04.04.2022 Finance Luxembourg

Tanks vs. tech: The real-time war in Ukraine

Three decades ago, the white, blue and red Russian flag was raised in Moscow, signaling the end of the Soviet Union. Right around that time, the English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and introduced the first website. 

Today, we all recognize the impact of the first historical event on the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. Countless commentators have noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a young KGB officer in 1991, appears at least partly motivated by a desire to restore his country’s former global relevance and glory. But the second event – the birth of the digital age – may matter just as much, or even more.

The war in Ukraine may be about dictatorship vs. democracy, Communism vs. capitalism, and subjugation vs. liberty. Through the lens of history, however, it can also be seen as a conflict between the old order and the new, emerging world. Think of it as tanks vs. tech.

Putin’s forces are attacking Ukraine with large numbers of armored vehicles. We have all seen images and videos of these lumbering machines, frequently in flames after being destroyed by hand-held anti-tank missiles and, increasingly, unmanned drones guided by remote.

As Ukraine’s annual defense budget of €5.5 billion is less than one-tenth that of Russia’s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, some of those unmanned defensive weapons are being acquired through online crowdfunding. Indeed, the Ukrainian government has so far raised some €100 million in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, accounting for 60% of all private donations. This goes beyond the traditional digital financial ecosystem into Blockchain-based finance.

What we see here is, literally, tanks vs. tech.

Ukraine – whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, now has nearly 6 million Twitter followers – is also of course harnessing the power of social media. Whether urging resistance, appealing for assistance or documenting in real time the human cost of conflict, this is “the world’s first TikTok war,” as Kyle Chayka recently characterized it in The New Yorker.

On this battlefield, the Russian bombing of TV towers to prevent the Ukrainian government from coordinating its forces may prove futile. Resistance is instead being coordinated via broadband and mobile, as well as through Elon Musk’s Starlink nanosatellite network. Consider that when President Zelensky recently addressed the US Congress, he did so from his iPad in Kyiv, over Zoom and via Starlink.

For Ukrainians, that’s probably not surprising. Until the war started, Ukraine was an increasingly important IT hub. Technology is one of the country’s top exports, with industry growth up 36% last year alone.

Something different is also in play. The West has been able to isolate Russia by largely disconnecting it from the global “digital” financial system, including SWIFT. In today’s world, if a country is not connected to others, it cannot benefit from the network effect. And even when the price of oil surges, as it has since February, fossil fuel is not as valuable as technology or the intellectual property that underlies it. That’s why, as the Russian chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov said when arguing for sanctions on oligarchs, one way to win this war is to “use banks, not tanks.”

We would go a step further and say this war could eventually be won by apps and code. Time will tell, of course. But there is always value in reflecting on the lessons of history and thinking about the long-term future.

One of the lasting legacies of the war in Ukraine, like that of the Covid pandemic, could be the far greater global adoption of innovative technology – whether to reduce geopolitical risk or empower people, to facilitate dialogue and the flow of information, to fight injustice and help rebuild.

Source: Pinaki Das, Head of Thematic Research - Quintet Private Bank