Since the outbreak of ukrainian war, control of communications in the occupied territory has been one of Russia’s priorities; therefore, it is not surprising that the troops answering to Vladimir Putin have mounted a censorship and espionage apparatus on the citizens still living in those regions. In this sense, a report New York Times exposes how Internet and mobile phone providers are being forced to redirect their services through Russian networks to facilitate that task.
The aforementioned medium focuses on the case of Kherson, in the south of Ukraine. This city, which is under Russian control de facto since the end of last April, it has cut its digital ties with the rest of the country. Companies that provide internet access to homes, businesses and institutions have had to terminate connections with kyiv and route them to Russia, through Crimea.
The first consequence of this operation is the censorship suffered by those who still reside in the occupied Ukraine. By redirecting web access through Russian networks, users cannot access popular platforms that are blocked, such as Google, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. However, the restriction is not limited to social networks. Ukrainian media and other independent information sources are also affected, as well as the websites of banks and financial institutions.
The most striking thing is that the censorship that Russia is applying to Ukraine requires the participation of Crimea as a special ally. The peninsula annexed by the Russians in 2014 is providing the necessary infrastructure for the control of communications in occupied territory. For this, a Russian state company called Miranda Mediumindicates the report.
As if this were not enough, Russian troops are also stealing equipment and fiber optic cables belonging to Ukrainian ISPs to expand their technical capacity and support telecommunications in the regions under their control.
Russia extends censorship and surveillance over Ukraine
Credit: Katie Godowski
But the censorship over Kherson and other occupied regions of Ukraine is not limited to controlling home or business internet connections. Russia too has taken ownership of cellular connectivityaffecting the provision of mobile telephony and turning the available networks into a spy device.
The report of New York Times indicates that Ukrainians living in that area can only regain connectivity on their smartphone if they buy a SIM card for a Russian phone line. The counter? For this it is mandatory to present your passport. This means that the record of all your activity – calls, messages, online history – is tied to your identity.
But this is not all. The Russian military has also reportedly destroyed a significant number of antennas. And they even shoot at citizens who try to climb to high places, from trees to terraces, trying to get a signal. It is clear that trying to escape censorship and espionage has become a death threat in occupied Ukraine.
Trying to get around the blockade
The outlook is far from good, clearly. Thus, the use of VPN services has become more frequent to try to evade the censorship that Russia is exercising on Ukraine. On the other hand, some Ukrainian telecommunications companies have preferred sabotage their own networks rather than hand over control to the Russian armed forces.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army tries to reconnect all the towns and cities it manages to recapture to its network. It is a very hard job and it is permanently under the threat of a new Russian offensive.
In any case, the situation regarding connectivity is not the same in all the territories occupied by Russia. Regardless of what happens in Kherson, other regions have suffered a total blackout that affects both access to the web and mobile telephony, and they have been under these conditions for months.