Internet traffic in Kherson is being diverted through Russia
Internet routing data for a service provider in Kherson shows that traffic began flowing through Russian networks in May before the full transition in early June.
Several weeks after taking Kherson, a port city in southern UkraineRussian 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 this,'” said Maxim Smelyanets, the owner of an internet provider operating in the area and based in Kyiv. “They did it step by step for each company.”
Russian authorities then siphoned 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 websites and other independent information sources. They then shut down Ukrainian cellular networks, forcing Kherson residents to use Russian mobile service providers.
Source: Kentik (traffic data) | Institute for the Study of War with the American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project (Occupied Territory)
Note: Internet Service Provider locations and traffic paths are approximate. The service area of a provider whose traffic has been routed through Crimea could not be verified and is not displayed.
What happened in Kherson is playing out in other parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine. After more than five months of war, Russia controls large sections of eastern and southern Ukraine. The bombings have leveled cities and towns; civilians have been detained, tortured and killed; and supplies of food and medicine are running low, according to witnesses interviewed by The New York Times and human rights groups. Ukrainians in those regions only have access to Russian state television and radio.
To top off that control, Russia has also begun to occupy the cyberspace of parts of those areas. That has 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 territories, the Internet and cellular networks have been shut down completely.
Restricting Internet access is part of a Russian authoritarian playbook that is likely to be replicated further if they take more ukrainian territory. The digital tactics have put those Ukrainian areas in the grip of a vast digital surveillance and censorship apparatus, with Russia capable of tracking web traffic and digital communications, spreading propaganda and managing the news that reaches 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 block communication with their relatives in other cities and prevent them from receiving truthful information.”
Russia’s diversion and censorship of the Ukrainian Internet has little historical precedent in other parts of the world. Even after Beijing took more control of Hong Kong starting in 2019, the internet in the city was not under the same kind of censorship controls as in mainland China. And while Russia’s tactics can be circumvented — people use virtual private networks, or VPNs, that hide a user’s location and identity to get around Internet blockades — they could apply to future occupations.
In Russian-controlled Ukraine, internet restrictions began with key infrastructure built years ago. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, the strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine, a state-owned telecommunications company built an underwater cable and other infrastructure across the Kerch Strait to redirect internet traffic from Crimea to Russia.
Data from Ukrainian networks is now being rerouted south through Crimea and through those cables, the researchers said. On May 30, traffic from Kherson-based Internet networks such as Skynet and Status Telecom suddenly went black. In the days that followed, people’s internet connections were restored, but they were running through a Russian state-controlled telecommunications company in Crimea. Miranda Mediumaccording to Doug Madory, director of Internet analytics at Kentik, a company that measures the performance of Internet networks.
Russian forces are also destroying the infrastructure that connected the Internet in the occupied areas to the rest of Ukraine and the global web, said Mykhailo Kononykhin, chief information technology officer and systems administrator for a provider that had about 10,000 customers in the area. from Melitopol. He added that Russian forces were also stealing equipment from Ukrainian Internet providers to strengthen connections with Crimea, including laying more fiber optic cables.
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In some Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, digital censorship is even worse than inside Russia, government and industry officials say. In the Kherson and Donetsk regions, Google, YouTube and the Viber messaging app have been blocked, internet operators said.
“We are seeing an internet occupation in Ukraine,” said Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a London-based internet monitoring service.
Konstantin Ryzhenko, a Ukrainian journalist in Kherson, said that many Ukrainian websites and online banking services were inaccessible, as well as social networking services such as Facebook and Instagram. VPNs have become essential for people to communicate and stay in touch, he said.
Russia requires Ukrainians there to show a passport to buy a SIM card with a Russian phone number, Ryzhenko said. That makes it easier for Russian troops to monitor people with their mobile devices, including location and Internet browsing.
“You are buying the device that intercepts your traffic, knowing very well who you are and accurately identifies all your actions on the Internet,” he said.
In some occupied areas, Internet and mobile phone networks were cut, leading to a digital blackout. Some Ukrainian internet providers sabotaged their own networks rather than hand them over to the Russians, according to the Ukrainian government.
Anton Koval, who lived for 21 days in a village on the outskirts of Kyiv that was occupied in February and March, said Russian soldiers had gone through the city shooting and destroying cell phone towers. Cut off from information and communication with the outside world, some residents became so desperate that they climbed onto rooftops and hills in search of connections.
“But the Russians hunted people who tried to climb high places,” Koval said in an interview. “When a nearby neighbor tried to climb a tree, he was shot in the leg.”
Beyond the occupied territories of Ukraine, the Internet has been a key battleground in the war. While Russia has imposed a heavy-handed censorship regime in the country, Ukraine has effectively used social media to rally global support and share information about civilian deaths and other atrocities. Mobile apps warn Ukrainians about missile attacks and provide updates on the war.
About 15 percent of Ukraine’s internet infrastructure across the country had been damaged or destroyed as of June, according to the government. At least 11 percent of all cellular base stations, which are equipment that connect phones to mobile networks, are down due to damage or lack of power.
Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
However, in many parts of Ukraine, the Internet and mobile service have remained strong. Ukraine’s technology sector has been one of the few bright spots in a decimated economy. Telegram, the messaging and communications platform, has 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 supplemented the coverage, said Andrii Nabok, an official at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which is trying to restore internet access in the country. A government loan program is being drafted to speed up repairs.
Where Ukrainian forces regained control of the occupied territories, restoring internet and mobile services was one of the first tasks. Near the front lines, telecommunications technicians are escorted by soldiers, sometimes facing artillery fire. Prybytko, who oversees some network reconstruction efforts for the government, said telecoms 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 the occupied areas with no electricity or water and food shortages. “We are not talking about the internet or providing people with information, we are talking about survival,” said Yuliia Rudanovska, who lives in Poland but has family in Izyum, who faced weeks of airstrikes by Russian forces.
Oleksandra Samoylova, who lives in Kharkiv in the northeast, said she had been unable to reach her grandmother in a busy area some 85 miles away since April. The only thing received about her were two messages that she was okay from a neighbor who sent short text messages after arriving in a nearby town where there was a connection.
Ukrainian officials fear the disruptions could worsen as Russia has promised to make more progress in Ukraine. Government intelligence indicates that Russia is laying more fiber-optic cable to divert even more traffic in the future, Nabok said.
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 for routers and other equipment to put Internet service in bomb shelters, including schools.
“The educational process needs to continue, even in bomb shelters, so they need underground Internet connections,” Prybytko said.