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Ukraine's digital war. Plus: how computers changed chess – Financial Times

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Lilah Raptopoulos
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This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: Ukraine’s digital war. Plus: how computers changed chess
Lilah Raptopoulos
Earlier this year, an IT engineer named Roman Perimov was about to start a new job. Roman’s from Ukraine. He studied nuclear engineering in Kyiv, and then he built a successful career in IT. He worked remotely for a ton of western companies. This February, Roman was about to make a big move to Philadelphia to work for a major Fortune 500 company.
Gillian Tett
And he was literally, he had the business ready. He was moving his family. Everything was all systems go. And then the war broke out. And he, like many talented Ukrainian engineers, decided that it was his patriotic duty to not move and be comfortable in the west, but to go back and fight.
Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s Gillian Tett, FT columnist and chair of our US editorial board. Gillian recently featured Roman in a piece she wrote about how Ukraine is fighting a new type of war. I’ve linked to it in the show notes. Julian has been reporting on post-Soviet countries for decades, and she’s been really taken by the way Ukraine is fighting back against Russia. It’s unusual. It reminds her of the open source spirit of the internet.
Gillian Tett
Much of the defence of Ukraine has come about not because of top-down orders or vertical hierarchies, but because of bottom-up improvisation by a huge number of digital savvy people working in the Ukrainian military. And what’s fascinating is that this network goes all the way over to Silicon Valley and has brought in a lot of the techie entrepreneurs who’ve been driving American innovation in recent decades and are now turning their attention to Ukraine.
Lilah Raptopoulos
It’s been six months since the war in Ukraine started. Today we meet some of the people in Ukraine fighting it. Gillian says that they’re fighting a lateral war versus a vertical one. A war that’s using western connections and training to protect against a bigger, stronger and much more old fashioned enemy. According to Gillian, it seems to be helping. Then we talked to Oliver Roeder, the senior data journalist in New York, about the latest in the world of professional chess. Now that computers are magnitudes better than humans, the game has substantially changed. This is FT Weekend. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos.
[MUSIC FADES]
Lilah Raptopoulos
Gillian, you have told this really heartening story that to me really brought the Russia-Ukraine war to life in a very tangible way. And you’re talking to us about it during your vacation because this story means a lot to you. Tell me why. Why is it important to you that we that we know about this?
Gillian Tett
Well, I care deeply about what’s happening in Ukraine because I did my PhD in the former Soviet Union when it was the Soviet Union. I’ve been to Kyiv many times. It’s one of my favourite cities, and I have been admiring the way that parts of Ukraine and civil society have been trying to build an independent, functioning civil society in recent years. So I’ve been horrified by what’s been happening and deeply saluted, admire the brave people in Ukraine who are trying to stand up using all the resources they can find, including the digital ones.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Here’s why the digital aspect of this war is so important. When Putin invaded in February, no one knew what a war in Europe could look like in the digital age. For example, Russia could cause internet blackouts. And it did. It could bomb cell towers, and it did that, too.
Gillian Tett
Nothing in cyber space works without internet. And it was very clear right at the beginning of the war that if Ukraine couldn’t get a, if you like, bombproof system of internet installed, it was going to be very vulnerable because there’s two ways to stop the internet, you can either hack it through cyber hackers or you can literally knock out the cell towers and the connection that way through missile strikes.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Luckily, Ukrainians had a lot of connections in Silicon Valley. They’ve actually built them up over the past few decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Gillian Tett
One of the things most people don’t realise if they’re not inside Ukraine is that after the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine began to become the back office or the outsourcing centre for many, many western companies. And it did so to an extraordinary degree. Something similar happened in Russia, but in Russia, the coaches and the engineers tended to serve Russian companies. In Ukraine, you had a new generation of IT workers coming up who were essentially serving global companies because the Ukrainian market was so small. And what happened was that these people learnt English. They got plugged into western corporate networks. They learnt western corporate values, and they travelled the world. And essentially Roman Perimov was one of those.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Remember Roman Perimov from the start of the show? He’s one of these digital soldiers.
Gillian Tett
He went to enlist and as soon as the enlistment officer saw what his background was, they said: Well, we would basically want you to go and create the tech hub and tech back-office for one of our military brigades. So Perimov was essentially asked to go and create the equivalent of an IT operation for the military brigade. He was the chief technology officer, CTO.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Roman says he was given too old computers, half-dead printer and unreliable internet. And he got started building a hub. He recruited 30 coders and engineers to work for him. He got equipment, and then they realised they needed better internet, which meant they were going to need the help of Elon Musk. Elon Musk had invented these terminals called Starlinks. They looked like little portable satellite dishes, and they connect to a network of orbital satellites so their job is to help distribute high-speed broadband internet across rural areas and hard to reach places.
Gillian Tett
One of the things that’s very striking about the Starlink terminals that Elon Musk developed is that there are fragmented distributed system in that you have lots and lots of tiny terminals spread all over a large space. And if you if you knock out one, as long as the others are still working, you can still have internet. And that’s different from a centralised system where you have a lot of concentration on certain nodes, like a cell tower, where if you knock out the cell tower, then everything goes down.
Lilah Raptopoulos
So the head of the digital ministry sent out a tweet asking Elon Musk to send them Starlinks. Ukrainian tech entrepreneurs who had connections with Silicon Valley VCs tapped those connections privately, and within hours, Musk responded. He sent hundreds of Starlinks to Poland, to Roman Perimov’s team.
Lilah Raptopoulos
So, Gillian, can you tell me sort of like what his day to day tasks would look like? Like what were the sorts of things that he was doing to grow this operation? You know, it seems like there’s a lot of ingenuity, right? Were there other things that they realised they needed that they could ask other start-ups to help with, that they were realising over time? How did it start to unfold?
Gillian Tett
So the first wave of problems they were trying to solve were very simple ones, like how do we get hold of Starlinks and how do we hide them from Russian bombs? And what angle do we have to point them out to get the best signals from the satellite? Things like that and all that kind of collaboration and swapping of ideas enabled them to procure Starlinks on a large scale, to devise all kinds of camouflage systems and hard cases to protect them. Then they started swapping ideas about things like, how do we position drones? How do we guide drones? They swapped ideas about how to create secure communication networks. They quite remarkably posted the coordinates of targets that they wanted the artillery to hit so that maybe one unit would spot something they wanted to be hit like a tank or an ammunition dump, post the coordinates on an open-source platform like GitHub or one of the others. And another unit who didn’t actually know the first unit at all would see those coordinates and pick them up and work on it. And then they were solving problems like how do we take these pieces of equipment that America’s giving us with software and digital capabilities? So what Perimov does is literally sit there with a group of his techies, and they embark on hackathons, and they code away, and they try and solve problems and innovate better ways of fighting.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. That’s incredible.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
Roman is one of many people working like this. Gillian also spoke with a man named Andrey Liscovich. He’s a tech entrepreneur and the former CEO of a subsidiary of Uber called Uber Works.
Gillian Tett
So the Army put him in charge of logistics and trying to use all the knowhow he had gathered from Uber to try and make the military work better. So just as Uber coders and engineers and innovators spent hours watching drivers and passengers to try and develop the best possible tech solutions to serve them as customers, essentially what Andrey’s been doing is using that same approach called user experience research. He’s been trying to apply that to the Ukrainian army and watching the soldiers in action to see what they need.
Lilah Raptopoulos
This way of thinking and this relationship that Ukraine has developed with Silicon Valley, it makes them extremely well-placed in this war. Gillian says it comes down to two very different military strategies. Russia’s strategy relies on a vertical hierarchy. It’s the way wars have historically been fought. Orders come down from the top. Soldiers carry out those orders. But Ukraine strategy is distributed and decentralised. It’s much more modern and adaptive.
Gillian Tett
Sometimes you have hierarchical systems where someone at the top issues commands and everyone below them obeys them. And information gathering happens at the bottom of the pyramid and is passed up. But sometimes you have groups of people who organise themselves in a lateral way whereby each person talks directly to somebody else on their level without going up to the boss.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.
Gillian Tett
And the innovation is driven bottom up through experimentation and communication and collaboration and competition as well. And that approach is radically different from the way that most military organisations have operated in the past, where you tend to have very rigid hierarchies, where the boss give orders and the people at the bottom obey and then pass of information.
Lilah Raptopoulos
You know, I’ve been visualising this in my head as like Russia as this massive ship, and Ukraine as this little speedboat. But I’m curious how you would envision it, like sort of as a metaphor.
Gillian Tett
Well, I tend to think about, you know, a gigantic waddling bear that’s big and ferocious and strong, but having a nippy little dog dancing around its heels, and confusing it, biting it in different places.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah
Gillian Tett
Or you can try and visualise it as, you know, a, you know, waddling big company being disrupted by small start-ups.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.
Gillian Tett
And that’s a model that many techies like to use.
Lilah Raptopoulos
So, Gillian, do you have a sense of how effective this lateral strategy has actually been in practise?
Gillian Tett
I can’t say exactly how much this has changed the pattern on the battlefield per se, but what is clear is that the fact that Ukraine could keep communicating in this lateral way throughout the war, the fact that they’ve managed to bring in equipment, ideas, strategy so quickly has almost certainly helped them enormously. On the people I’ve been speaking to for my story say that if it was not for the presence of these lateral networks, Ukraine would have lost long ago. And the fact that they can effectively use what little material they have or equipment they have to pinpoint places for artillery strikes, find ways of shooting Russian drones out of the sky, share ideas about where they should be attacking or not, I’m told, is one of the key reasons why they put out such a huge defence.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. Gillian, thank you for your reporting. Thank you for your time. We really appreciate it.
Gillian Tett
And thank you for your interest.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
Lilah Raptopoulos
The other day, I was watching professional chess online with my colleague Oliver Roeder. We were watching footage from the most competitive chess tournament in the world.
News clip
I was wondering if Lex sacrifices the [inaudible]. Is this a winning position?
Oliver Roeder
So we are watching chess.com’s broadcast of round 11 of the Candidates Tournament.
Lilah Raptopoulos
This tournament is a huge deal in the chess world. It happens every other year and whoever wins gets to challenge the world champion for his title. I’m using “his”” because it is overwhelmingly men. Only one woman has ever played in the Candidates. So Oliver is playing me a part of this broadcast. It’s a big game. The players are vying for the number two spot. We’re almost 7 hours into this game.
News clip
This rook sacrificed itself for these pawns. If we take away all the pieces that I have highlighted red, that’s the draw . . . 
News clip
That that’s the miracle . . . 
Lilah Raptopoulos
Because the players take a long time to think through their moves, there’s plenty of time for commentator chit-chat like this. We’re talking, like, 35 minutes between moves. Everyone’s just kind of waiting around. But then . . . 
Candidates Tournament comments
Woah . . . Rook [inaudible] . . . Oh my gosh. He put it on the worst square. The worst possible square because the rook can’t block . . .
Lilah Raptopoulos
They’re mad (laughter).
Oliver Roeder
He put it on the worst possible square. The worst. I think it’s fair to say that if that wasn’t the most exciting moment of the Candidates Tournament, it was the most valuable moment of the Candidates Tournament.
Lilah Raptopoulos
You might be wondering why Oliver and I are watching chess in the middle of the day. It’s because he had just come back from Madrid, where he went to a Candidates Tournament. Oliver is a senior data journalist at the FT. He knows a lot about games, and he wrote a piece for FT Weekend Magazine that makes it clear that professional chess is going through massive changes. Over the last 30 years, chess and computers have become entwined, and that’s causing a clash between new technology and a centuries-old game. Did you notice in the clip you just heard, the commentators knew that the game was over the second a move was made, but it took the players themselves a few minutes to know for sure. That’s because the commentators use computers that can calculate what one move means for all the next moves. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much machines are changing the game. It’s interesting like to know more than the players as they’re playing is kind of like an interesting dynamic that probably didn’t used to exist.
Oliver Roeder
Yeah, that’s right. That is sort of facilitated by the machine, the fact that the commentators have the computer. It’s facilitated by the fact that the commentators are very, very strong players themselves. But yeah, I mean, even, even I, as a very middling player viewing this, know what the best move is because it’s right there on my screen, thanks to the AI, thanks to what are called chess engines.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Players, of course, can’t use computers during a match, but they are using the chess engines to train. And then through the training, they’re becoming a little superhuman. And while this is making the players better, it’s actually making the game more boring. The big news after the Candidates was that the world’s top player, Magnus Carlsen, dropped out of the upcoming world championship. And that meant that the Candidates Tournament winner won’t get the chance to dethrone the best. The reason Magnus gave for quitting? He’s bored. Compare this to the Candidates Tournament.
Lilah Raptopoulos
OK. So you went to the candidates tournament. You got there the first day. You were there for . . . 
Oliver Roeder
About a week.
Lilah Raptopoulos
About a week. What was it like? Can you set the scene?
Oliver Roeder
Yeah, it was in the centre of Madrid in a neighbourhood called Barrio de las Letras, neighbourhood of the letters. And the tournament took place in something called Palacio de Santonio, sort of a gorgeous old palace in this neighbourhood, sort of nestled among these, you know, narrow brick streets. And then inside the palace, there were a few sort of separate venues. There was the auditorium where the fans could watch the games on a large screen. And there was a studio so Chess.com was doing live streaming broadcasts from the venue. And then there was, of course, where the players played in, in a very small, very, very quiet, very, very closely guarded room, because, of course, these players are so focused for hours at a time when they’re playing and sort of so sensitive to distraction.
Lilah Raptopoulos
And you were in the room when the players, you were one of the very few people . . . 
Oliver Roeder
I was. I finagled an invitation into the inner sanctum. Yeah . . . 
Lilah Raptopoulos
Then tell me what it’s like in there, like it is exhausting, right? It’s like . . . 
Oliver Roeder
Sure. So, yeah, the players games are timed, there are clocks, but the time they’re given is pretty ample. So the games could stretch, you know, four or five, six, even seven hours. And it’s very, very difficult for me to imagine concentrating on anything for seven straight hours. But they do. Day after day after day. And, you know, there’s studies about how many calories this burns. And chess players talk a lot about how they need to be in excellent physical shape, which sounds a bit silly until you sort of realise indeed how demanding it is to sit and concentrate, which again sounds very silly, but I promise you it’s true.
Lilah Raptopoulos
When you’re watching a professional chess tournament, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on in the players heads. Oliver says that nowadays they’re running through different chess games they’ve already played against computers. It’s what they do to train, playing hundreds and thousands of times. So, Oliver, can you tell me a little bit more about like you say that when the players are in the room and they have the time, then they’re going through all the things that they basically learnt from a computer. Can you tell me about that? So in their preparation, they’re quite literally sort of trying moves and seeing how the computer responds and then memorising that response. Like, how does it work?
Oliver Roeder
Yeah, I think that’s about right. So to start with, there’s this sort of accumulated trove of sort of human literature about how to begin a chess game. And the computers are helping us as humans. And then the players at the Candidates sort of push this frontier bit by bit by bit.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right

Oliver Roeder
So if you start off in, say, the Ruy Lopez opening, also known as the Spanish Game, a very common sort of three or four move sequence to begin games. You can imagine paths off of that opening. Well, what do I do on the fifth move? What do I do on the sixth, seventh, eighth? And the computer can sort of vet your ideas so maybe on my eighth move, I’ll move this pawn instead of that one. You stick that into the computer, and the computer says, oh, that’s actually that seems OK. That seems safe. Or the computer says, nope, that’s terrible because da da da da, ten moves from now.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Wow. And so at that stage, like, how far down a game in all these different iterations is a player who’s been practising with a computer know it.
Oliver Roeder
Right. So now to start with, there are no players who don’t practise with computers.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.
Oliver Roeder
Computers are necessary companions. You just have to have them. But yeah, in terms of sort of how many moves ahead might you think? I think it’s a bit hard to quantify. But one example comes to mind, which is from the last world championship in late 2021 between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen. And the two played a relatively quick game. I, if I remember correctly, it was about 23 moves and it ended in a draw. And after the game, in the postgame press conference, Nepomniachtchi said that he had seen this entire game play out on his computer well before he even arrived in Dubai for the world championship.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Here’s the thing, because of all this computer training players are way better than they were 50 years ago. Incomprehensibly better. That’s what Oliver told me. And this is what’s making playing in the 21st century so exhausting. You’re trying to pull up entire games from your memory and you’re doing it against other people who are amazing at it, too. It’s also what’s making the game boring. Players have gotten so good that a lot of the games are ending in draws. Basically everyone’s as good as everyone else. In 2018, all 12 games in the World Chess Championships ended in a draw. Interestingly, the way these tournaments break a draw is to have players switch to a shorter game: speed chess, which is the chess that most people are playing on the internet anyway. So players, including Magnus Carlsen, are actually asking tournaments to include speed chess from the beginning.
Magnus Carlsen
I’m not retiring from chess. I’m still going to be an active player. I enjoy playing tournaments a lot. Obviously, I joined them a lot more than I enjoyed the World Championship, and frankly, I don’t see myself stopping as a chess player any time soon.
Lilah Raptopoulos
And then the differences in these rapid games, you don’t really have the time to strategise that much like it’s . . . 
Oliver Roeder
Yeah, you don’t have time to sort of remember. You don’t have time to sort of recall your preparation. And yeah, you might get into an attractive position, but you might not remember how to continue. And if you’re playing, say, a blitz game, you only have 5 minutes to play out your entire game. You know, even spending 30 seconds on a move would be an eternity.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. I can see how a rapid game would be more exciting, though. I can see how it could feel like there’s a little bit more spontaneity to it or drama.
Oliver Roeder
Yeah, and as we saw in the screaming video, that was a mistake. That’s why it was so exciting. You know, there’s not screams if a player makes the perfect move.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Right (laughter)
Oliver Roeder
The perfect move is de facto, is the de facto expectation. And that’s true, I think in a lot of, you know, sports, it’s very engaging to see the best in the world make mistakes, be fallible. I think it’s engaging for us very, very fallible fans.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Weeks after the candidates tournament ended, Magnus Carlsen officially announced that he wouldn’t face the candidates winner Ian Nepomniachtchi.
Magnus Carlsen
Yeah, it’s very simple that I am not motivated to play another match. I don’t particularly like it.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Let’s be clear. We can’t assume that the only reason Magnus is out is because of the speed chess thing. Oliver says Magnus is incredible. He’s better than anyone who’s ever played. And it’s possible that no rules would please him. But in his statements about the World Championship, Magnus said that he was stepping aside because it’s a grind. Three weeks, up to eight hours of chess a day. And he said he’s not retiring from chess entirely. He listed half a dozen tournaments he planned to play in the next few months. As you might have guessed, these are tournaments that include or are entirely speed chess. So, Oliver, where do you fall on the professional level the world championship match needing to change, where do you fall on whether we need to limit computers in chess somehow? What do you think?
Oliver Roeder
I think to the first part of the question, I agree with Carlsen and other top players who have argued that the match sort of needs an update and an edit. And I think the match should include this sort of slow, ponderous, what are often called classical games of chess. But I also think it should include what are called rapid and blitz games, these games that more closely mirror the game as played by its fans and its congregants. The games played on the internet. And I think, you know, you could have a championship match that was sort of a blend of classical rapid blitz and sort of run the gamut of chess as it’s played in all its guises. I think that would be more relatable, more fun and still sort of harking back to these, you know, centuries old roots of the world championship. As for eliminating the computer, I mean, I think that’s like that horse is very, very far out of the barn, and I think it’s a net positive for the game. Democratising study, accelerating study, that kind of thing. But I think, you know, by playing, by playing these faster games in the world championship, for example, or in other top tournaments, you do sort of lessen dependence on the computer. But I think the computer in chess and almost every other game that humans play seriously and computer is here to stay.
Lilah Raptopoulos
Oliver, thank you so much. This is so interesting.
Oliver Roeder
Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s the show this week. Thank you for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. If you want to say hi, we love hearing from you. You can email us at ftweekendpodcast@ft.com. The show is on Twitter at FTWeekendPod, and I’m on Instagram and Twitter @lilahrap. I ask a lot of questions that feed into the show on my Instagram. A reminder that the weekend festival in London is coming up. It’s on Saturday, September 3rd, at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. We’re actually really excited to meet you there. We will have a table set up with some mics so that you can maybe be on the show. So come find us. You can buy a ticket at ft.com/ftwf. That link and a discount code is in the show notes. Links to everything mentioned today are also in the show notes alongside a link to the best offers available on a subscription to the FT, including 50 per cent off a digital sub and a great deal on FT Weekend in print. Those offers are at ft.com/weekendpodcast. Make sure to use that link. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos, and here’s my incredible team. Katya Kumkova is our senior producer. Lulu Smyth is our producer. Our sound engineers are Breen Turner and Sam Giovinco with original music by Metaphor Music. Topher Forhecz is our executive producer and special thanks go to Cheryl Brumley. Have a wonderful weekend, and we’ll find each other again next week.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
Tom Parker
A new episode of the Next Five podcast is out now, and it’s all about cyber security.
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Tom Parker
 . . . And what the next five years in a cyber future will look like.
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Listen now to the Next Five wherever you get your podcasts. Enjoy.
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