By Max Boot

May 1, 2023

The Washington Post

The fate of Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive will hinge on the capabilities of its armed forces, but another factor will also be of great importance: the Ukrainians working diligently behind the scenes to supply the front-line fighters with the weapons and equipment they need to overcome the more numerous Russian invaders.

One of those Ukrainians visited my office in New York recently. With his fluent, lightly accented English, goatee, open-neck shirt, and blazer, Andrey Liscovich looks and sounds like the Silicon Valley entrepreneur he was until the Russian invasion began in February 2022. How he went from running high-tech start-ups to defending a start-up nation is a microcosm of how Ukraine has been able to harness the talents and energy of its people far more effectively than Russia has done.

Liscovich was born in Zaporizhzhia, a city in southern Ukraine best known for a nearby nuclear power plant, in 1984, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He grew up speaking Russian and attended college in Moscow. He then moved to the United States in 2007 and received a PhD from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2015. He created a tech start-up while still in graduate school and then, after getting his degree, went to work for Uber, where he became chief executive of a new subsidiary called Uber Works, matching gig workers to employment opportunities. Uber Works was closed down during the pandemic. In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, he was working on a new internet platform for human capital investment.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin gravely miscalculated if he expected that his invasion would be welcomed by Russian speakers such as Liscovich. Alarmed and appalled by the attack on his homeland, Liscovich told me, he immediately left his home in San Francisco to return to Zaporizhzhia. After evacuating his parents from harm’s way, he went to an army recruiting office to volunteer. When they heard about his background, he recalled, the Ukrainian officers decided he would be more valuable scrounging up equipment for fighters than joining the fighting. So he went around the region using his own credit card and donations sent to him by friends via Venmo to buy supplies for troops — everything from socks to Starlink satellite terminals.

That soon led him to create his own organization, the Ukraine Defense Fund, to supply nonlethal equipment to Ukrainian defense forces. Many of his original volunteers and donors were Uber employees. More than a year later, he’s still at it. Thanks to a donation from a “tech luminary” who would rather remain anonymous, Liscovich said, he recently started drawing a salary for the first time — “a very small fraction” of what he used to earn.

Much of the media focus in the past year has been on Ukraine’s need for weapons and ammunition, and those things are undoubtedly important. But Ukraine’s military also depends on drones, generators and other hardware. Liscovich told me, for example, that “uncorrected” artillery fire requires 60 rounds to strike a single target. By contrast, artillery fire “corrected” with the aid of a drone can hit the target in five rounds or fewer. Given that Russia has far more artillery and far more ammunition, it’s vital for Ukraine to aim its fire more accurately than the invaders’ blunderbuss approach.

That’s where the Ukraine Defense Fund, and other nongovernmental organizations, come in. Liscovich told me he helped broker a deal with Germany’s Defense Ministry to provide 138 fixed-wing drones that have longer ranges than the cheap, short-range quadcopters that both sides use — often made by the same Chinese company, DJI. He also said that he brokered deals to provide commercial satellite imagery to the Ukrainian army, Chinese batteries for Western-donated armored personnel vehicles and German-made radio-frequency sensors that can track the electronic signatures of Russian drones.

He is now working to address other Ukrainian needs, including more vehicles of all kinds, more satellite internet terminals, more two-way radios, more computer networking equipment, more generators and batteries, and more sensors. One of his ingenious ideas is to buy hundreds of used school buses from the United States to move Ukrainian troops and to serve as mobile command posts and even mobile shower facilities for troops. He told me he can get the buses for $5,000 each, but that shipping them to Ukraine will cost two to three times as much. He is now negotiating with shipping lines to get the costs down.

The Ukraine Defense Fund is far from alone in aiding the Ukrainian military. There are even bigger Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations, such as Come Back Alive and the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to buy equipment. Liscovich said his niche is to act as a broker between the Ukrainian military and Western vendors, donors and governments, with a focus on nonlethal equipment.

He finds his current job “shockingly similar” to his previous Silicon Valley employment: “What you are doing is solving a series of problems in which you don’t have a prior background. When I started, I had no military background. You just go in so you’re close to the end user and understand their problems. You don’t ask them what the solution should be; you offer them a solution and ask their reaction. That’s the playbook Silicon Valley runs on.”

Of course, in Ukraine, it’s hard for Western vendors to interact with their “end users” — i.e., troops in combat. That’s where Liscovich comes in: He talks to the troops, and he talks to Western governments and companies. After trips to the West, he returns to Zaporizhzhia, where he continues to live despite regular rocket attacks from Russian forces, whose front lines are only 25 miles away. (He showed me iPhone videos of rocket explosions.) Liscovich said he can’t wait to go back to his old life in San Francisco, “but now is not the time. Now is the time to use whatever connections and experience I have to help Ukraine win.”

Liscovich’s work strikes me as a good example of how Ukrainian civil society has mobilized to defend the nation. Russia relies on convicts, draftees and mercenaries to fight its war. Hundreds of thousands of Russians — including many of Liscovich’s friends, he said — have fled the country rather than be conscripted. Ukraine, by contrast, is relying on men and women such as Liscovich, who feel a passionate devotion to their homeland and who are willing to abandon their old lives to help defend it. That is a critical advantage that no amount of Russian firepower can overcome.


Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter