Few people know Ukraine and Russia as thoroughly as Andrey Liscovich. The 37-year-old tech executive from Silicon Valley was born and raised in Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine, earned degrees in physics and economics in Moscow, completed a doctorate in economics at Harvard, moved to Silicon Valley and started the Uber Works division of the smartphone taxi service.
In a cafe just off Maidan Square in Kyiv, Liscovich tells me how last February he flew to Moscow in the run-up to the war, to say goodbye to his Russian friends. Driven by curiosity and the desire to understand what was happening, “I took a hotel room in Federation Tower, the tallest building in Moscow, on the 90th floor, overlooking the Kremlin, the general staff building and the ministry of foreign affairs. I didn’t see any unusual activity.”
Liscovich returned to San Francisco on February 20th. When Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th, he attended a protest rally. “The majority of people there were Russians and Belarusians. There were posters saying, ‘I’m from Moscow. I’m sorry.’ Most people in the tech world are firmly against the war.”
Liscovich made his way to the recruitment office in Zaporizhzhia. “I wanted to help in whatever way was needed. If that required picking up a gun, I would have picked up a gun … They gave every man an AK47 [assault rifle] and two ammunition magazines, and they ran out of AK47s. There were plenty of volunteers, but they were completely undersupplied.”
We drove around Zaporizhzhia buying military gear with my credit card
The first stage of Liscovich’s engagement as a volunteer go-between, facilitator and innovator in the Ukrainian resistance had started.
“They gave me a van and two soldiers,” he recounts. “We drove around Zaporizhzhia buying military gear with my credit card. People started transferring money to me through Venmo. Our supplies made it to the front lines within two hours, while Facebook was holding money for eight days.”
Before the war, Liscovich was launching his own start-up, which he describes as “a platform for equity investment in human capital, with the ability to finance your education or medical expenses”. That’s on hold now. “I made sure my personal profile, my burn rate, is very low,” he says. “I needed to be very agile for the purpose of running a start-up. And it came in handy because I have very few dependencies … That allowed me to just drop everything and come here.”
Military supplies in Zaporizhzhia dried up. In the second phase of Liscovich’s operation, he gave interviews to US television networks and established the Ukraine Defense Fund for donations. Using his contacts network, Liscovich collected more than US$4 million to purchase “higher tech stuff that needed to be imported”, mainly drones, satellite internet terminals and thermal cameras.
When interest in the US began to taper off, Liscovich moved away from logistics and procurement and into the third, present phase of his operation, as a middleman between Ukrainian and foreign governments, and especially as a tech innovator who “brings the Silicon Valley approach to making hardware more effective”.
Liscovich travels to front lines in Donetsk to help improve the Ukrainian forces’ use of technology. In April, “I was observing how the army was flying a Leleka. It’s a UAV, [unmanned aerial vehicle] a drone. They were doing it in an open field and were detected. The Russians covered the area with cassette munitions [cluster bombs]. We were lucky to get out alive.”
Liscovich quotes Albert Einstein, who said he did not know what weapons would be used in the third World War, but that the fourth would be fought with sticks and stones. Russia has not been able to surround Ukrainian cities with columns of tanks, because Javelin missiles knock out armour. Ukraine compensates in part for vastly inferior numbers of artillery pieces with better targeting, thanks to a higher number of drones.
Liscovich does not work on lethal equipment, only commercially available systems such as cameras, radio sensors and artificial intelligence
But Russia is good at electronic jamming, which can cripple drones. To solve this problem, Liscovich is presently working on what he calls “a low-tech airborne device that carries a camera” but which will be more difficult for the Russians to disable.
Liscovich does not work on lethal equipment, only commercially available systems such as cameras, radio sensors and artificial intelligence. “You need to have somebody at the front line who can see what these things are used for and send feedback to the engineers in California,” he says. “Providing that feedback loop, where the engineer directly solves the problem of the end user, is the essential premise of the Silicon Valley approach. That link is broken now, and we are trying to restore it.”
Carrying a telephone near front lines in Ukraine is not unlike members of the French resistance concealing documents in their clothing in Nazi-occupied France. Despite Liscovich’s openness, there is a cloak and dagger side to his work. He carries eight telephones and avoids SIM cards which store identification information because they enable the Russians to pinpoint one’s location and the history of one’s movements.
Liscovich recounts some of his security precautions: “You need to have many phones, but burner phones,” he says, referring to prepaid mobile phones that can easily be destroyed or discarded. He has a setting on the encrypted messenger service Signal which destroys all messages after one week. “If you have a burner phone, it must be completely off, with the battery off too. If you have an iPhone, it has a low-energy beacon that works even when the phone is off. So you need a Faraday pocket to block wireless signals”.
Post-Soviet societies are particularly talented at information technology because they caught up with western infrastructure “by making a leap, instead of going through all the stages”, says Liscovich. He calls the Ukrainian government’s smartphone app Diia, (meaning “state and me”), amazing and incredible. Put in place by Ukraine’s minister for digital technology, Mykhailo Federov, before the war, it is now used by ordinary citizens to claim repairs for destroyed property, report evidence of Russian war crimes and the locations of Russian targets.
I firmly separate the ideological strand that has taken over the government from the population at large
The looting of washing machines, appliances and even toilets by invasion forces has given the impression of an ignorant horde. But it would be foolish to underestimate Russian prowess at hi-tech, Liscovich warns. Russia has an analogue of Diaa, called Gosuslugi, as well as world-class tech companies including the search engine Yandex and SberBank, the successor to the Soviet savings bank.
Liscovich is more understanding of Russia than most Ukrainians. “I firmly separate the ideological strand that has taken over the government from the population at large,” he says. He believes that Russian support for the war is the result of superficial conformism, “not some sort of rot within the population”. Re-reading William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, he sees parallels with German support for Nazism. “Hitler’s speeches were not very different from what Putin is saying. He portrayed everything as pre-emptive, defensive moves.”
Liscovich sees a certain irony in his role. “I should be the poster boy for Putin’s stereotypical eastern European, native Russian speaker who spent his formative years in Moscow,” he says. “I should be welcoming his tanks with flowers and I am not. I am doing everything possible to make sure that he does not take over Ukraine.”