It was six months ago, on a cold day in February, that Russians troops launched their invasion of Ukraine.
Hundreds of pictures of cities destroyed by the attacks have since filled the web. However, in a digitized world, the streets are not the only place that warfare plays out: Ukraine's internet is a further strategic territory that Russia seeks to control.
Courtesy of cyberattacks, physical damage to telecommunications infrastructure and military seizing control of ISP companies, Russian authorities have now managed to reroute mobile and internet data coming from occupied regions via Russian networks.
As generally happens in these cases, the use of VPNs has skyrocketed among Russians and Ukrainians. Now, the Ukraine government is urging those living in the contested territories to use the best VPN services to secure communication and overcome censorship.
As Stas Prybytko, the figure responsible for leading mobile broadband development in Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, told the New York Times, “the first thing that an occupier does when they come to Ukrainian territory is cut off the networks.”
Prybytko explained that the goal is to prevent people from accessing truthful information and keeping in touch with those living in other parts of the country.
That's exactly what happened in the region of Kherson. After taking over the city, Russian soldiers raided the offices of the local ISPs and gained control of their networks. On April 30, internet watchdog Netblocks reported a "near-total internet blackout across the occupied region of Kherson in south Ukraine, affecting multiple Ukrainian providers".
A day after, the internet came back online, but the connection was rerouted via Russian servers. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Viber are now blocked, together with Google, as well as many news and government websites. People need a working Russia VPN to grant access to these sites.
In much of Kherson oblast, southern Ukraine, all digital roads now lead to Moscow: The Internet is being diverted towards Russia and is subject to Kremlin censorship.Today, press freedom NGO @RSF_inter calls for the liberation of Ukraine’s Internet.📰 https://t.co/Zt8qicg9Im https://t.co/2hS5JhkO7aJuly 6, 2022
The new digital warfare tactic used in Kherson is now being extended to other Ukraine-occupied areas, like Melitopol and Mariupol, effectively cutting these areas off from the rest of the country.
All this was made possible thanks to key infrastructure that the Kremlin has been building in Crimea since the region was annexed in 2014. The so-called Miranda Media is the Crimea-based ISP responsible for rerouting internet traffic outside Ukraine.
According to the commissioner of Ukraine’s digital infrastructure and services regulator Liliia Malon, more than 700 internet providers are based in Ukraine-occupied regions and, therefore, are vulnerable to attack, Bloomberg reported.
“But we really believe and hope this territory will come back to us very soon and this problem will disappear,” she said.
In the rest of the country, Ukraine internet resists
Despite the Kremlin gaining control of the internet in the regions under its occupation, the infrastructure across the rest of the country appears to be way more resilient to massive cyberattacks.
The reason for that might be that the internet traffic in Ukraine is spread across something like 1,500 ISPs, making it difficult to seriously disrupt the overall national network.
Also the shipment of Elon Musk's Starlink satellite internet is doing its part in securing internet access even when fixed lines are damaged or disconnected.
However, in May, Starlink was counting just 150,000 active users, Ukraine’s vice prime minister reported in a tweet. This represents only 0.5% of Ukraine’s population.
What's more, the Ukrainian government's use of social media was revealed to be a successful tactic for aggregating global support. At home, the use of apps sharing live updates about the conflict has been an important way to help civilians cope with the attacks.
Messaging app Telegram, which appears to have escaped the Russian censorship machine even across the occupied regions, has played a big role in the Ukrainian counter-offensive. As WIRED reported, millions of Ukrainians have been relying on the messaging platform to access crucial government information.
What's next for Ukrainian internet users?
With no end to the war in sight, internet users in Ukraine need to adapt their online habits to secure their information, overcome Russians digital censorship and stay connected during internet shutdowns.
We already mentioned the use of VPN software. However, as the Ukraine Committee on Digital Transformation pointed out, citizens need to make sure to trust with their sensitive data only the most reputable providers around.
Other ways to bypass internet disruptions include using a Tor browser, exchanging information via Bluetooth mesh networks and sourcing a roaming SIM card to use in case a complete internet blackout occurs.
- Also check out our list of the best privacy tools available
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to email@example.com