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Inside the ‘IT unit’: In Ukraine, an army of techies hone their skills in a unique battle against Russia

May 17, 2022, 2:02 PM UTC

In a valley in the Carpathian mountains of south-west Ukraine, a small group is engaged in battle with Russia—armed not with rockets and missiles, but with software and engineering skills, honed to bolster frontline fighters in the grueling three-month war.

The “IT unit,” as they call themselves, comprises about 20 tech engineers, managers, executives, and entrepreneurs, who have formed an unexpected back office for battles raging about 700 miles east of this picturesque town named Mukachevo.

Despite being dressed in combat fatigues, and living on a military base, they have minimal, or no, combat experience.

And yet, within hours of Russia invading Ukraine on Feb. 24,  all of them abandoned jobs at tech startups, consultancies and major Ukrainian companies, and headed to the nearest military registration post to report for duty in any wartime role for which they were eligible.

From competitors to comrades

Since then, the men have been attached to the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, which was once part of the Soviets’ Red Army and is now fighting the Russian military in south-eastern Ukraine. From a distance of hundreds of miles, they are helping the soldiers outwit the enemy on a crucial battlefront—the tech war.

“Somehow we have created a center of IT excellence, from this very provincial military base,” says Roman Perimov, 42, a tech consultant from the town of Irpin, near the capital Kyiv, which was battered by Russian artillery in February and March.

“We have 20 guys, from different companies, who usually compete with each other,” he says, as he leads me one sunny May afternoon through the men’s barracks, with bunk beds, where they have lived since February. “And now, we are a unit, working together for all.”

Heavily outnumbered by the Russian military, Ukraine has one clear advantage among its assets: The tech knowhow of fiercely devoted volunteers. By contrast, Russia faces a drastic tech brain drain, with thousands of engineers having left for other countries since President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine.

“The IT industry in Ukraine is well paid, and there are a lot of world-class specialists working in it,” Perimov says. “A lot of us didn’t want to go to the army before,” he says. “But when the war started there was more than enough reason to sign up.”

“Little but impossible things”

Behind high walls on the leafy military base in Mukachevo—a town ablaze with pink cherry blossoms in May—the men spend hours hunched over computer terminals, fielding urgent requests from the battlefield, about tech problems and needed equipment, and determining what the brigade most needs.

Early in the war, several IT unit members created an NGO called Dopomoga2022.org, to raise funds for the brigade’s needs, like night-vision binoculars and high-frequency radio transmitters. They say years of experience working in big Ukrainian tech companies has proved invaluable in budgeting and fundraising for the war. “I am a bad soldier, and my skills are more useful here,” says Kostiantyn Ilchenko, 31, a mid-level manager at Luxoft, a large automotive software developer in Kyiv, who helped created the NGO. “We do little but impossible things,” he says.

One of those impossible things has been figuring out how to build needed communications equipment, like radio antennae and repeaters, which are complicated to source and import during the war. Instead, the men scoured local stores and marketplaces for components, and pieced together the gear themselves on the base, before sending it to the brigade by military trains.

The unit has also installed and distributed numerous Starlinks—the low-orbit satellite system that is part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX; there are nearly 11,000 Starlinks now in use in Ukraine. It first tried to paint the bright-white satellite dishes dark, to conceal them from Russian drones, but the paint chipped off. So they hired a local company to sew elasticized covers from  camouflage cloth, rendering the Starlinks invisible from the air.

Targeting Russian drones

One of the brigade’s needs has proved far more difficult to meet: Urgent help in shooting down Russian attack drones.

After searching numerous options, the techies chose as the best solution an anti-drone system called SKYCtrl, made by Advanced Protection Systems in Gdansk, Poland, concluding that it had a long range, was simple to operate, and that it could detect and try to jam any drone, no matter the make.

“If you shoot one drone, the operator will take another and continue his work,” says Dmytro Savchenko, 35, an associate director of SoftServe, one of Ukraine’s biggest global IT companies, who is now in the brigade’s IT unit in Mukachevo. “The most successful scenario is where you can shoot the operator.”

The group began crowdfunding through its NGO Dopomoga2022—but at $250,000 per anti-drone system, the fund-raising has been slow, Savchenko says. By May 16, it had raised only $17,000. “This is one of the highest needs,” he says. “We need much more weapons, and all types.”

“Whatever it takes”

Sourcing weapons is a far cry from Savchenko’s regular skill set in the tech industry, which he lists on his LinkedIn profile—ironically including “conflict management.”

Like Savchenko, the other industry veterans in the IT unit say that the war has been a life-changing experience.

Until Feb. 24, Perimov was set to move to Philadelphia with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, to take up a job as project manager for “a Fortune 500 company” he did not want to name in print.

But he shelved that plan the moment Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. “After the war, I will do what I was planning,” he says. “For now, I am in the army—for whatever it takes, and for as long as needed.”

Ukraine's techies hone their skills against Russian forces

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