Few people know Ukraine and Russia as well as Andrey Liscovitch. The 37-year-old Silicon Valley tech executive was born and raised in Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine, earned degrees in physics and economics in Moscow, earned a doctorate in economics in Harvard, moved to Silicon Valley and launched the Uber Works division of smartphone taxi service.
In a café just off Maidan Square in Kyiv, Liscovitch tells me how, last February, he flew to Moscow as the war approached, to say goodbye to his Russian friends. Driven by curiosity and the desire to understand what was going on, “I took a hotel room in the Federation Tower, the tallest building in Moscow, on the 90th floor, with a view of the Kremlin, the building of the General Staff and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I did not see any unusual activity.
Liscovitch returned to San Francisco on February 20. When Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th, he participated in a protest rally. “The majority of people there were Russians and Belarusians. There were posters saying, “I come from Moscow. I am sorry.’ Most people in the tech world are adamantly opposed to war.
Liscovitch went to the recruiting office in Zaporizhzhia. “I wanted to help in any way. If it required picking up a gun, I would have picked up a gun… They gave each man an AK47 [assault rifle] and two ammo magazines, and they ran out of AK47s. There were plenty of volunteers, but they were completely undersupplied.
We went around Zaporizhzhia buying military equipment with my credit card
The first stage of Liscovitch’s involvement as a willing intermediary, facilitator and innovator in the Ukrainian resistance had begun.
“They gave me a van and two soldiers,” he says. “We went around Zaporizhzhia buying military equipment with my credit card. People started transferring money to me through Venmo. Our supplies reached the frontlines within two hours, while Facebook held cash for eight days.
Before the war, Liscovitch launched his own start-up, which he describes as “a platform for investing in human capital, with the capacity to finance your studies or your medical expenses”. It’s on hold now. “I made sure that my personal profile, my burn rate, is very low,” he says. “I needed to be very agile to lead a start-up. And that’s been helpful to me because I have very few addictions…It’s allowed me to drop everything and come here.
Military supplies in Zaporizhzhia dried up. In the second phase of Liscovitch’s operation, he gave interviews to American television stations and established the Ukraine Defense Fund for donations. Through his network of contacts, Liscovitch raised more than $4 million to buy “high-tech products that had to be imported,” mostly drones, satellite internet kiosks, and thermal imaging cameras.
When interest in the United States began to wane, Liscovitch moved away from logistics and supply to enter the current third phase of his operation, as an intermediary between Ukrainian and foreign governments, and especially as a technology innovator who “brings the Silicon Valley approach”. to make the material more efficient.
Liscovitch goes to the front lines in Donetsk to help improve the use of technology by Ukrainian forces. In April, “I watched how the army flew a Leleka. It’s a drone [unmanned aerial vehicle] a drone. They were doing it in an open field and were detected. The Russians covered the area with cassette ammunition [cluster bombs]. We were lucky to make it out alive.
Liscovitch quotes Albert Einstein, who said he didn’t know what weapons would be used in World War III, but World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones. Russia was unable to surround Ukrainian cities with tank columns, as Javelin missiles knock out armor. Ukraine partly compensates for the very low number of artillery pieces with better targeting, thanks to a higher number of drones.
Liscovitch 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, Liscovitch is currently working on what he calls “a low-tech airborne device that carries a camera” but which will be more difficult for the Russians to deactivate.
Liscovitch does not work on lethal equipment, only commercially available systems such as cameras, radio sensors and artificial intelligence. “You need to have someone on the front line who can see what these things are for and send feedback to the engineers in California,” he says. “Providing this feedback loop, where the engineer directly solves the end user’s problem, is the essential premise of the Silicon Valley approach. This link is now broken and we are trying to restore it.
Carrying a phone near the front lines in Ukraine is reminiscent of members of the French resistance who concealed documents in their clothing in Nazi-occupied France. Despite Liscovitch’s open-mindedness, there is a swashbuckling side to his work. He carries eight phones and avoids SIM cards that store identifying information because they allow Russians to locate themselves and know their travel history.
Liscovitch recounts some of his safety precautions: “You must have many phones, but burn-in phones,” he says, referring to prepaid cell phones that can easily be destroyed or thrown away. It has a setting on the Signal encrypted messaging service that destroys all messages after one week. “If you have a burner phone, it must be completely off, including the battery. If you have an iPhone, it has a low-power beacon that works even when the phone is off. So you have to a Faraday pocket to block wireless signals”.
Post-Soviet societies are particularly adept at information technology because they have caught up with Western infrastructure “in one leap, instead of going through all the stages,” says Liscovitch. He calls the Ukrainian government’s smartphone app Diia, (meaning “the state and me”), unbelievable and unbelievable. Set up by Ukrainian Minister of Digital Technology Mykhailo Federov before the war, it is now used by ordinary citizens to claim reparations for destroyed property, report evidence of Russian war crimes and locate Russian targets.
I firmly separate the ideological current that has taken hold of the government from the people as a whole
The looting of washing machines, appliances and even toilets by the invading forces gave the impression of an ignorant horde. But it would be foolish to underestimate Russia’s high-tech prowess, warns Liscovitch. Russia has an analogue of Diaa, called Gosuslugi, as well as world-class technology companies, including the search engine Yandex and SberBank, the successor to the Soviet savings bank.
Liscovitch understands Russia better than most Ukrainians. “I firmly separate the ideological stream that has taken over the government from the people as a whole,” he says. He believes that Russian support for the war is the result of superficial conformity, “not some kind of rot among the population”. Rereading William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, he sees parallels with German support for Nazism. “Hitler’s speeches weren’t much different from what Putin says. He described everything as preventive and defensive moves.
Liscovitch sees a certain irony in his role. “I should be the poster boy for Putin’s stereotypical Russian-speaking Eastern European who spent his formative years in Moscow,” he says. “I should be greeting his tanks with flowers and I’m not. I’m doing everything I can to make sure he doesn’t take over Ukraine.