Russian forces took control of internet infrastructure in Ukraine and redirected traffic to Russian-controlled operators, leaving Ukrainians’ data vulnerable to interception and censorship by the Kremlin.
As Russia has renewed its offensive on the southern region of Donbass over the past fortnight, bombardments and power cuts have led to the loss of connectivity of the country’s largest broadband and mobile internet providers on many vast expanses of besieged regions.
A fiber optic cable in the city of Kherson was taken offline last weekend and redirected to a separatist Crimean operator called Miranda-Media, meaning broadband data was directed out of Ukraine to areas controlled by the Kremlin, according to Ukrainian officials.
The move reflects how telecommunications networks were usurped and data redistributed in Donbas regions captured by pro-Russian rebels with Moscow’s backing after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Efforts to redirect data have alarmed internet governance scholars given Russia’s clear ambitions to establish a sovereign, centrally governed web. According to them, controlling the flow of Internet traffic from the besieged areas of Donbass could give Russia access to a wealth of personal data of Ukrainians.
“In Russia, internet traffic is regulated by Russian forces – they collect data and find those who support Ukraine and try to crush the resistance movement,” said Yurii Shchyhol, head of the State Communications Service. Special and Information Protection of Ukraine.
“The enemy understands that their mission is to eliminate Ukrainians’ access to their own internet and they have experience from 2014 on how to do that,” he added.
In addition to rerouting data packets, the Russian military has over the past fortnight facilitated attempts to set up new internet service providers in the attacked parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, with their IP addresses registered in Russia. and in the separatist regions of Donbass. captured after the 2014 war.
Local reports in Russian-backed outlets boast of new internet companies being established and new base stations being built in the southern towns of Novokrasnovka, Starchenkovo, Khlebodarovka and Berdyansk.
Over the past 10 years, the Russian government has put in place increasingly strict rules to govern the national internet – dubbed “Runet” – which culminated in a “National Internet Law” in 2019.
This new legislation aimed to centralize control of internet infrastructure, requiring all service providers to route traffic through filters controlled by the Kremlin’s digital censor, Roskomnadzor, making it easier to enforce blocks on banned websites. .
It also mandated the creation of a national domain name system, in which Russia would store and control access to Internet IP addresses, and therefore could identify individuals and theoretically turn away from the global Internet.
Russia and Ukraine have some of the most complex Internet markets in the world. The distinctive nature of the two countries’ Internet dates back to Soviet times, when chronically low bandwidth encouraged the creation of thousands of small, local Internet service providers – a dynamic that continued even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. ‘Soviet Union.
The thousands of different network providers that make up Ukraine’s internet and the vast amounts of redundancy built into the system have made it surprisingly resilient to Russia’s two-month onslaught, as have the efforts of telecom company staff and civilians who repaired the damaged fiber. optical cables and towers.
But a brutal attack in a much more targeted location in recent weeks has pushed the resilience of those systems to breaking point.
Three of the largest Internet service providers in Ukraine recorded serious damage to their Internet infrastructure and, subsequently, a drastic drop in coverage in the Donbass.
Kyivstar, Ukraine’s largest broadband and mobile phone provider, is only able to provide connectivity to a quarter of the population it was before the Russian offensive in Donetsk and 10% in Luhansk.
Telecom group Ukrtelecom no longer has connectivity in Luhansk, while rival Lifecell has around 9% connectivity in Luhansk and 66% in Donetsk.
“It is likely that if Russia succeeds in keeping the areas occupied and stabilizing the front, these parts of Donbas will at some point be attached to the Russian internet, via Crimea and Donbas,” said researcher Louis Petiniaud. postdoctoral fellow at the University of Paris.
Investigative work undertaken by Petiniaud and others at the University of Paris has shown how, in the years following the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the ensuing offensive in the Donbass region, Data lanes were changed and parcels were diverted from Ukraine to Russia.
The Ukrainian telecommunications group Lifecell has first-hand experience of these tactics. During and after the 2014 assault, the Russian military destroyed all land cables connecting its base stations in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk to the rest of Ukraine. The company and its peers lost connectivity entirely and were replaced by Russian-backed providers.
Other countries have taken similar steps to change the paths taken by data communications. In 2019, Iran adapted its website structure to isolate its channels and data from the global internet following widespread social unrest. Pakistan is investing in a cross-border terrestrial cable with China, in a move seen as an attempt to ensure its data bypasses India and Western telecommunications companies.
The expropriation of internet infrastructure seen today in the Donbass is part of a wider campaign to ‘Russify’ the newly occupied territories in the south and is a major step in the ‘transfer of assets to Russian forces “said Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks. , an oversight body that monitors cybersecurity and internet governance.
“Without a doubt, this is just the beginning,” he added.