In hindsight, zhenya Podtikov realized, he should have known that Ukraine’s first Vector drone was not long for this world. But when it arrived at an army base in Lviv, in April 2022, he couldn’t help admiring it. “I was just surprised that drone hardware could look so good,” he said. The Vector came in pieces—its sharklike nose, sleek fuselage, and upright tail all polished to a tooth-enamel white. Its manufacturer, a German company called Quantum Systems, had designed the Vector so you could carry it, dismantled, in a backpack. Podtikov needed no tools and just a few minutes to unbox it, put it together, and send it up as a surveillance scout. Entirely on autopilot, it could take off, remain airborne for two hours, and return home, sending back rivers of encrypted video from as far as 20 miles away.
As a test pilot in the Ukrainian army, Podtikov was unaccustomed to such sophistication. He’d been flying drones since 2014—the year Russia annexed Crimea, the year he turned 18 and joined a unit of volunteers. All of the drones he’d launched were civilian models like the Vector, but they were lesser machines. One had to be propelled by catapult. The army’s only military-issue drones, a pair of lumbering aircraft left over from the Soviet era, didn’t even have digital cameras. “You had to have a separate room to develop their film,” Podtikov said, sounding as incredulous as any child of the 21st century.
On the front lines near Barvinkove, in eastern Ukraine, that first Vector lasted just two full flights; on the third flight, Ukrainian friendly fire took it down because the army’s radar units didn’t yet have a way to distinguish their own drones from Russia’s. Days later, a replacement unit took off toward enemy lines, but the Russians jammed its global navigation satellite system. Then the drone’s communications link with its pilot cut out. At this point, it should have abandoned its mission and navigated home, but without GNSS its sense of direction was thoroughly scrambled. The Vector flew north instead of south, right into Russian territory, and was never seen again. Frustrated, Ukraine’s drone pilots turned to the man who had helped procure the Vectors in the first place: a tech executive named Andrey Liscovich.
Liscovich is a strange, liminal figure produced by a novel sort of conflict. He is a civilian neck-deep in military work, a Silicon Valley emissary to battlefields beset by electronic warfare, a Thomas Friedman character cast into a Joseph Heller world. Having grown up in Zaporizhzhia, in eastern Ukraine, Liscovich went on to a PhD at Harvard and then a career in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a while, he was the CEO of Uber Works, an Uber offshoot that helped companies find on-demand staffing. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he moved back to Zaporizhzhia and, through circumstance more than intent, became a personal shopper for the Ukrainian army. He deals only in nonlethal equipment—merchandise that’s available off the shelf to everyone, or at most classified as “dual use,” suitable for both military and civilian applications. Generals and brigade commanders tell him what they need, and he roves the global tech souk, meeting manufacturers and inspecting their products. Then he cajoles wealthy friends or friendly nations to foot the bill and arranges for the matériel to be fetched to the front. In the year and a half since Russia invaded, he has wrangled everything from socks to sensors to Starlink terminals. The two downed Vectors were among his earliest acquisitions, paid for by a Ukrainian benefactor at more than $200,000 a pop.
Loosely speaking, Liscovich is an adviser to the general staff of the army, although the most he gets out of that is a military email ID. The army doesn’t compensate him for his service. Instead, Liscovich said, he cuts himself a paycheck out of donations from an American billionaire. (He wouldn’t say which one, but he assured me it was a household name.) He is one of at least 100 civilians who act as buying agents for Ukraine, an official in the general staff of the army told me. (The official asked to be anonymous: “Our government doesn’t like it when military people say something on the record without their permission.”) With its defense budget stretched thin, the Ukrainian government isn’t always willing to spring for “nonlethal things,” the official said. “They’re worried that if their partners pay for this, they’ll pay for fewer tanks or shells or HIMARS rocket launchers.” Civilian fixers are “a way to get around” this problem—and the official described Liscovich as the most effective of the bunch. “He’s out there on the front lines, asking questions, taking notes,” the official said. “He’s always doing his homework.” Since the war began, Liscovich has helped the army procure nearly $100 million in supplies. His is the kind of role that aristocrats played back in the 1800s, when their unelected influence extended to statecraft. Over the past century, as war became a nationalized state function, that species died out. Liscovich is a throwback: a Victorian with an iPhone.
Though Liscovich stays away from lethal technology, his ambit is vast. Never in the history of warfare has commercial technology played as big a role as it has in Ukraine, said Michael Brown, a former director of the US Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit. In part, Brown said, this is because Ukraine’s army has been innovative and scrappy. (“Of course,” he admitted, “they have to be—this is existential for them.”) But it’s also the culmination of a long, slow-cooked reversal in the flow of technology. A few decades ago, defense researchers built shiny new things—GNSS, for instance, and Arpanet, a precursor of the internet—and eventually bequeathed them to the general population. Now, Brown said, commercial companies are faster and can develop consumer products so cutting-edge that armies would do well to use them. It isn’t just that defense departments move ponderously; the private sector is also awash in far more money. “If you go back to 1960, the military was 36 percent of global R&D spending,” Brown said. “Today it’s barely more than 3 percent.”
Window-shopping is the easy part, though. The wares on the civilian market may be first-rate technology, allowing their users to get close-to-military-grade gear without incurring as much bureaucracy or expense. But they come with a congenital problem: They’re designed for peacetime customers—for cops and academics, hobbyists and corporations. Under the rigors of a live, hot war, these products break down. Pickup trucks, of the kind driven around suburban America, last a week to 10 days when they’re trying to outrun shelling in areas with no roads, the Ukraine army official said. Portable batteries overheat in the summer sun. The cables and outer shells of Starlink terminals have proven too flimsy for the Ukrainian front, so soldiers have gotten used to swapping them out for more rugged alternatives. It often falls to Liscovich to act as a go-between, shuttling information from soldiers to manufacturers and back again, trying to get them to speak each other’s language so the equipment can be hardened for battle. In the summer of 2022, that meant, among other things, figuring out whether Zhenya Podtikov’s beloved Vector drones could ever survive in the treacherous, jammed-up airspace above eastern Ukraine.