How Russia took over Ukraine’s Internet in the occupied territories

Internet traffic in Kherson is routed through the territory of Russia

Internet routing data for a service provider in Kherson shows that traffic began flowing through Russian networks in May, before making the full transition by early June.

Internet traffic is directed to:

Source: Kentick

A few weeks after seizing the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson, Russian soldiers stormed the offices of local internet service providers and ordered them to relinquish control of their networks.

“They came to them and put a gun to their heads and just said, ‘Do it,'” said Maksim Smelyanets, owner of an Internet provider operating in the area and located in Kyiv. “They did it step by step for each company.”

Russian authorities later rerouted mobile and Internet data from Kherson 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 sources of information. Then they shut down Ukraine’s mobile networks, forcing Kherson residents to use Russian mobile operators instead.

Internet service





May 29 Even after Russian forces seized control in March, Kherson remained connected to the global internet.

Internet service





June 1 Then the connection was closed. Russian authorities rerouted Kherson’s internet traffic through a state-controlled network in Crimea.

Internet service





June 5 Russia has only added network infrastructure, diverting more traffic from Moscow to tighten control over Kherson’s internet.

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

Note: ISP and traffic routing locations are approximate. The service area for a provider whose traffic passes through Crimea could not be verified and is not displayed.

What happened in Kherson is also reflected in other regions of Ukraine occupied by Russia. After more than five months of war, Russia controls large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. Bombings destroyed towns and villages; civilians were detained, tortured and killed; Food and medicine supplies are running out, according to witnesses interviewed by The New York Times and human rights groups. Ukrainians in those regions have access only to Russian state television and radio.

In order to eliminate this control, Russia has begun to occupy the cyberspace of some parts of those territories. This cut off Ukrainians in Russian-occupied Kherson, Melitopol and Mariupol from the rest of the country, limiting access to news about the war and communication with loved ones. In some areas, internet and mobile networks have been completely shut down.

Restricting Internet access is part of Russia’s authoritarian playbook, and they will repeat it even more if they seize more Ukrainian territory. Digital tactics put Ukrainian territories in the grip of a vast digital censorship and surveillance apparatus, while Russia was able to monitor Internet traffic and digital communications, conduct propaganda, and control the reach of news.

Stas Pribytko, head of mobile broadband development at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, said, “The first thing an invader does when he comes to Ukrainian territory is to cut the networks.” “The goal is to limit people’s access to the Internet and prevent them from communicating with their families in other cities and preventing them from receiving truthful information.”

Russia’s rerouting and censorship of the Ukrainian internet has little historical precedent elsewhere in the world. Even after Beijing took more control of Hong Kong starting in 2019, the internet in the city was not subject to the same censorship controls as in mainland China. While Russia’s tactics can be circumvented — people use virtual private networks, or VPNs, that hide a user’s location and identity to bypass internet blocks — they could be applied to future professions.

Internet restrictions in Russian-controlled Ukraine began with basic infrastructure built years ago. After Russia annexed Crimea, a strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine, in 2014, a state telecommunications company built an undersea cable and other infrastructure across the Kerch Strait to route internet traffic from Crimea to Russia.

Data from Ukrainian networks is now routed south through Crimea and through those cables, the researchers said. On May 30, the traffic of Kherson-based Internet networks such as Skynet and Status Telecom suddenly went dark. People’s Internet connections were restored over the next few days, but they were working through Miranda Media, a Russian state-controlled telecommunications company in Crimea, according to Doug Madori, director of internet analytics at Kentik, a company that measures internet performance. networks.

Mykhailo Kononykhin, head of the information technology department and system administrator of the provider, which has about 10,000 customers in the Melitopol region, said that Russian forces are also destroying the infrastructure connecting the Internet in the occupied territories with the rest of Ukraine and the global Internet. He added that Russian forces are stealing equipment from Ukrainian Internet providers to strengthen ties with Crimea, including laying more fiber-optic cables.

In Kherson, Ukraine, a shopping center where residents were forced to use Russian mobile networks was destroyed.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Digital censorship in some Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine is worse than inside Russia, government and industry officials say. Internet operators said that Google, YouTube and messaging app Viber were blocked in Kherson and Donetsk regions.

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

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

Mr Ryjenko said that Russia requires Ukrainians there to show their passports to get a SIM card with a Russian phone number. This makes it easier for Russian troops to track people through mobile devices, including location and web browsing.

“You’re buying a device that listens to your traffic, knows exactly who you are, and pinpoints your every move on the Internet,” he said.

Internet and mobile phone networks were cut off in some occupied areas, and digital lighting was installed. According to the Ukrainian government, several Ukrainian Internet providers sabotaged their networks rather than hand them over to the Russians.

Anton Koval, who lived in an occupied village outside Kiev for 21 days in February and March, said Russian soldiers shelled the town and destroyed cell towers. Cut off from information and the outside world, some residents became so desperate that they climbed rooftops and hilltops in search of contact.

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

Outside the occupied territories of Ukraine, the Internet has been a major battlefield in the war. While Russia has imposed a strict censorship regime at home, Ukraine has effectively used social media to rally global support and share information about civilian deaths and other atrocities. Mobile apps alert Ukrainians of missile attacks and provide updates on the war.

About 15 percent of Ukraine’s internet infrastructure across the country has been damaged or destroyed since June, the government said. At least 11 percent of all mobile base stations, the equipment that connects phones to cellular networks, are damaged or out of service.

As of June, the war has destroyed or damaged about 15 percent of Ukraine’s internet infrastructure, including cables being repaired in Irpin, near Kyiv.

Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Internet and cell service remains strong in many parts of Ukraine. Ukraine’s tech sector has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sluggish economy. Telegram, a messaging and communication platform, remained accessible even in many occupied territories.

Andrii Nabok, an official of the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which is trying to restore Internet access in the country, said that more than 12 thousand Internet Starlink terminals developed by SpaceX, a private rocket company controlled by Elon Musk, have completed their coverage. A state loan program is being prepared to speed up the repair work.

One of the first tasks was to restore Internet and mobile communication services in places where Ukrainian forces regained control over the occupied territories. Near the front lines, telecommunications technicians are sometimes accompanied by soldiers in the face of artillery fire. Mr Prybytko, who oversaw some network restoration efforts for the government, said telecom workers were the “unsung heroes” of the war.

Lack of adequate internet or communication facilities is only a small part of the misery in the occupied territories, where electricity, water and food are scarce. “We’re not talking about the Internet or giving people some information, we’re talking about survival,” said Yuliya Rudanovska, who lives in Poland but has family in Izyum, which has been under airstrikes by Russian forces for weeks.

Oleksandra Samoylova, who lives in Kharkiv in the northeast, said she has not been able to reach her grandmother, 85 miles away in occupied territory since April. The only word received about him was two messages that he was fine from a neighbor who sent brief messages after reaching the nearby village of the contact.

Ukrainian officials fear the disruption could worsen as Russia promises to push further into Ukraine. Mr. Nabok said that government intelligence shows that Russia is laying more fiber-optic cables to route more traffic in the future.

To help people in those areas connect to the global internet, the Ukrainian government provides free access to certain VPN services. Ukrainian officials are also seeking donations of routers and other equipment to put Internet service in bomb shelters, including schools.

“Education must continue even in bomb shelters, so they need underground internet,” Mr. Pribytko said.

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