As Ukrainian soldiers keep fighting back against Russian advances in the east of the country, another battle is happening away from the front lines. It’s a war over who will run the internet in Ukraine.
In parts of Ukraine that are controlled by Russia, internet access is often cut off or messed up, leaving the people there cut off from the rest of the world. Now, there is a new trend: the internet is coming back online, but Ukraine is no longer in charge of the traffic. It is now going through networks that the Russian government owns.
According to Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, Russian soldiers raided an internet provider called Status in the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine around the middle of May. The owners were forced to connect to a network in Crimea. NetBlocks, an organization that keeps an eye on the internet, says that by May 30, all of Status’s internet traffic was set up to go through Miranda Media, a Crimea-based branch of the Russian state-owned telecom company Rostelecom.
According to Victor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s information protection service, users’ data may now be watched by a Russian government surveillance system called SORM, and they may not be able to browse the internet as freely as before.
“Use of the SORM system is unthinkable in Ukraine. These kind of surveillance systems Russia has in place clearly violate human rights,” Zhora says. “The enemy’s objective is to strip our people’s access to true information, making only Russian propaganda available.”
People in occupied cities like Kherson have to choose between being cut off from the internet and not being able to talk to their loved ones or connecting to a network that is run under the watchful eye of the Russian government. Even though Ukrainian authorities don’t like it, many people have chosen the second option.
Hudz Dmitriy Aleksandrovich is the CEO of a small internet service provider in Kherson called Skynet. After Russia took over the city in early March, Aleksandrovich’s customers could no longer use the internet and were cut off from their friends and family. He could only get them back online by connecting to Miranda, which was run by the Russians. He chose to do it.
Now, he says in an interview, Ukraine’s security service has called him a traitor and arrested and jailed one of his colleagues in the nearby Ukrainian-controlled region of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. He is afraid that he, too, could be arrested, but Ukrainian police in Kherson can’t reach him right now.
“If you are doctor you will help people, everybody,” says Aleksandrovich. “I’m not a traitor. We give people access to the internet, so we should help people. “I have to do this.”
When the Ukrainian security service was asked to comment on Aleksandrovich’s claims, they didn’t reply.
Some occupied areas have been saved by Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which allow people to use the internet even when fixed lines aren’t working. But not many people in the country use Starlink’s service. According to Ukraine’s vice prime minister, about 150,000 people were using Starlink as of early May. That’s less than 0.5 percent of the people living in Ukraine.
Liliia Malon, who is in charge of regulating Ukraine’s digital infrastructure and services, says that there are more than 700 internet service providers based in areas of Ukraine that are currently occupied by Russia. Malon says that all of these providers could be hacked by Russia.
“For the Russian occupiers, it’s a target and objective to destroy our internet infrastructure or just to capture it,” says Malon. “But we really believe and hope this territory will come back to us very soon and this problem will disappear.”
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