KYIV -- Chatbots and other online initiatives have played a vital role in helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia's invasion.
Russian forces in Ukraine appear to be turning to a war of attrition with devastating effect on civilians after failing to secure swift gains when President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion one month ago, AFP reported Wednesday (March 23).
Capturing Kyiv was the Russians' top target as they entered the country on February 24, hoping to topple President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's administration.
But despite mobilising a force of between 150,000 and 200,000 troops, Moscow failed to anticipate Ukrainian resistance -- likely owing to Russian intelligence failures -- and made sloppy logistical preparations.
Crowdsourcing and cell phone technology have offered one avenue of such resistance for the Ukrainian defenders.
Following the start of the Russian invasion, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) launched the "STOP Russian War" chatbot on Telegram to enable citizens to report the location of Russian forces.
"If you see places where enemy forces are stationed, moving or massing, it's necessary to share the information with the staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine," the SBU said.
The chatbot has been accompanied by public announcements on Ukrainian television instructing viewers on how to find and use the chatbot.
The service enables anyone with a smartphone and cellular service to help Ukrainian intelligence.
The National Police of Ukraine (NPU) is also recruiting the public with the help of a chatbot.
The police initially launched "Narodnii mesnik", or the Ukraine Avanger [Avenger] Bot, for the public to report suspicious markings along roads.
Spies applied the markings to co-ordinate Russian troops, authorities suspected.
Ukrainian authorities urged residents to photograph and report the locations of the markings via the chatbot.
Since the launch of the bot, citizens have sent 22,926 messages regarding the markings, Alyona Vasilchenko, spokeswoman of the NPU's cyber police, told Caravanserai March 15.
The NPU has not updated information on such markings since then, given that the character of the war has changed.
At one point, the police began asking civilians to destroy the markings themselves after receiving too many messages.
"The operation of the chatbot has proven that civilians have come together around a shared goal: to drive the occupier off Ukrainian soil," Vasilchenko said.
"Through these messages, the public and the law enforcement agencies are forming a united front to combat the invader," she added.
In Kazakhstan, where locals fear the Kremlin could invade next, the military has been working for years modernising its "digital army" in a manner that could replicate the successes Ukraine is currently seeing against the invading Russian forces.
Such technology still faces challenges -- namely that it can easily fall victim to false reports and disinformation, say analysts.
"Using crowdsourcing to quickly receive open source intelligence is fabulous. But it has a disadvantage: the data delivered by a random person aren't verified," Roman Sologub, a cybersecurity specialist, told Caravanserai.
"This data still need to be filtered or checked. Ideally, the identity of the person who sent them should be checked," he said.
For its part, Ukraine's Ministry of Digital Transformation has addressed this problem by launching its own Telegram chatbot, eVorog (e-enemy), with one important addition.
"Before sending information about enemy forces through the chatbot (eVorog), users need to confirm their identity through the Diia app. That way we can be sure that the user is really a human," said Mstyslav Banik, director of the eServices Development Directorate of the Ministry of Digital Transformation.
The ministry created Diia in 2019 to allow the public to receive government services quickly, and it holds digital versions of citizens' most important documents, such as their passport or driver's license.
Authorisation in eVorog through the Diia app has proven to be very effective, Banik told Caravanserai.
He said his team received more than 100 verified messages on enemy troop movements in the first 24 hours in which the chatbot operated with verification through Diia, after which the team forwarded the tips to the SBU.
Diia's usual functionality has also been expanded, he added. App users can now keep up with the news by using the free services Diia.TV and Diia.Radio.
Television and radio are still important communication channels -- that is where the majority of the population hears about the Telegram chatbots that specialists created to fight the enemy, Banik said.
"The Russians are trying to attack TV towers and cut off cell phone connections... there are cities that are now temporarily occupied where the Russians are trying to silence all versions of state television channels," he said.
"So these people can open Diia and check out the information that's on it. If their signal is weak, they can always use the radio and listen to the news that way," said Banik.
'Russia Will Pay'
Other online initiatives are also under way, with some focusing on what will happen after the war.
The Russia Will Pay project, for example, seeks to collect "information about material damage inflicted on citizens and the state as a result of the Russian aggression".
"The Ukrainian government needs this information in order to assess the damage suffered by the state and citizens of Ukraine... and to develop cases against Russia in international courts for compensation of these losses," reads the project's mission statement.
The initiative is a joint effort of the Kyiv School of Economics, President Zelenskyy's office and the Cabinet of Ministers.
Anyone who has a smartphone and an internet connection can take a photo of damage caused by Russian soldiers and upload the photo to a website with a brief description and statement of location.
Meanwhile, Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov on February 26 also announced the creation of an "IT Army" of Ukraine to help protect critical infrastructure and conduct cyber-missions against Russian troops and websites, Reuters reported.
Since then, the Telegram messaging group co-ordinating the effort has drawn more than 300,000 users inside and outside the country.
Members of the group have since taken credit for taking down the websites and resources of Russian corporations (Gazprom and Lukoil), banks (Sberbank, VTB and Gazprombank) and government websites (various agencies, the Kremlin and both chambers of parliament).