August 12, 2022
Enlarge / A placard seen being displayed during a 2019 protest against state Internet control in Russia. Displaying the placard now would likely land its wielder in prison.

Web pages in the city of Kherson in south Ukraine stopped loading on people’s devices at 2:43 pm on May 30. For the next 59 minutes, anyone connecting to the Internet with KhersonTelecom, known locally as SkyNet, couldn’t call loved ones, find out the latest news, or upload images to Instagram. They were stuck in a communications blackout. When web pages started stuttering back to life at 3:42 pm, everything appeared to be normal. But behind the scenes everything had changed: Now all Internet traffic was passing through a Russian provider and Vladimir Putin’s powerful online censorship machine.

Since the end of May, the 280,000 people living in the occupied port city and its surrounding areas have faced constant online disruptions as Internet service providers are forced to reroute their connections through Russian infrastructure. Multiple Ukrainian ISPs are now forced to switch their services to Russian providers and expose their customers to the country’s vast surveillance and censorship network, according to senior Ukrainian officials and technical analysis viewed by WIRED.

The Internet companies have been told to reroute connections under the watchful eye of Russian occupying forces or shut down their connections entirely, officials say. In addition, new unbranded mobile phone SIM cards using Russian numbers are being circulated in the region, further pushing people toward Russian networks. Grabbing control of the servers, cables, and cell phone towers—all classed as critical infrastructure—which allow people to freely access the web is considered one of the first steps in the “Russification” of occupied areas.

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“We understand this is a gross violation of human rights,” Victor Zhora, the deputy head of Ukraine’s cybersecurity agency, known as the State Services for Special Communication and Information Protection (SSSCIP), tells WIRED. “Since all traffic will be controlled by Russian special services, it will be monitored, and Russian invaders will restrict the access to information resources that share true information.”

KhersonTelecom first switched its Internet traffic to a Russian network on April 30, before flipping back to Ukrainian connections for the majority of May. However, things appear to have shifted permanently since May 30. All of KhersonTelecom’s traffic is now being routed through Miranda Media, a Crimea-based company that is itself connected to Russian national telecom provider Rostelecom. (Miranda Media was set up after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.) The day after KhersonTelecom made its latest switch, state-controlled Russian media outlet RIA Novosti claimed the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia areas were officially being moved to Russian Internet connections—days earlier, the outlet said the regions were also going to start using the Russian telephone code +7.

Zhora says that across occupied regions of Ukraine—including Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia—there is a patchwork of around 1,200 different ISPs. “We understand that most of them are forced to connect to Russian telecom infrastructure and reroute traffic,” Zhora tells WIRED. “Unfortunately, there are cases of massive routing of traffic of Ukrainian operators across Russian channels,” says Liliia Malon, the commissioner of Ukraine’s telecom regulator, the National Commission for the State Regulation of Electronic Communications. “Ukrainian networks are partially blocked or completely disconnected.”

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Technical analysis confirms that the connections are switching. Internet monitoring company Cloudflare has observed KhersonTelecom’s traffic passing through Miranda Media for more than two weeks in June. Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik, has observed around half a dozen networks in Kherson connecting to the provider. “It’s not a one-time thing,” Madory says. “Every couple of days, there’s another company getting switched over to Russian transit from Ukraine.”

Since the start of Putin’s war in February, disrupting or disabling Internet infrastructure has been a common tactic—controlling the flow of information is a powerful weapon. Russian missiles have destroyed TV towers, a cyberattack against a satellite system had knock-on impacts across Europe, and disinformation has tried to break Ukrainian spirits. Despite frequent Internet blackouts, Ukraine’s rich ecosystem of Internet companies has rallied to keep people online. While Ukrainian troops are successfully launching counterattacksagainst Russian occupation in the south of the country, Kherson remains controlled by invading forces. (In March, it became the first major city to fall into Russian hands, and its residents have lived under occupation for around 100 days, reporting numerous incidents of torture.)