American Tech and the Ukrainian People: a Partnership With Lasting Lessons for Peace
COMMENTARY

May 11, 2023by Barbara Comstock, Senior Adviser, Baker Donelson
American Tech and the Ukrainian People: a Partnership With Lasting Lessons for Peace
Alyosha of Ukraine performs standing in front of a screen displaying digital messages from Ukraine during a dress rehearsel at the Eurovision Song Contest at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, England, Monday, May 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

While the United States and our allies continue to provide military assets to the Ukrainian people in support of their Herculean effort to push back on Russian aggression, a different kind of partnership — and perhaps an even more powerful long-term peacekeeping strategy — has been growing as well. The bond between America’s leading technology companies and the Ukrainian government not only presents an opportunity to expand American business abroad but also offers a longer lasting chance for the U.S. government to help the Ukrainian people install a digital infrastructure that will foster peace in the region in the future. 

This vision is shared by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has pushed for the country to build the “freest digital economy in the world” because of the success that technology innovators have had defending the war-torn country and their investments in Ukrainian companies. American tech companies’ diverse offerings and large capabilities have been put to the test in Ukraine. 

One of the biggest challenges facing Ukraine during the conflict has been the constant threat of cyberattacks. Russia first flexed its muscles over Ukraine’s infrastructure in 2015, when its state-backed hackers used ransomware to shut down electric utilities in the country. As the conflict has escalated, so too has the number of cyberattacks targeting the country’s government systems. Google’s Threat Analysis Group and Mandiant, acquired by Google in 2022, have noted a 250% increase in cyberattacks on the country over the course of the war and a 300% increase on North Atlantic Treaty Organization-aligned countries. 

This cyber offensive is expected to continue and potentially worsen. So what lessons can U.S. leaders learn from this? Public-private partnerships are key to managing the growing threat that cyber can play in shutting down critical infrastructure or engaging in psychological warfare. As the war in Ukraine continues, there should be real considerations of how to make this unprecedented information sharing among NATO countries and private sector allies workable long-term. The new National Cybersecurity Strategy should also embody this mindset.

The war has also brought to mind that freedom of expression is essential in a conflict, as demonstrated by companies’ capabilities to shut down Russian propaganda and flag false content, while simultaneously helping Ukrainian civilians stay safe. 

To that end, Meta announced in February that the company had successfully disrupted a Russian campaign that targeted Ukrainian social media users to push pro-Russia talking points through a “smash and grab” information operation campaign on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. At the same time, Meta also has worked to ensure that activists can safely and securely continue to use Facebook to organize aid and prevent combatants from tracking them.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian government is not a fan of the accessibility to free speech brought by American tech. The government has attempted to fine companies like Google for hosting content on YouTube that Russian leaders do not agree with so as to drive their own message as they please without any checks on their propaganda. 

The only thing enabling a check on their false messaging is the moderation capability of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to take down the false information. Yet multiple cases in the U.S. Supreme Court are under consideration that could tie the hands of these companies and, therefore, allow hostile governments to post as they please. 

The transition to making Ukraine the freest digital economy in the world has already begun and continues during the war. A recent report shows that Ukrainian startups’ enterprise value raised from €3 billion to €23.3 billion in just three years — driven by Western financing. Google’s venture arm supported Ukrainian apps and businesses soon after the war began. These startups are creating valuable projects to support renters, musicians, talent recruitment, libraries, people with ADHD and more applications

Ukraine already has a strong basis for creating this digital economy and think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies back the idea that Western tech companies can make a big difference in the country as it rebuilds after the war. 

In our domestic squabbles over America’s largest tech companies, our policymakers should not lose sight of the fact that our leading tech innovators are a major part of our strength here at home and around the world. Partnerships between American companies and governments that wish to be free and prosperous serve an economic and strategic advantage for our country. Digital diplomacy can be a powerful force in supporting our allies and ensuring lasting peace.


Barbara Comstock is a former state and congressional representative from Virginia and a senior adviser at Baker Donelson where she provides strategic counsel to clients on a range of matters, including cybersecurity and privacy issues, and managing high-stakes oversight hearings of businesses and individuals. You can reach her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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