Ukraine's Internet System Is A Hidden Weapon In Its War With Russia

Ukraine's ability to keep its internet up and running has allowed its citizens to stay connected to the world despite Russia's invasion.
Posted at 8:57 PM, Apr 01, 2022

Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has launched cyberattacks and missiles that have knocked out large portions of the country's internet, but it's failed to push Ukrainians completely offline thanks to a robust telecommunications system.

"Unlike a much smaller country that may rely on just a couple of connections out to the outside world, there is a rich fiber optic backbone connecting the cities of Ukraine," said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik. "If one line gets cut, there's other paths to get around it."

"We haven't seen very long-term outages for the larger providers," said Amanda Meng, research scientist at Georgia Tech. "For some smaller operators, we do see disconnections that we've seen for weeks."

Overall, connectivity is in the 80% range for the country of Ukraine. 

When Ukraine’s internet networks have gone down, it’s usually a because of a cyberattack or physical damage to equipment. 

Major Ukrainian telecom provider Triolan was hit with two separate hacks on Feb, 24 and March 9, knocking thousands of Ukrainians offline. 

UKRTelecom, the country’s seventh-largest internet provider, faced a cyberattack at the end of March that made the internet inaccessible for about half a day. Experts told Newsy Russia may not be going after these telecom hubs because its military might need it.

"Out of 60 cyberattacks that were committed, for example, during the week [of the] 15th to the 22nd of March, only four were targeted to telecoms," said Anastasiya Zhyrmont, of AccessNow. "There are some assumptions that it is not pragmatic for Russian troops to destroy infrastructure and attack it because they plan to use it to equip its territories in future."

Missile strikes that have destroyed internet infrastructure haven’t led to widespread, sustained outages either, in part because of the hundreds of telecom employees who have stayed to repair broken equipment.

"There's enough technicians that are in the country that are willing to take great risks to themselves to get out and fix things," Doug Madory said. "They're able to fix things faster than they're getting broken."

Looking forward, the Russian military could still disconnect Ukraine’s internet, but experts told Newsy a complete disconnect is highly unlikely.

"I see only two ways how Ukraine can be completely cut off," Madory said. "First of all, the whole communication infrastructure would be physically destroyed, which for me seems quite impossible because as of yesterday, there are almost 5,000 telecom service providers registered in Ukraine. The second one is basically to order all the internet service providers to shut down the internet, especially in the occupied territories. It seems highly unlikely to because I have no reason to believe that all the internet service providers will cooperate somehow with Russian authorities."

In the meantime, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes to Facebook, using the internet to rally his people at home and supporters around the world, saying “I am sure it is extremely pleasant for each of you to read and watch the news that Ukrainian cities are being liberated from the occupiers.”