Web pages in the city of Kherson in south Ukraine stopped loading on people’s devices at 2:43 pm on May 30. For the next 59 minutes, anyone connecting to the Internet with KhersonTelecom, known locally as SkyNet, couldn’t call loved ones, find out the latest news, or upload images to Instagram. They were stuck in a communications blackout. When web pages started stuttering back to life at 3:42 pm, everything appeared to be normal. But behind the scenes everything had changed: Now all Internet traffic was passing through a Russian provider and Vladimir Putin’s powerful online censorship machine.
Since the end of May, the 280,000 people living in the occupied port city and its surrounding areas have faced constant online disruptions as Internet service providers are forced to reroute their connections through Russian infrastructure. Multiple Ukrainian ISPs are now forced to switch their services to Russian providers and expose their customers to the country’s vast surveillance and censorship network, according to senior Ukrainian officials and technical analysis viewed by WIRED.
The Internet companies have been told to reroute connections under the watchful eye of Russian occupying forces or shut down their connections entirely, officials say. In addition, new unbranded mobile phone SIM cards using Russian numbers are being circulated in the region, further pushing people towards Russian networks. Grabbing control of the servers, cables, and cell phone towers—all classed as critical infrastructure—which allow people to freely access the web is considered one of the first steps in the “Russification” of occupied areas.