The plan came together a couple weeks ago over birthday drinks in London’s Soho neighborhood. Russia’s attack on Ukraine had started, and the Ukrainian government had already scrapped a plan to fundraise for the war through NFTs, the crypto tokens that have skyrocketed in popularity over the past year, accumulating tens of billions of dollars in value globally. All Ukraine needed to make an NFT sale happen was the right partner, Isaac Kamlish told his friends.
Specifically, Kamlish said, the Ukraine government needed him and the others working on their month-old crypto startup, Fair.xyz—even if there was nothing to suggest they were the best people for the job. Nevertheless, Kamlish left the bar, went home and messaged every Ukrainian government email address he could find, volunteering Fair.xyz’s services.
To even his surprise, the Ukrainian authorities took him up on the offer. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we actually would love some help,’” recalls Kamlish, a 25-year-old former Facebook software engineer. “All of a sudden, we’re in all these Telegram groups and late-night meetings with government officials. It’s absolutely bonkers.” (Telegram is a WhatsApp-style messaging app popular in Ukraine.) The first sale, which Fair.xyz assembled, is planned for next Wednesday. It’s expected to raise between $2 to $3 million. “It’s a special moment for ourselves,” says Kamlish, “but also for crypto.”
Throughout the conflict with Russia, Ukraine officials have proven adept at using the internet to bolster support, efforts led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor who has used social and digital media to win over hearts and minds in the West. And money. Ukraine has accumulated nearly $66 million in donated cryptocurrency, the first public instance of a country funding a war through these digital assets. The upcoming NFT sale—and Fair.xyz’s unlikely involvement—is the latest example of Ukraine’s willingness to embrace novel technology in its efforts to win the war with Russia.
The planned sale is a stark sign of how quickly NFTs have emerged as a disruptive trend in global finance despite the blockchain-based technology’s largely unproven background and the lack of hard physical assets underlying the assets and most other cryptocurrencies. It also shows the lengths to which the Ukrainian will go to support its defense.
“While Russians are trying to destroy us with cruise missiles and tanks, we still believe in our bright future. And we believe in technology,” Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov says. “The future is about technology, and the future is definitely ours.”
The Ukraine sale will feature 5,000 to 7,000 NFTs priced at around $450 each and sold over the Ethereum blockchain. Their accompanying digital artwork comes from dozens of Ukrainian artists selected by the Ukrainian government, representing moments and scenes from the war, a collection titled “Meta History.” One image depicts a warship, guns firing—the Feb. 24 attack by a Russian naval vessel on Snake Island, a standoff now famous online through videos putatively showing the Ukrainian troops’ refusal to surrender. Another features the Chernobyl power plant bathed in a glowing red background, marking the day Russian forces seized the facility. A third: Zelensky shaking hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, commemorating Finland’s decision to send $50 million in early aid to Ukraine.
And who exactly are Ukraine’s allies in the NFT sale? There’s Kamlish, who quit his job on a blockchain-focused team at Instagram only last month to start Fair.xyz. The startup intends to sell software that simplifies creating NFTs and reduces the cost to acquire them.
A second cofounder is Isaac Bentata Chocron. He left a Goldman Sachs quantitative trading desk to join up with Kamlish, a former classmate at University College London. (As master’s students, the pair wrote a lengthy paper about teaching chess to artificial intelligence.) The third cofounder is Nathan Cohen, another former Facebook engineer. They operate from a small office in Finchley, a residential neighborhood in northwest London. The three are observing Jews and take a break from the internet each week to observe the religion’s day-long prohibition on technology during the sabbath.
The partnership between Fair.xyz and the Ukrainian government “was a match at very first sight,” says Fedorov. “They are a group of engineers. Their expertise and background puts all the requirements of our project well.”
After making contact with the Ukrainian government, work on the project happened fast, though much of the coordination occurred late in the evening, the most opportune time for the authorities during their war-stretched days. Often when they met over video chat, the Fair.xyz founders had trouble seeing the people on the other end with lights deliberately dimmed in Ukrainian cities amid the on-going Russian campaign. They made it work. The website built by Fair.xyz to host next week’s sale launched Friday.
Fair.xyz isn’t being financially compensated for its work on the NFTs, but should it go well, the benefit for the startup is obvious: It will be a highly public success to benefit a widely popular cause with worldwide support, a potentially valuable stamp of approval. (Fair.xyz has recently completed seed fundraising but wouldn’t comment on the valuation or investors.)
There could be pitfalls, though. The Ukrainians have warned the trio that Russia could respond with cyberattacks, hoping to embarrass them and disrupt the sale. And even if there aren’t state-sponsored seats, independent hackers have been drawn to the large influxes of investor money toward NFTs, proving adept at finding security gaps in hastily constructed projects. More existentially, the technology underpinning NFTs is complicated and difficult for even experienced engineers to harness, leading to delays and snafus in other sales. Case in point: the Ukrainian government has already suffered one crypto setback. In an earlier plan, it said it would give away commemorative crypto tokens as a reward to people who donated cryptocurrency with actual value—with potential that the tokens might become collectibles on secondary markets–but then abruptly canceled the transaction.
Another sobering fact: Wednesday’s sale isn’t seen as a one-off. Fair.xyz and the Ukrainians expect to bring additional NFT offerings. “The sad reality is,” says cofounder Chocron, “the artwork is going to grow as the war is prolonged.”