Forget Iron Dome: Ukraine Wants Israel’s Pegasus to Fight Putin

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister says his country is looking for more ‘proactive’ support from Israel and Israeli firms in its war against Russia, but refuses to say whether Israelis are involved in the so-called IT army

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Ukraine's cyber czar wants Israeli tech firms to be more proactive in providing help to his country.
Ukraine's cyber czar wants Israeli tech firms to be more proactive in providing help to his country. Credit: ARIS MESSINIS / AFP / BeeBright, Anastasia Shub

Ukraine wants Israel to supply it with cyberoffense technologies, including the now-infamous Pegasus spyware made by the NSO Group, the beleaguered country’s deputy prime minister and digital czar told Haaretz this week.

“We’re calling for more support from the Israeli side, both from individuals and companies alike,” Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Zoom call Monday as the Russian bombardment of his country neared its fourth week.

In his speech to the Knesset the previous day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had asked Israel to supply Ukraine with arms. When asked if his country would also like Israel to arm it with cyberoffense tools, specifically NSO’s Pegasus, Fedorov echoed his president’s comments. “Sure we would. We would definitely want it, and need it – it would be instrumental,” he said.

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Israeli cyber exports are overseen by the Defense Ministry. When asked if Israeli cyberfirms can supply Ukraine with technology, a ministry spokesperson refused to respond, saying it does not comment on specific countries.

As far as is known, Ukraine has never been a client of NSO, which is best known for its Pegasus spyware that allows clients to snoop on targets by secretly accessing their cellphones.

The Guardian and Washington Post both reported Wednesday that Israel has long rejected official requests from Ukraine to receive NSO's spyware system.

Mykhalio Fedorov, Ukraine's deputy prime minister and digital czarCredit: Dubetskyi-Ph

Sources in the Israeli cyber field say they believe that requests to export to Ukraine today would likely be turned down by Israeli authorities.

“We have reached out to a number of Israeli companies and we’ve had a number of discussions – but frankly, we would like a more proactive [approach] and a more receptive position from the Israeli companies than we are getting right now,” Fedorov said.

In one example of tech support it has already received internationally, Ukraine is using the facial recognition technology of U.S.-based firm Clearview AI. According to Fedorov, its most frequent use is for “recognizing the faces of Russian soldiers killed in action, because usually they would be sent [to fight in Ukraine from Russia] without any documents.”

According to the minister, the Ukrainians then contact the Russian families of the deceased soldiers to inform them of the deaths. “We would identify the person and reach out to the parents, and we would offer them the options they have regarding what’s happened to their kid,” he said.

Fedorov conceded that the move, while humanitarian in nature, is part of a wider strategy and is intended to undermine support in Russia for the invasion.

He refused to reveal which Israeli companies were active in Ukraine, but said Kyiv was “working with a number of companies and we would like to keep these relationships private, even for the sake of the companies themselves.”

A ceremony for a deceased Russian naval captain in Crimea on Wednesday. Ukraine is using facial-recognition technology to inform Russian families of soldiers' deaths. Credit: /AP

Officially, Fedorov said, “as far as our ministry is concerned right now, we have no ongoing cooperations with Israeli companies. We have had a lot of discussions, but currently we are not using any Israeli capabilities.”

While frustrated by the lack of a proactive approach from Israel or Israeli tech firms, Fedorov did praise the initiative by SpaceX chief Elon Musk to supply his country with Starlink satellite internet terminals.

Calling SpaceX “a prime example of a proactive and tremendously helpful position from a private sector company,” the minister said Ukraine had “received a number of Starlink terminals from Musk, and we are continuing to get shipments both from Musk and Starlink – but also from a group of [cyber] ministers in EU member countries that we’re working with.”

Among their intended uses: Getting internet access and communications back to the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol, which has been bombarded by Russian forces for nearly a month.

“Little by little, we’re managing to keep at least some of the people online,” the minister said, adding that Ukrainian telecom firms were “working under fire” to reconnect the severed city to the rest of the country.

Hacker army

Elon Musk pictured a few years ago.Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

After the Russian invasion began on February 24, Fedorov was instrumental in setting up Ukraine’s so-called IT army – a volunteer group of cyber warfare warriors. He explained that the Ukrainians have two channels of communication with the volunteers, through which they provide them with a bank of targets. He said there was a public list of targets and also a more private one.

Fedorov refused to confirm if Israelis were active in his country’s “cyber resistance.” He also refused to confirm if the IT army was behind the recent hack on Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, in which a report appeared on its website for more than six hours Monday stating that nearly 10,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in Ukraine. Many believe the hack was a form of information warfare by Ukraine intended to demoralize the Russians.

“I will have much more freedom to discuss the results of the IT army’s work after the war is over,” Fedorov said.

He also refused to address claims that Ukraine was countering Russian disinformation with disinformation of its own. What he did say, however, was that his country was “reach[ing] out to Russian citizens in various ways and channels, to make sure they know the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine.”

For his first two years at the ministry, Fedorov said, “all we did was try to create value, try to deliver services that would be useful to our citizens and businesses. We’ve been trying to just endure the cyberattacks and would never go on the counteroffensive. But when Russia actually invaded Ukraine and tanks started rolling and bombs started falling, we decided to go on the counterattack,” he said.

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