Can Russia shut down the Internet in Ukraine? | Ukraine

Ukraine’s continued access to the Internet not only supports daily life and the country’s financial system, but it also enables the coordination of Ukraine’s civil resistance — as well as the ability of everyone, from the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to ordinary citizens, to communicate with the outside world.

How much of Ukraine still has access to the Internet?
Ukraine is still largely online, especially in major population centers. Mobile phone networks are struggling under the weight of communications, and broadband has been cut off in heavy fighting areas.

But at the national level, internet access has not been largely affected by the Russian invasion, according to outside monitoring organizations.

“Ukraine has a diverse internet infrastructure with few choke points – meaning it is difficult to shut down the country and no central kill switch,” said Alp Tucker of the monitoring organization NetBlocks.

“If an invading country wanted to shut down the internet in Ukraine, that would really be a matter of physically entering internet exchange points and data centers and taking over that infrastructure. And it certainly couldn’t be done remotely by cutting off the connection with Russia, for example.”

In an effort to boost connectivity, Ukraine’s telecom regulator has temporarily released backup radio frequencies to mobile phone networks in order to allow them to ease congestion on their services.

What happens to the Internet with the advance of Russian forces?
Lanet, one of the country’s leading broadband providers, apologized to customers in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk this weekend because its connection to the region was destroyed “as a result of hostilities.”

When its users in the city, who are currently under heavy Russian artillery bombardment, asked for an update on when to reconnect their broadband, the company said its technicians cannot currently carry out repairs “due to active military action on the site of the damage.”

One customer begged to fix the service, posting on the company’s Facebook page to explain why it’s important: “Journalists, reporters, military for communication and civilians need to know what to do…and we’re finding out everything from our Telegram and Facebook channels.”

How can Russia shut down the Internet in Ukraine?
In recent years, authoritarian regimes have increasingly moved to cut off the Internet when faced with uprisings, as happened in Kazakhstan in January. Many African countries have also imposed complete or partial internet shutdowns when faced with internal conflict or in the lead-up to elections.

Shutting down the internet is relatively easy for the current government. Officials can simply order licensed Internet and telephone service providers to shut down their networks, or risk having their right to operate in the state withdrawn.

Even more difficult is for an invading force to shut down decentralized business communications infrastructure, especially if mobile phone networks and ISPs refuse to cooperate.

A targeted Russian hack or denial of service attack could take out parts of Ukraine’s communications infrastructure for a while, Tucker said, but would be relatively easy to mitigate.

This leaves the other scenario where Russian forces physically enter data centers or systematically destroy equipment. Even then, it may involve coercion of employees. It’s the kind that would happen if there was an attempt to bring down the government. It can happen to prevent a rebellion.”

What does Elon Musk have to do with all this?
The American billionaire owner of Tesla and SpaceX is developing a satellite internet system called Starlink, which aims to provide reliable global broadband connectivity through thousands of satellites orbiting around the low Earth.

It would be nearly impossible for Russia to block – but it would also require the user to have access to a special piece of equipment.

At the request of the Ukrainian government, Musk sent a shipment of it to Kyiv – although it is unlikely that the system could be deployed on a large scale.

Rather than helping the general public, it is more likely to be used strategically – such as ensuring that key administrators maintain independent access to the Internet.