When Russian forces crossed into Ukraine early last year, one of their first targets was a key piece of internet infrastructure. By hitting the satellite internet provider Viasat on Feb. 24, 2022, with a wiper malware attack that infected its networking hardware, Russian forces appear to have disrupted communications at a key moment.
But as the war has dragged on, disruptions to Ukraine’s internet have grown increasingly low tech. With the Russian war effort faltering, the Kremlin has stepped up its missile and artillery attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, and that has resulted in a series of localized internet outages, according to findings released by the security company Cloudflare on Wednesday.
Beginning in the fourth quarter of 2022 and into the first quarter of 2023, a series of Russian strikes on local energy infrastructure caused internet outages in cities ranging from Odessa to Kharkiv. On Jan. 27, Russian airstrikes targeted Odessa’s internet infrastructure, resulting in a partial outage that lasted some 18 hours. On March 9, Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy and distribution networks caused disruptions in internet access in Kharkiv that lasted nearly two days.
The shift in Russian targeting to more aggressively focus on energy infrastructure has had cascading effects on Ukraine’s internet access. “The power goes down in a given area and internet access obviously suffers,” said David Belson, Cloudflare’s head of data insight. When the power gets knocked out, that can cause cell transmission towers to no longer function, knocking out the internet in unpredictable ways.
“The network engineers there are really doing heroic work just keeping facilities online,” he said.
There is nothing to indicate that Russian forces are striking electrical infrastructure with the goal of disrupting the internet, but Cloudflare’s data shows how the Kremlin’s shift toward more aggressive targeting of civilian infrastructure is impacting ordinary Ukrainian’s access to information.
Internet access has been a key in Ukraine’s attempt to fend off the Russian invasion. The Russian invasion forced key Ukrainian state services to move online, and the internet has been a primary method for the government to spread information about what is happening in the country, for President Volodymyr Zelensky to broadcast his nightly address and to galvanize domestic and international support.
In areas controlled by Russian forces, occupying powers have re-routed key parts of Ukraine’s internet infrastructure to make it more easily surveilled.