How Russia took control of the Ukrainian Internet in the occupied territories


Internet traffic in Kherson is diverted via Russia

Internet routing data from a service provider in Kherson shows that traffic begins flowing through Russian networks in May before fully transitioning in early June.

Internet traffic routed through:

Source: Kentik

Several weeks after taking control of the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson, Russian soldiers arrived at the offices of local internet service providers and ordered them to relinquish control of their networks.

“They came up to them and put guns to their heads and just said, ‘Do it,'” said Maxim Smelyanets, who owns an internet service provider that operates in the region and is based in Kyiv. . “They did it step by step for every business.”

Russian authorities then rerouted Kherson’s mobile and internet data through Russian networks, government and industry officials said. They blocked access to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as Ukrainian news sites and other independent news sources. Then they cut Ukrainian cellular networks, forcing residents of Kherson to use Russian mobile service providers instead.

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May 29 Kherson remained connected to the global internet even after Russian forces took control in March.

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June 1 Then the connection closed. Russian authorities redirected Internet traffic from Kherson through a state-controlled network in Crimea.

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June 5 Russia has only added to the network infrastructure, routing more traffic through Moscow to tighten its control over Kherson’s internet.

Source: Kentik (traffic data) | Institute for the Study of War with American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (occupied territory)

Note: Locations of ISPs and traffic routes are approximate. The service area of ​​a provider whose traffic was routed through Crimea could not be verified and is not shown.

What happened in Kherson is unfolding in other parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine. After more than five months of war, Russia controls large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. The bombardments razed towns and villages; civilians have been detained, tortured and killed; and stocks of food and medicine are running out, according to witnesses interviewed by The New York Times and human rights groups. Ukrainians in these regions only have access to Russian television and radio.

To crown this control, Russia has also begun to occupy the cyberspace of parts of these areas. This separated Ukrainians in Russian-occupied Kherson, Melitopol and Mariupol from the rest of the country, limiting access to information about the war and communication with loved ones. In some territories, internet and cellular networks have been completely shut down.

Restricting internet access is part of an authoritarian Russian game plan that is likely to be replicated if they take more Ukrainian territory. Digital tactics have placed these Ukrainian regions under the sway of a vast apparatus of digital censorship and surveillance, with Russia able to track web traffic and digital communications, distribute propaganda and manage the news that reaches to people.

“The first thing an occupier does when he arrives on Ukrainian territory is to cut off the networks,” said Stas Prybytko, who leads mobile broadband development at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. “The goal is to restrict people’s access to the internet and prevent them from communicating with their families in other cities and prevent them from receiving truthful information.”

Russia’s hijacking and censorship of the Ukrainian Internet has little historical precedent elsewhere in the world. Even after Beijing took more control over Hong Kong from 2019, the internet in the city has not been subject to the same kind of censorship controls as in mainland China. And while Russia’s tactics can be circumvented — people are using virtual private networks, or VPNs, which hide a user’s location and identity to get around internet blocks — they could be applied to future occupations. .

In Russian-controlled Ukraine, internet restrictions began with key infrastructure built years ago. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s strategic southern peninsula, a state telecommunications company built an undersea cable and other infrastructure across the Kerch Strait to redirect the Internet traffic from Crimea to Russia.

Data from Ukrainian networks is now redirected south through Crimea and through these cables, researchers said. On May 30, traffic from Kherson-based Internet networks like Skynet and Status Telecom suddenly died out. Over the next few days, people’s internet connections were restored, but they were going through a Russian state-controlled telecommunications company in Crimea, Miranda Media, according to Doug Madory, director of internet analytics at Kentik, a company which measures internet performance. networks.

Russian forces are also destroying infrastructure that linked the internet in occupied areas to the rest of Ukraine and the global web, said Mykhailo Kononykhin, chief information officer and system administrator for a provider that had about 10,000 customers. in the Melitopol region. He added that Russian forces were also stealing equipment from Ukrainian internet service providers to boost connections with Crimea, including by laying more fiber optic cables.

A destroyed shopping center in Kherson, Ukraine, where residents are forced to use Russian cellular networks.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In some Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, digital censorship is even worse than in Russia, according to government and industry officials. In Kherson and Donetsk regions, Google, YouTube and messaging app Viber were blocked, internet operators said.

“We are seeing an occupation of the Ukrainian internet,” said Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a London-based internet monitoring service.

Konstantin Ryzhenko, a Ukrainian journalist in Kherson, said many Ukrainian websites and online banking services were inaccessible, as well as social media services like Facebook and Instagram. VPNs have become essential for people to communicate and stay in touch, he said.

Russia requires Ukrainians to show a passport to buy a SIM card with a Russian phone number, Ryzhenko said. This makes it easier for Russian troops to keep tabs on people with their mobile devices, including tracking and browsing the internet.

“You buy the device that listens to your traffic, knowing full well who you are and accurately identifying all your actions on the internet,” he said.

In some occupied areas, internet and mobile phone networks were cut, creating a digital blackout. According to the Ukrainian government, some Ukrainian internet service providers have sabotaged their own networks rather than handing them over to the Russians.

Anton Koval, who lived for 21 days in a village outside Kyiv that was occupied in February and March, said Russian soldiers drove through the town firing and destroying cell towers. Cut off from information and communication with the outside world, some locals became so desperate that they climbed onto rooftops and hilltops in search of connections.

“But the Russians were chasing people who tried to climb heights,” Mr Koval said in an interview. “When a close neighbor tried to climb a tree, they shot him in the leg.”

Beyond Ukrainian-occupied territories, the internet has been a key battleground in the war. While Russia has imposed a brutal censorship regime at home, Ukraine has indeed used social media to rally global support and share information about civilian deaths and other atrocities. Mobile apps warn Ukrainians of missile attacks and give updates on the war.

About 15% of Ukraine’s internet infrastructure across the country had been damaged or destroyed by June, according to the government. At least 11% of all cellular base stations, which are devices that connect handsets to mobile networks, fail due to damage or lack of power.

By June, the war had destroyed or damaged around 15% of Ukraine’s internet structure, including those cables being repaired in Irpin, near Kyiv.

Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Yet in many parts of Ukraine, internet and mobile services remained strong. Ukraine’s tech sector has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise decimated economy. Telegram, the messaging and communication platform, remained available, even in many busy areas.

More than 12,000 Starlink internet terminals made by SpaceX, the private rocket company controlled by Elon Musk, have completed the coverage, said Andrii Nabok, an official with the Department of Digital Transformation, which is trying to restore internet access in the country. A government loan program is being developed to expedite repairs.

Where Ukrainian forces regained control of occupied territories, restoring internet and cellular services was one of the first tasks. Near the front lines, telecom technicians are escorted by soldiers, sometimes in the face of artillery fire. Mr Prybytko, who oversees some network rebuilding efforts for the government, said telecom workers were the “hidden heroes” of the war.

The lack of internet or proper communication tools is only a small part of the misery in occupied areas with no electricity or water and no shortage of food. “We are not talking about the internet or providing information to people, we are talking about survival,” said Yuliia Rudanovska, who lives in Poland but has family in Izyum, which has suffered weeks of airstrikes from the forces. Russians.

Oleksandra Samoylova, who lives in Kharkiv in the northeast, said she had been unable to reach her grandmother in a busy area about 85 miles away since April. The only word received about her were two messages that she was fine from a neighbor who sent short text messages after reaching a nearby village where there was a connection.

Ukrainian officials fear the disruption could worsen as Russia pledges to push deeper into Ukraine. Government intelligence indicates that Russia is laying more fiber optic cables to divert even more traffic in the future, Nabok said.

To help people in these regions connect to the global Internet, the Ukrainian government provides free access to some VPN services. Ukrainian officials are also seeking donations for routers and other equipment to bring internet service to bomb shelters, including schools.

“The educational process must continue, even in bomb shelters, so they need underground internet connections,” Prybytko said.


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