First published in French October 6, 2022. Translated and updated in English March 16, 2023.
Cyberspace is an information space created by the global interconnection of information and communication systems. It relies on a large number of various infrastructures and materials. These infrastructures, much more than a simple physical support for the Internet, constitute a real power issue for states. Ukraine and the Russian Federation have clearly understood the importance of digital infrastructure, and, thus have both implemented policies to promote development of this infrastructure and ensure state control over it.
Throughout the armed conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, cyberspace has become the subject of a struggle for control. This struggle began as early as 2014 in Crimea and the Donbas, and as of today, digital influence operations are just as crucial in the new territories that Russian forces occupy as part of the ongoing war in 2022.
Understanding these conflicting policies is paramount to documenting their impacts on the civilian populations amid this armed conflict. The consequences are numerous, ranging from the destruction of infrastructure that impacts people’s lives to the control of information through censorship.
Table of Contents
- The Russian-Ukrainian conflict across the Internet
- The specificities of the Ukrainian network
- From 2014 to 2022, conflict and takeover of the network
- The multiple impacts of the Russification of the network
- The expansion of Russian censorship to the occupied territories
- Strong oversight enabled by law and infrastructure control
- A Russian presence in the entire network: proof of a desire to control
- Global threats to stability in cyberspace
- Recommended further reading
Since the beginning of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the CyberPeace Institute has documented cyberattacks and cyber operations targeting civilians related to the armed conflict in Ukraine and has tracked the impacts on civilians to better protect vulnerable communities. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation has implemented political measures enabling a Russification of the local network of the annexed territory. These measures have also been observed in territories under Russian control since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In this article, the CyberPeace Institute will explore how this digital influence approach impacts civilian populations.
Cyberspace is built on an infrastructure layer consisting of cables, electronic equipment (routers, switches, etc.), and servers (physical and virtual). These physical infrastructures are subject to geographical and geopolitical constraints. They are an essential component of the Internet, defined as the global interconnection of all information systems that allow for computer networks of different kinds to communicate effectively using a common communication protocol.
With the onset of an armed conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, digital infrastructures have since become military targets, and the object of territorial ambitions and policies aimed at controlling local networks, and thus part of the Internet.
In this article we will focus on:
- the geopolitical context of the construction of the relevant networks,
- the values and policies on which the Ukrainian and Russian networks rely,
- the confrontation of the digital policies between the two states in the context of the conflict and the implementation by the Russian Federation of a policy of a Russification of the network.
We will then look at the consequences of these phenomena on the civilian population through the destruction of infrastructures, mass censorship, network control operations, and the surveillance system put in place. Finally, we will address overarching risks that threaten the stability of cyberspace.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict across the Internet
The Russian and Ukrainian Internet networks are the product of their historical context with geopolitical representations reflected in their architecture. They allow us to understand how their targeting (attacks, manipulations) can affect civilian populations in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
The Runet, a territorialized network
Runet, a contraction of ‘Russian Internet,’ is the common name in Russia for Russian-speaking cyberspace, the definition of which is still rather vague. Historically, the Runet is the heir of the computer network in the Soviet Union, whose implementation proved slow and complex.
During the last years of the Soviet Union and after its collapse, this network proliferated rapidly and disjointedly. Numerous internal networks of varying sizes emerged, initiated by various actors (companies, universities, administrations, etc.). The challenge had been to respond to a growing demand, which led to the multiplication of Autonomous Systems (AS) that still exist today. These internal networks are said to be independent because they were created with their own internal data routing policy, and external routing agreements with their peers, to make data packets travel across the global Internet. For example, Russia still has over 10,000 Internet Service Providers (ISPs).Jacques, L (February 13, 2019), Russie : tout pour garder le ctrl du Net, Available … Continue reading
The evolution of Runet was affected by the isolation of the Russian network in the early 90s. The links between Leningrad and Helsinki made the connection with the outside world possible, distributing the signal worldwide. The opening of the Transit-Europe-Asia (TEA) Backbone in 2006 allowed the Russian Federation to move away from its isolation. However, this isolation had favored the emergence of an underlying representation of a Russian portion of cyberspace with its own characteristics. The Runet had then become a specific zone of the Internet with its own practices, applications, and a whole virtual world of computer control, hacking, and crimeBertran, M.-G. (2017) Le « Runet » : enjeux et représentations.. Another fundamental characteristic of the Runet is its users’ use of the Russian language. Although GAFAM exists in Russia, the Runet offers its users a Russian language counterpart, unlike many other non-English segments of the Internet. These counterparts were specifically created to cater to Russian-speaking populations with the specificities of the Russian language in mind.Limonier, Kevin. (2018). Ru.net: Géopolitique du cyberespace russophone. Paris/Moscow: L’Inventaire/L’Observatoire franco-russe. Yandex (2020). History of Yandex: 1990-2020. Available from: https://yandex.com/company/history/2020 [Accessed on March 15, 2023]
At first, cyberspace was perceived and thought of by the Russian authorities as an informational space with a cultural stake. They believed that The Internet was a medium like any other, whose contents must be regulated and which must be used to promote the Russian language and culture. This is particularly visible through particular tools such as Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, or VKontakte, the equivalent of Facebook, whose main difference from their Western counterparts is the Russian language.
More recently, Moscow has asserted its will to organize the Runet to make it as independent as possible from the global Internet and to establish government control over it. This political will has been built on the relative isolation of the network and has led to large-scale actions such as the renationalization of data networks in 2010. The self-sovereignty of the Russian network aims to create a secure space, not only for the state but also for the citizens of the Russian Federation. This obsession with assuring Russian sovereignty online was born in the Russian Federation following the Snowden revelations about the spying organized by the United States. Thus, public policies are put in place, such as the obligation in 2015 for digital platforms to host Russian citizens’ data within the Russian Federation.
Julien Nocetti, researcher and cyberspace specialist, stated in an interview with Le Monde that “Moscow’s desire is reminiscent of the Chinese approach: it is no longer just about controlling content, but also about controlling all digital services (search engines, social networks, video platforms…) and the backbone of Russian cyberspace – technical protocols, routers, etc.”Nocetti, J. Fagot, V and Piquard, A. (April 28, 2022), la guerre en Ukraine renforce la fragmentation du web. Le Monde, Available … Continue reading That is to say, Russia is asserting its sovereignty over its network by strengthening the government’s control.
Thought of as a digital territory, the Runet has been conceived to superimpose Russia’s physical territory (i.e., the use of the Russian language, specific legislation, etc.). Recent laws and policies push Russian authorities to take over the network. Kevin Limonier, Deputy Director of GEODE,The GEODE Center – Geopolitics of the Datasphere (geode.science) a specialist in the post-Soviet world and cyberspace, supports this idea by suggesting that “the Runet’s specificities have become an instrument for the Kremlin’s international policy, which has made the digital space a place for projecting its ambitions of power.”Limonier, K. (August 2017), Internet russe, l’exception qui vient de loin. Le Monde diplomatique Available at: https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2017/08/LIMONIER/57798 [Accessed on August … Continue reading It is, therefore, a territory destined to integrate new spaces, especially since the network developed in the Soviet Union extends beyond the borders of the current Federation.
The specificities of the Ukrainian network
The Ukrainian network, which also originated from the former Soviet network, has been the subject of particular attention in recent years. The State has wanted to make digital technology one of the pillars of its development. This policy has been able to rely on, as in the Russian Federation, on multiple actors and as many networks. It has also, as in the Russian Federation, resulted in the presence of a large number of ASs.
Today, Ukraine is one of the states that has taken digital integration the furthest, with, for example, the introduction of fully digitalized identity documents. Actors continue to play a key role in the existence of the current network, from the most impressive, like Ukrtelecom, which continues to maintain Internet connectivity despite the armed conflict, and to startups like Ajax, which has developed an application used to alert civilians of incoming air raids called “Air Alert.” The Ukrainian government seems to want to push its capabilities even further. State digitization is on the agenda, as evidenced by the statements of Mykhailo Fedorov, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Digital Transformation, and member of the National Defense and Security Council of Ukraine, who wants to see Ukraine become the “most digital state in the world.”Mavris, G. (July 5, 2022), Un plan Marshall numérique pour l’Ukraine. SwissInfo. Available … Continue reading This priority has been translated into the implementation of tools such as a digital identity for the past two years. Used by millions of Ukrainians, this digital identity includes functions such as an ID card, passport, insurance and health reimbursements, and vaccination status.
In terms of the Internet infrastructure in Ukraine, there are a smaller amount of ASs when compared to the amount of ASs within the Russian Federation, and Ukraine appears relatively distant from any major AS on a global scale. Only a few ASs have a central place in Ukraine’s connection to the rest of the global Internet.Douzet, F., Pétiniaud, L., Salamatian, L., Limonier, K., Alchus, T. & Salamatian, K. (2020). Measuring the Fragmentation of the Internet : The Case of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) During … Continue reading Its network remains strongly connected to Russia due to its common development within the USSR (see Figure 1).
The paths connecting Ukraine to the global Internet in June 2019
Source: Douzet, F., Pétiniaud, L., Salamatian, L., Limonier, K., Alchus, T. & Salamatian, K. (2020). Measuring the Fragmentation of the Internet : The Case of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) During the Ukrainian Crisis. Cycon 2020
This diagram shows the global situation of the Ukrainian network and the paths leading to the global Internet in 2020. Firstly, major ASs are mostly located outside of Ukraine. Secondly, the Ukrainian network relies on two major exit paths. One exit, in pink, is via Russian networks. A second, in blue, involves European neighbors such as Poland, Bulgaria, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.Douzet, F., Pétiniaud, L., Salamatian, L., Limonier, K., Alchus, T. & Salamatian, K. (2020). Measuring the Fragmentation of the Internet : The Case of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) … Continue reading) Finally, a third way, a direct link with an American AS, ‘Hurricane Electric’, has existed since 2019. This link shows the strategies put in place by the United States to counter the Russian digital influence in Ukraine.
In the context of the armed conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian digital capabilities have shown great resilience thanks to the many players and their strong mobilization, with the largest – Kyivstar, Vodafone Ukraine, and Lifecell – having implemented the sharing of their networks and personnel. In a similar logic of resilience, measures aimed at reducing the effects of power cuts have been implemented. In addition, Ukraine’s interconnections with several of its European neighbors, including Poland and Romania, have enabled traffic to be redirected as the conflict-related power outages unfold.Pinaud,O. (March 14, 2022), Guerre en Ukraine : les télécoms, des infrastructures capitales pour la résistance du pays. Le Monde, Available … Continue reading
As mentioned, many links between the two networks, Russian and Ukrainian, stem from their shared development history. This historical legacy results in similarities in the architecture of the networks that reflect the desire for independence, the large number of private actors and autonomous systems, and the promotion by national authorities of their own perspectives on their network. Today, the two networks are an integral part of the conflict between the two states. Indeed, for Ukraine, it is an attempt to resist Russian influence, digital unification or Russification which aims to integrate Ukrainian networks into the Runet and, therefore, fall under the control of Moscow.
From 2014 to 2022, conflict and takeover of the network
In 2014, following military operations, the Russian Federation illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula into its territory. When the invasion began, Crimea was a territory with a poorly connected Internet, and the network was strongly linked to both Ukraine and the Russian Federation. This did not prevent Russian soldiers from quickly taking control of television channels and Internet exchange points on the peninsula. Nevertheless, the takeover of the Crimean network by the Russian Federation was a long-term process, presumably to avoid a brutal disconnection affecting the population and businesses. It took three years for the Russian Federation to install two Internet cables connecting it to Crimea.
Miranda-Media, an ISP with strong links to the Russian stateBurges, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired, Available at : https://www.wired.com/story/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover/ [Accessed August 3, 2022], then ensured the territory’s connection. From then on, the rerouting of the data was complete, and the network was entirely integrated into the Russian one (see Figure 2). This hijacking will eventually facilitate Russia’s ability to enforce its censorship and surveillance laws, as discussed later.
The fragmentation of Ukrainian cyberspace from 2014 to 2018
Source: Douzet, F., Pétiniaud, L., Salamatian, L., Limonier, K., Alchus, T. & Salamatian, K. (2020). Measuring the Fragmentation of the Internet : The Case of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) During the Ukrainian Crisis. Cycon 2020
This network mapping is organized around the Russian and Ukrainian ASs and their links. The Russian and Ukrainian networks are numerous. The Ukrainian network is clearly constituted as a single block, linked to Russia, but whose national AS remains connected. Comparing the maps of different years, it is clear that Crimea has been detached from the Ukrainian network and has moved closer to the Runet but without fully integrating it.
In Crimea, the digital world is a reflection of the reality on the ground. For the Russian Federation, Crimea became a de facto Russian territory, both in legal terms and as an informational space. Although Russia views Crimea as legally part of the Federation, Ukraine and the vast majority of the international community still deem the territory as legally part of Ukraine with sanctions in place against the Russian Federation.
The Donbas region
Crimea, however, was not the only such case that emerged in 2014. In eastern Ukraine, the invasion of the peninsula goes hand in hand with the creation of two self-proclaimed republics, the Luhansk (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republics (DPR), considered separatist republics. A low-intensity war of attrition began between Ukraine and the LPR and DPR, with a fixed front line established in 2015.
The various separatist actors chose Russian ISPs to avoid internet access control, surveillance or sanctions by the Ukrainian state.Pétiniaud, L and Salamatian, L (October 21, 2020) « Le rôle de la topologie d’Internet dans les territoires en conflit en Ukraine, une approche géopolitique du routage des données», Available … Continue reading This choice then led to a rapprochement of the Donbas network to that of Moscow.
Kyiv, however, disengaged from the separatist territories and cut communications with them to avoid data leaks and Russian interference in its own network, leaving the separatists in charge of local institutions and infrastructure, which continued to degrade. But in 2022, according to Louis Pétiniaud, a specialist in the lower and middle layers of cyberspace in the territorial conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, the resumption of high-intensity fighting marked a change in strategy for the Ukrainian authoritiesPétiniaud, L and Salamatian, L (October 21, 2020) « Le rôle de la topologie d’Internet dans les territoires en conflit en Ukraine, une approche géopolitique du routage des données», Available … Continue reading. The Ukrainian State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP) considers the war for information to be one of the most essential aspects of the ongoing conflict, including in the occupied areas connected to its network, to protect and control data passing through the territories.Rubrice, L. (August 1, 2022), En Ukraine, les Russes tentent aussi d’annexer le cyberespace. Le Monde, Available … Continue reading
The diversity of political, military, and criminal groups in the separatist regions and military clashes have rendered the analysis of digital networks in the territory challenging. The Russian Federation only fully recognized the separatist republics in February 2022. Before then, Moscow preferred an official non-engagement approach in regards to the separatist republics. Despite this, the Donbas network started to move away from Ukraine and closer to the Russian Federation (see Figure 2), as was the case in Crimea. It remains to be seen whether, like Crimea, the Russian Federation will eventually integrate the networks of the separatist republics into its own network.
The city of Kherson
The beginning of open warfare between the two states created new areas of conflict that led to new territory occupations. Much of south-eastern Ukraine is occupied today, and many territories are subject to political attempts to Russify their networks. The examples of Kherson and other cities like Mariupol, Melitopol, and Berdyansk demonstrate this strategy. It is interesting to look at the case of Kherson, the capital of the Oblast of the same name, where 1 million people live.
As soon as the Russian troops arrived on March 3, 2022, the infrastructure was occupied by the troops straight away, and the equipment of Ukrainian operators was seized,Burgess, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired, Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover [Accessed on August 3, 2022] as in Crimea. However, the context of the war led to the adoption of more direct methods for appropriating Ukrainian cyberspace. Whereas the network in Crimea had been attached to the Russian network via a long-term process, Kherson’s network was appropriated more forcefully by an Internet blackout that was observed by NetblockNetblocks (February 24, 2022), Internet disruptions registered as Russia moves in on Ukraine. Netblocks. Available … Continue reading on April 30, 2022. When connectivity was restored, Kherson Telecom had been replaced by Miranda-MediaNocett, J. Fagot, V and Piquard, A. (April 28, 2022), la guerre en Ukraine renforce la fragmentation du web. Le Monde, Available … Continue reading.
After this initial digital offensive, a struggle for Internet control began. A few days after the reconnection by Miranda-Media, Kherson Telecom temporarily regained control. The Russians reacted and forced Statuts (a telecom operator in the Kherson region) to redirect the original network towards the Russian FederationRubrice, L. (August 1, 2022), En Ukraine, les Russes tentent aussi d’annexer le cyberespace. Le Monde. Available … Continue reading. This fight for the network led to the Russian Federation taking total control, which allowed it to set up the same censorship and surveillance tools as on its own territory.
In parallel, the Russians set up the distribution of SIM cards to compensate for the weakness of the Internet connectionReporters sans frontières, (June 6, 2022), La colonisation de l’Ukraine commence par son réseau, Available … Continue reading. These blank SIM cards, completely white and unmarked, were issued only to holders of a Russian passport distributed by the occupying forces.
On September 28, 2022, the cities and regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk began the official process of joining the Russian Federation through a referendum that was criticized by the international community. The Duma (Russian parliament) then passed a legislature officially integrating the territories within the Russian Federation. Thus, these annexations legally allow the Russian Federation to apply its digital policies. In particular regarding information control, as we will see in the next section.
If Crimea is today the most accomplished example of a policy of appropriation of cyberspace by the Russian Federation, Kherson, and other cities most directly give evidence of Russia’s desire to unify and therefore control the digital networks. Moreover, the context of war has led to implementing more direct and brutal means.
Since the original publication of this article in French, the city of Kherson has been liberated by Ukrainian Armed Forces, although much of the Oblast remains occupied by Russian forces. There is another challenge currently impacting Ukrainian telecommunication companies. As territories, such as the city of Kherson, are liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, much of the equipment needed to reestablish the network has been either destroyed or taken as the Russian forces retreat, thus impacting the population’s ability to connect to the Internet and access information.
The multiple impacts of the Russification of the network
The destruction of the network, the first consequence of the war
The consequences of the conflict on digital networks are as numerous and diverse as the territories they affect and are often invisible, but the most obvious impact remains their destruction. With the resumption of fighting in 2022, bombing and destruction have increased. SSSCIP estimates that 15% of the country’s telecom infrastructure has been destroyed or damagedStarlano, A and Graphics Reinhard, S (August 9, 2022) How Russia Took Over Ukraine’s Internet in Occupied Territories New York Times. Available … Continue reading. The fighting leading to the destruction of digital and electricity infrastructures directly or indirectly prevents the population from accessing the Internet. In the Donbas, for example, the destruction of infrastructure has led to the disappearance of Ukrainian channels since 2017.
Stanislav Prybytko, in charge of mobile broadband development in the Ukrainian Ministry for Digital Transformation, goes further and accuses Russia directly: “There is an objective of restricting people’s access to the Internet and a desire to prevent them from communicating with their families and with other cities, to keep them away from truthful information”Starlano, A and Graphics Reinhard, S (August 9, 2022) How Russia Took Over Ukraine’s Internet in Occupied Territories New York Times. Available … Continue reading. There would thus be a desire to prevent the populations of the occupied territories from accessing certain information by all means, and the destruction would be deliberate choices rather than the consequences of the fighting. While it is advisable to remain cautious with this type of analysis, we can consider that certain events, such as the missile strike on the TV tower in Kyiv, support Stanislav Prybytko’s hypothesis.
In all cases, destruction directly affects civilian populations. They limit or prevent Internet access, affecting access to information. Moreover, the need to access information or means of communication can push populations to use alternative means that will eventually increase their vulnerability to other types of cyberattacks, or even force them to travel to connection points, representing a danger in the context of a war zone.
In a different domain, the destruction can also affect the economic sector. Many sectors, such as financial activities (trading, banking) and leisure activities (video, games, etc.), need fast connectivity. But reducing this connectivity means reducing their activities and revenues, affecting the populations depending on these activities (consumers or employees).
The expansion of Russian censorship to the occupied territories
As in previously mentioned territories, the population is the first to fall victim to the limitation of information access. Russian authorities can prevent people from consulting websites containing undesirable content. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has denounced Russia’s censorship in several of its reports.Reporters sans frontière (January 27, 2022), « Prise de contrôle ? » Edition actualisée du rapport de RSF sur la censure sur Internet en Russie) Available … Continue reading)
A whole arsenal of legislation has been in place in the Russian Federation for many years to promote the implementation of relentless censorship. To cite just one example, Article 280 of Russia’s national criminal code adopted in 2013 established the criminalization of public or online calls that violate the principle of territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities have used this article extensively to silence and intimidate sources critical of Russian actions in Crimea, an official Russian territory in the eyes of the Russian Federation.Human Rights Watch (July 18, 2017) Online and On All Fronts Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression, Available … Continue reading
In the context of the conflict, both sides have extensively used censorship to remove content deemed hostile. On July 22, 2022, the Russian Federation and the separatist republics announced the blocking of Google’s services, accusing Google of “promoting terrorism and violence against all Russians, especially the population of Donbas.”Reuters (July 22, 2022) “Google faces second turnover fine in Russia over banned content – regulator.” Available … Continue reading Yandex has become the main search engine, which reduces the possibilities of searching for information and establishes more and more state control over the information available. This also makes it possible for the Russian Federation to collect personal data on the population. Banning Western services such as Facebook, Instagram, or Google limits the emergence of protest movements in Russia. Imposing Yandex as the only alternative to Google in Russia and in the occupied territories reduces the possibilities of searching for information and further strengthens the government’s control over accessible content.
This digital censorship is detrimental to the possibility to access information freely. In Russia, it is part of a wider censorship policy and silencing of the press. According to Reporters Without Borders, it leads to cases as serious as life imprisonment or even death.Reporters sans frontières, (August 22, 2022),Dans les zones ukrainiennes occupées, “les Russes nous laissent le choix : la collaboration, la prison ou la mort.” Available … Continue reading
Strong oversight enabled by law and infrastructure control
The control of the infrastructure, and the laws passed allow the Russian Federation to use tools for censorship and control of information. The “Yarovaya law” passed in 2016 obliges telecommunications providers to keep voice calls, data, images, and messages for six months and the metadata linked to them (time, location, sender, and recipients). In addition, allowing the Federal Security Service (FSB) to access and read its encrypted communications has become mandatory. These laws create legal surveillance possibilities that are difficult to challenge or question within the country.
The population will have to endure these policies without necessarily being aware of their existence, some of them predating the annexation of Crimea, and the public not always being informed about their existence In addition, Miranda-Media, a partner of the FSB, is at the heart of the Internet connectivity in Crimea; information and communications will pass through its infrastructure, which is open to the authorities’ surveillance activities. Thanks to the ISPs, Russia can collect data that can then be used to judge and repress protesters via a legal framework. Like the convictions of some Russian activists for spreading “false information” about the Russian army, which can lead to up to 15 years in prison.Amnesty International, (April 22, 2022), Russia. Un opposant bien connu encourt jusqu’à 15 ans de prison pour avoir partagé des informations sur la guerre en Ukraine. Available at : … Continue reading
Digital infrastructures support police operations that serve a repressive apparatus.
Like censorship, network surveillance is part of a much broader logic of control and surveillance of populations. In an interview for Le Monde, Julien Nocetti explains that: “In essence, Russia is also close to another facet of the Chinese digital model: mass surveillance tools. A glaring gap exists between the Moscow of 2012 and of 2022, which is now full of cameras in the public space.”Nocett, J. Fagot, V and Piquard, A. (April 28, 2022), la guerre en Ukraine renforce la fragmentation du web. Le Monde. Available … Continue reading
A Russian presence in the entire network: proof of a desire to control
The implementation of censorship and surveillance activities is made possible by the replacement or taking over of certain infrastructures and organizations related to digital technology.
The first and perhaps most important replacement is that of ISPs. Installing a Russian ISP allows the connection or rerouting of the Ukrainian network. In the context of the conflict, Miranda-Media stands out from the 10,000 other ISPs present in Russia already mentioned. Miranda-Media was created shortly after the annexation of Crimea began and is directly involved in the large-scale projects in the region. Like Kherson and Mariupol, Miranda-Media seems to occupy the central place in the Russian strategy.Rubrice, L. (August 1, 2022), En Ukraine, les Russes tentent aussi d’annexer le cyberespace. Le Monde. Available … Continue reading Its strong links with the government can explain this, for example, the company’s website highlights partners such as the FSB and the Russian Ministry of Defense. After the censorship or suppression of media deemed hostile, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, an oligarch known for having founded the Internet Research Agency, disseminating pro-Russian propaganda on the Internet, and for being the founder of the Russian state-backed mercenary group Wagner, is launching pro-Russian television channels. In the oblasts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, new pro-Russian channels are created on formerly banned TV channels. In Kherson, Tavriya emerged from the ruins of Supilnogo and broadcasts daily news about the conflict.
As we have already mentioned with Kherson, Russian authorities distribute SIM cards to the populations in the occupied territories. These SIM cards are distributed under the condition of possession of a passport issued by the Russian authorities. The replacement of Ukrainian operator cards is not only a marker of Russian presence, but they are also a marker of Russian identity since the new telephone indicator is that of the Russian Federation (+7) operated by a Russian company.Reporters sans frontières, (June 6, 2022), La colonisation de l’Ukraine commence par son réseau. Available … Continue reading All these actions show a willingness to integrate Kherson’s digital network into the Runet.
The quantity and diversity of Russian actors who position themselves in sectors related to information technology in Ukraine testify to the importance that this digital policy can have. Moreover, all these actors seem to be more or less directly linked to the Russian government when they are not directly governmental actors. The importance of this implantation is the expression of a will to integrate the occupied territories by, for instance, anchoring the practices of censorship and surveillance that we have already mentioned in the daily life of the inhabitants, as in the case of Crimea.
Global threats to stability in cyberspace
Taking a long-term view, it is wise to worry about the consequences of this conflict on the stability of cyberspace. For Vincent Berthier, head of RSF’s technology office, the censorship put in place by the Russian Federation, thanks to the tools mentioned above, is such that it imposes on the occupied territories “an alternative reality into which the Kremlin is already plunging the citizens of its own country.”Reporters sans frontières, (June 6, 2022), La colonisation de l’Ukraine commence par son réseau. Available … Continue reading In the European Union, the exclusion of RT and other Russian channels testifies to this division of the information universe into two camps. This state of affairs risks increasing tensions.
In the second stage, the accentuation of the differences between the tools used by Internet users and consumers is already underway. Both Ukraine and the Russian Federation have banned each other’s platforms, sites, and software. For instance, in May 2017, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, implemented the blocking of Russian platforms, such as the email service Mail.ru, the social network Vkontakte with 16 million subscribers or the search engine Yandex.ru, the 4th most used site in Ukraine. These measures affected the digital habits of millions of Ukrainian citizens. More problematically, the various bans make communication between certain territories difficult, affect relations between social groups (friends, families, etc…), and generally distance the communities of the two countries.
Finally, the conflict and the sanctions adopted by the belligerents and their supporters also affect cooperation policies regarding cybersecurity, especially technological development. As soon as Russian troops crossed the border, a series of sanctions were adopted, particularly in the field of technology. This is the case, for example, with the electronic chips essential to the functioning of computers, and the supercomputers operated by Yandex that work thanks to the American components AMD and Nvidia. We can also mention Nokia and Ericsson, which immediately suspended their sales to Russia. In the face of these events, Russia may have several solutions, including an existing law that allows the Russian government “to use any intellectual property without the consent of the patent holder in case of an emergency related to the defense and security of the state.”
The risk of setting up a Splinternet, an Internet fractured into several watertight spaces, some portions of which would sometimes meet authoritarian security standards, is real. This division of the Internet is a serious risk to the stability of the Internet due to the end of cooperation and compatibility of digital tools. The end of security cooperation could also hinder the pursuit of cybercriminals’ and create even more tension in cyberspace.
In Ukraine, the network is much more than a technological infrastructure. It embodies mechanisms of conflicting transfers of sovereignty from one state to another. Digitally integrating zones that are militarily occupied and geographically close, it contributes, along with other developments, to the conquest of territories, and then in their integration into the Russian Federation.
These territories are multiple, from the oldest and most successful, like Crimea, to the territories of the Donbas through to new cases multiplying in the context of the conflict, including Kherson, Mariupol, Melitopol, and Zaporizhzhia. According to Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Kentik, “This is not a one-time phenomenon. Every other day, a new provider comes under the Russian flag”.Burgess, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover [Accessed on … Continue reading
In these territories, we witness the implementation of assumed censorship, combined with surveillance throughout the network, adding to a situation that is already difficult due to the conflict, such as the destruction of infrastructures or poor connectivity.
This strategy of Internet appropriation by the Russian Federation illustrates a new relationship between states and digital infrastructures. Some states have a vested interest in controlling their networks and the data that passes through them, and the access of their populations, as is regularly done by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which disconnects its network from the global Internet when protests become widespread, or China, which, because of the very organization of its network, has set up an unprecedented censorship and control machine.
Securing the infrastructure and ensuring its maintenance is necessary to ensure a stable and secure cyberspace for all. According to SSSCIP Deputy Director Victor Zohra, one may also ask whether the Russian Federation’s actions on Ukraine’s network (and therefore other states pursuing similar policies) are a “gross violation of human rights.” Since Russian special services will control all traffic, it will be monitored, and the Russian occupying forces will also limit access to information sources that share truthful information.Burgess, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover [Accessed on … Continue reading
Recommended further reading
Douzet, F. (2014) “La géopolitique pour comprendre Le cyberespace,” Hérodote, n° 152-153(1), pp. 3–21. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3917/her.152.0003.
Limonier, K. (2018) “Des cyberespaces souverains? Le cas de la Russie,” La Cyberdéfense, pp. 123–129. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3917/arco.danet.2018.01.0123.
Salamatian, L. et al. (2021) “The geopolitics behind the routes data travel: A case study of Iran,” Journal of Cybersecurity, 7(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/cybsec/tyab018.
Reporters Without Borders (2022) Ukraine’s colonization begins with its internet. Available at: https://rsf.org/en/ukraine-s-colonisation-begins-its-internet.
Emma Raffray, Senior Analyst at the CyberPeace Institute.
Geoffroy Millochau, Intern at the CyberPeace Institute and student at the French Institute of Geopolitics.
The CyberPeace Institute would like to thank the independent subject matter experts who took the time to review this article.
Appendix – Definitions
- Transit-Europe-Asia (TEA) backbone: The TEA backbone is a digital terrestrial cable between Europe and Asia crossing the territory of Russia and having branches on the Central Asian territories.
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs): ISPs are organizations, often companies, offering connection to the global computer network via cable (xDSL, DOCSIS, FTTx), radio, or satellite.
- Oblast: Oblasts are administrative levels comparable to regions. Oblasts exist in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine (subdivided into 24 Oblasts).
- Operators: Organizations, often companies, offering cell phone services through the provision of SIM cards and access to a cellular network.
- Internet Exchange Points (IXP): An Internet Exchange Point (IXP) is a physical infrastructure where autonomous systems, often Internet service providers (ISPs) or content delivery networks, interconnect via cables.
- Network: Geographically, a network is defined as a set of lines, axes, or relations with more or less complex connections. In the case of the Internet, this translates into a series of nodes interconnected via communication paths that can interconnect with other networks.
- Splinternet: A neologism combining “splinter” and “Internet.” It describes an Internet fractured into several mutually exclusive spaces due to various factors (technological, commercial, political).
- Autonomous Systems (AS): The Internet is a network of networks. The networks that make up the Internet are called Autonomous Systems. AS are a large network or network with a consistent routing policy. Each device that connects to the Internet is connected to an AS. They establish links between them according to agreements and partnerships. It is these agreements that create travel paths for data throughout the network. Via the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), routers communicate and automate the announcement of possible data paths.
- GAFAM: also known as Big Tech or the Big Five, is an acronym for the following tech companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.
|↑1||Jacques, L (February 13, 2019), Russie : tout pour garder le ctrl du Net, Available at: https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2019/02/13/russie-tout-pour-garder-le-ctrl-du-net_1709211/ [Accessed August 26, 2022|
|↑2||Bertran, M.-G. (2017) Le « Runet » : enjeux et représentations.|
|↑3||Limonier, Kevin. (2018). Ru.net: Géopolitique du cyberespace russophone. Paris/Moscow: L’Inventaire/L’Observatoire franco-russe.|
|↑4||Yandex (2020). History of Yandex: 1990-2020. Available from: https://yandex.com/company/history/2020 [Accessed on March 15, 2023]|
|↑5||Nocetti, J. Fagot, V and Piquard, A. (April 28, 2022), la guerre en Ukraine renforce la fragmentation du web. Le Monde, Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2022/04/28/la-guerre-en-ukraine-renforce-la-fragmentation-du-web_6124000_3234.html [Accessed on August 2, 2022]|
|↑6||The GEODE Center – Geopolitics of the Datasphere (geode.science|
|↑7||Limonier, K. (August 2017), Internet russe, l’exception qui vient de loin. Le Monde diplomatique Available at: https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2017/08/LIMONIER/57798 [Accessed on August 3, 2022]|
|↑8||Mavris, G. (July 5, 2022), Un plan Marshall numérique pour l’Ukraine. SwissInfo. Available at: https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/un-plan-marshall-num%C3%A9rique-pour-l-ukraine/47728348 [Accessed on August 3rd, 2022]|
|↑9||Douzet, F., Pétiniaud, L., Salamatian, L., Limonier, K., Alchus, T. & Salamatian, K. (2020). Measuring the Fragmentation of the Internet : The Case of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) During the Ukrainian Crisis. Cycon 2020.|
|↑10||Douzet, F., Pétiniaud, L., Salamatian, L., Limonier, K., Alchus, T. & Salamatian, K. (2020). Measuring the Fragmentation of the Internet : The Case of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) During the Ukrainian Crisis. Cycon 2020.|
|↑11||Pinaud,O. (March 14, 2022), Guerre en Ukraine : les télécoms, des infrastructures capitales pour la résistance du pays. Le Monde, Available at:https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2022/03/14/guerre-en-ukraine-les-telecoms-des-infrastructures-capitales-pour-la-resistance-du-pays_6117432_3234.html [Accessed on August 3, 2022]|
|↑12||Burges, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired, Available at : https://www.wired.com/story/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover/ [Accessed August 3, 2022]|
|↑13, ↑14||Pétiniaud, L and Salamatian, L (October 21, 2020) « Le rôle de la topologie d’Internet dans les territoires en conflit en Ukraine, une approche géopolitique du routage des données», Available at: DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/espacepolitique.8031 [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑15||Rubrice, L. (August 1, 2022), En Ukraine, les Russes tentent aussi d’annexer le cyberespace. Le Monde, Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2022/08/01/en-ukraine-les-russes-tentent-aussi-d-annexer-le-cyberespace_6136853_4408996.html [Accessed on August 3, 2022]|
|↑16||Burgess, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired, Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover [Accessed on August 3, 2022]|
|↑17||Netblocks (February 24, 2022), Internet disruptions registered as Russia moves in on Ukraine. Netblocks. Available at: https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disruptions-registered-as-russia-moves-in-on-ukraine-W80p4k8K [Accessed on August 2, 2022]|
|↑18||Nocett, J. Fagot, V and Piquard, A. (April 28, 2022), la guerre en Ukraine renforce la fragmentation du web. Le Monde, Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2022/04/28/la-guerre-en-ukraine-renforce-la-fragmentation-du-web_6124000_3234.html [Accessed on August 2,2022]|
|↑19||Rubrice, L. (August 1, 2022), En Ukraine, les Russes tentent aussi d’annexer le cyberespace. Le Monde. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2022/08/01/en-ukraine-les-russes-tentent-aussi-d-annexer-le-cyberespace_6136853_4408996.html [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑20||Reporters sans frontières, (June 6, 2022), La colonisation de l’Ukraine commence par son réseau, Available at: https://rsf.org/fr/la-colonisation-de-l-ukraine-commence-par-son-r%C3%A9seau [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑21, ↑22||Starlano, A and Graphics Reinhard, S (August 9, 2022) How Russia Took Over Ukraine’s Internet in Occupied Territories New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/08/09/technology/ukraine-internet-russia-censorship.html [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑23||Reporters sans frontière (January 27, 2022), « Prise de contrôle ? » Edition actualisée du rapport de RSF sur la censure sur Internet en Russie) Available at: https://rsf.org/fr/prise-de-contr%C3%B4le-edition-actualis%C3%A9e-du-rapport-de-rsf-sur-la-censure-sur-internet-en-russie [Accessed on August 2, 2022]
Reporters sans frontières, (August 2, 2022), Dans les zones ukrainiennes occupées, “les Russes nous laissent le choix : la collaboration, la prison ou la mort.” Available at: https://rsf.org/fr/dans-les-zones-ukrainiennes-occup%C3%A9es-les-russes-nous-laissent-le-choix-la-collaboration-la-prison [Accessed on August 8, 2022]
Reporters Sans Frontière (March 1, 2022), Guerre en Ukraine : le régulateur russe des médias censure les journalistes, sommés de suivre la ligne du Kremlin. Available at: https://rsf.org/fr/guerre-en-ukraine-le-r%C3%A9gulateur-russe-des-m%C3%A9dias-censure-les-journalistes-somm%C3%A9s-de-suivre-la-ligne [Accessed on August 31, 2022]
|↑24||Human Rights Watch (July 18, 2017) Online and On All Fronts Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression, Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/18/online-and-all-fronts/russias-assault-freedom-expression [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑25||Reuters (July 22, 2022) “Google faces second turnover fine in Russia over banned content – regulator.” Available at: https://www.reuters.com/technology/google-faces-second-turnover-fine-russia-over-banned-content-regulator-2022-06-22/.|
|↑26||Reporters sans frontières, (August 22, 2022),Dans les zones ukrainiennes occupées, “les Russes nous laissent le choix : la collaboration, la prison ou la mort.” Available at: https://rsf.org/fr/dans-les-zones-ukrainiennes-occup%C3%A9es-les-russes-nous-laissent-le-choix-la-collaboration-la-prison [Accessed on August 31, 2022]|
|↑27||Amnesty International, (April 22, 2022), Russia. Un opposant bien connu encourt jusqu’à 15 ans de prison pour avoir partagé des informations sur la guerre en Ukraine. Available at : https://www.amnesty.org/fr/latest/news/2022/04/russia-prominent-opposition-activist-faces-up-to-15-years-in-prison-for-sharing-information-about-the-war-in-ukraine/ [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑28||Nocett, J. Fagot, V and Piquard, A. (April 28, 2022), la guerre en Ukraine renforce la fragmentation du web. Le Monde. Available at:https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2022/04/28/la-guerre-en-ukraine-renforce-la-fragmentation-du-web_6124000_3234.html [Accessed on August 2,2022]|
|↑29||Rubrice, L. (August 1, 2022), En Ukraine, les Russes tentent aussi d’annexer le cyberespace. Le Monde. Available at:https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2022/08/01/en-ukraine-les-russes-tentent-aussi-d-annexer-le-cyberespace_6136853_4408996.html [Accessed on August 2, 2022]|
|↑30, ↑31||Reporters sans frontières, (June 6, 2022), La colonisation de l’Ukraine commence par son réseau. Available at: https://rsf.org/fr/la-colonisation-de-l-ukraine-commence-par-son-r%C3%A9seau [Accessed on August 26, 2022]|
|↑32, ↑33||Burgess, M. (June 15, 2022), Russia Is Taking Over Ukraine’s Internet. Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/ukraine-russia-internet-takeover [Accessed on August 3, 2022]|