Ukraine hasn’t excluded Chinese telecoms suppliers Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment to rebuild its infrastructure damaged by Russia’s attacks on its territory, the country’s deputy digital minister Yegor Dubynskyi told POLITICO.
“Legally we are in a very strange situation,” Dubynskyi said. Kyiv is in talks with the United States and others to join Western initiatives to cut Huawei from 5G networks but the U.S. and allies “did not provide us with any official proof” of security risks associated with the Chinese vendor, he said.
“We have no official proof and according to the rules of transparent public procurement set by our partners, the United States and European Union, we have to give the contract to the [bidder] who will propose the lowest price — obviously it will be ZTE and Huawei,” he said.
“We are in a very, very tricky position right now,” he said.
Ukraine’s main donors in its war with Russia — notably the U.S., the EU and other Western allies — have all rolled out policies to decrease their reliance on Chinese telecom vendors or ban them entirely due to fears that such reliance poses security risks, exposes countries to potential espionage, and creates economic dependencies. Ukraine’s allies have also pledged to support the country in rebuilding its digital networks, and POLITICO reported earlier that Western officials have asked Kyiv how it plans to handle the risks associated with Huawei and ZTE.
Dubynskyi said Russia deliberately bombed 4,000 cell towers to cut the country from the digital world, adding that an assessment by the World Bank estimated it would cost around $2.3 billion (€2.2 billion) to restore the infrastructure.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said.
The Ukrainian government has considered measures against Chinese suppliers and its parliament previously proposed to ban them for use in government services, an official at the ministry for digital transition told POLITICO in August.
Ukraine’s foray into 5G also stopped after the war began. However, the country is in talks with the World Bank about the possibility of starting a pilot project to deliver 5G to certain areas and certain sectors like industry, medicine and defense. But that too will depend on finance, the deputy minister said.
“As you can imagine 5G in this situation is a challenging question,” said Dubynskyi.
The Ukrainian government is also working on a cloud strategy with the World Bank and SwedFund, taking into consideration “digital sovereignty, global cooperation and economic value,” Dubynskyi said. At present, it uses several providers of cloud services including IBM, Microsoft Azure, Oracle and Amazon Web Services. Ideally, he said, Ukraine will move toward a model in which it holds some data on the cloud and some on servers in the country.
“We started this digital migration as Russian troops are coming to some regions, we had to survive somehow and move the data,” said Dubynskyi. “So I literally had not weeks or days but hours to make this decision, but of course, we prefer to have all servers on the territory of Ukraine.”
One idea that has been floated is having a data center at a nuclear power plant, since the electricity from nuclear power is stable and the base is protected, the deputy minister said. But what if that became a military target?
“If someone [decides] to hit a nuclear power plant in the center of Europe, believe me, the last thing you will think about is, ‘Where’s your data center?’ Half of Europe will not be able to live,” Dubynskyi said.
Mathieu Pollet contributed reporting.
This article was updated to clarify Dubynskyi’s comments regarding Ukraine’s discussions with international partners.