correspondent Vera Bergengruen. She's been reporting on Ukraine's success so far in waging digital war in resisting the Russian invasion.

You know, a lot of this communication, both by the ministry and by these volunteer citizen IT army that they have recruited, is a matter of communication. It boosts morale in the country. It builds outside support. I'm wondering how much of this effort is devoted to the battlefield itself, assisting Ukrainian military operations? Do you have a sense of that?

BERGENGRUEN: We do know that some of the systems that the digital ministry has put in place, which are pretty innovative, like having a telegram bot which usually is used for, for example, PR or for customer service requests, having set up a whole telegram channel, what we call a bot, where someone can report Russian troop movements or strikes on certain targets and then, you know, having that fed back into the military, that's - you know, they're using tools like this in a way that they've never been used before.

And in some cases, I think we actually know that they've been effective. The Russian Defense Ministry actually thanked whoever submitted a tip and said we were able to take out this Russian tank thanks to your tip. And so they are able to weaponize some of these digital tools to obviously have an impact outside the digital realm. But I think the real scope of it won't really become clear until a couple of weeks or months from now because so much of what's happening is really behind the scenes.

DAVIES: One of the things that the Ukrainian government has done under Zelenskyy, I read, is, you know, it's just digitized a lot more government services, as you said. You know, you can easily pay parking tickets or schedule a COVID test and something. There are apps that are in the hands and on the mobile phones of Ukrainians. Has that assisted them in involving citizens in the digital war?

BERGENGRUEN: All of this infrastructure and all of these apps that they developed before the war have been weaponized now on behalf of this digital battlefield. And one of the ways that this has happened has been turning these apps that most citizens have on their phones, like we said, to schedule, you know, appointments, to pay a parking ticket, in order to give them crucial information about the war. So they're able to see Russian troop movements, even. They're able to get a notification that alerts them when there's - you know, when the air raid sirens are going off. They're able to see maps of bomb shelters. They're able to see where they might be able to find medical supplies or Wi-Fi.

And all of this happened really quickly because they knew that, thanks to their efforts in the previous three years under Zelenskyy's administration, most - many Ukrainians in major cities had all these apps already on their phones and also, like you mentioned, because of the pandemic. So they're able to just kind of go straight - you know, have straight access into hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian smartphones and provide them with really critical information and potentially lifesaving advice.

And one of the other senses that this has been very useful for them has been by insisting on digitizing a lot of documents. I mean, Ukrainians who are fleeing their homes, who had, you know, their homes bombed by Russia, they're able to access their passports or other documents through their phone. They're able to apply for relocation funds. And so all of this, you know, is obviously a whole different front of this war in the digital realm because they're able to just directly communicate with Ukrainians.

DAVIES: You know, there have been reports of communications among Russian troops leaking, allowing Ukrainians to track and attack them in some cases. I think Fedorov said something to you that - about, you know, Ukraine might win this war through tech, through digital means. Is Russia showing itself to be a step behind here in all of this?

BERGENGRUEN: Well, that's what the - Ukraine's digital minister seemed to think, right? Fedorov told me, you know, Russia is operating in the 20th century. They are basically applying a Cold War mentality to new technology. And that's not how you win this war. And he said, we are going to win because we are building all our efforts like a tech company. And he's very insistent on that. He says, we are operating like a tech company. This is the way of the future. And Russia's just not keeping up.

And in some senses, you know, that might be true. I think Russia is overestimating how much their playbook of just causing chaos online or causing, you know, just kind of really blunt attacks are going to be effective because Ukraine has shown so far that they're able to beat Russia at its own game by kind of predicting what they're going to do and just - honestly, just being better at the messaging war. I know it gets kind of tiring to say it. It seems kind of silly and frivolous to be focusing on social media when we're seeing, you know, that so many people are dying in this horrific war.

But that is how so much of this is ultimately happening. That is how world support is being galvanized. That is how Russia is finding itself completely, you know, economically isolated and isolated digitally. And so I think by not only using these tools better, by building their operations the way that - the way that Ukraine is running its own war is, according to Fedorov, built more like a tech company than what he called a rigid war tank, which is how he described Russia.

DAVIES: Well, Vera Bergengruen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BERGENGRUEN: Thanks so much, Dave.

DAVIES: Vera Bergengruen is an investigative correspondent in Time's Washington bureau covering online disinformation and national security. Coming up, John Powers reviews "Slow Horses," the new six-part spy thriller series on Apple TV+ starring Gary Oldman. This is FRESH AIR.

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