Internet outages in Ukraine are becoming more common – with at least one city almost completely offline for a week – as Russia continues its advance in the country, cutting civilians off from the rest of the world.
While war zones are hectic by nature, the British Ministry of Defense Monday warned That “Russia is likely targeting Ukraine’s communications infrastructure in order to limit Ukrainian citizens’ access to reliable news and information.”
Eliminating communications infrastructure is often the first goal of an invading army, said John Spencer, head of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum in New York City.
“The first step to conquering a country,” he said, “is to eliminate the enemy’s ability to talk to each other.”
A byproduct of the information warfare aspect is that it prevents civilians from forming their own narrative. But first of all, what armies do is to eliminate all abilities to communicate with each other so that they cannot organize combat; They can’t give each other some instructions,” Spencer said.
Residents in the city of Mariupol, which has suffered an ongoing attack since last week, have been virtually without internet for a week, said Doug Maduri, director of analytics at Kinetic, the San Francisco company that tracks connectivity.
“Mariopol does not represent a lot of traffic in the country of Ukraine. But the suppliers there are off because that place is surrounded and is being bombed.”
For Ukrainians fleeing Russian forces, this creates nerve-wracking situations where people cannot check on their loved ones. Maxim Numenko, 24, a social worker from Mariupol who left with his parents and brother shortly after Russian forces crossed the border, said he was unable to get updates on family members who were still in the city when he left.
He said he received one Telegram message from a friend there, but found it impossible to reach his loved ones, he said.
Connectivity varies greatly across Ukraine, but overall has fallen by about 20 percent since the invasion began, said Alp Tucker, director of Netblocks, a British company that tracks internet outages around the world.
“It’s a big fight now,” he said. “You have complete blackouts, sluggishness, and physical blackouts related to electricity,” he said. “We know that the war has an impact on communications, but what we saw in Ukraine is on a different level.”
Sometimes, connectivity drops in conjunction with local reports of air strikes hitting communications infrastructure such as cell towers or communications buildings, Toker said.
“With the reports on the ground about the number of telecom stations and the number of cell towers destroyed, it certainly increases the possibility or basically confirms that this infrastructure has been targeted, just as TV towers have been targeted,” he said. .
And while large-scale cyberattacks do not yet appear to have emerged as a major component of the Russian invasion, satellite broadband company Viasat has been hit by suspected hackers just as Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine.
Chris Phillips, the company’s vice president of public relations, said the company believes the incident only affected internet service, not customer data, and is still working to restore full service.
“The impact of the Viasat partial outage on internet service for fixed broadband customers in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe,” he said.
The lack of an internet connection exacerbates tensions in the information war between Russian forces and Ukrainian authorities.
Russia has flooded Ukrainians with propaganda, including sending unsolicited text messages to Ukrainians and allegedly defacing local government websites to falsely claim they have surrendered. Ukraine has resisted its official channels on social media and government websites, to share information about attacks and government services, but also to share its own war propaganda.
“When people drop out of work and don’t have access to the outside world, that creates misinformation and enables disinformation,” Tucker said. “Because when the true sources on Earth cannot speak, this void is quickly filled by other voices outside the war zone with their own agenda.”