Russia is also trying to control mobile connections. In recent weeks, a mysterious new mobile company has popped up in Kherson. Images show blank SIM cards—totally white with no branding—being sold. Little is known about the SIM cards; however, the mobile network appears to use the Russian +7 prefix at the start of a number. Videos reportedly show crowds of citizens gathering to collect the SIM cards. “The Russian forces realize they’re at a disadvantage if they keep using Ukrainian mobile networks,” says Cathal Mc Daid, the chief technology officer at mobile security company Enea AdaptiveMobile Security. The company has seen two separatist mobile operators in Donetsk and Luhansk expanding the territory they are covering to newly occupied areas.
Who controls the internet matters. While most countries place only limited restrictions on the websites people can view, a handful of authoritarian nations—including China, North Korea, and Russia, severely limit what people can access.
Russia has a vast system of internet censorship and surveillance, which has been growing in recent years as the country tries to implement a sovereign internet project that cuts it off from the rest of the world. The country’s System for Operative Investigative Activities, or SORM, can be used to read people’s emails, intercept text messages, and surveil other communications.
“Russian networks are fully controlled by the Russian authorities,” Malon, the Ukrainian telecom regulator, says. The rerouting of the internet in occupied Ukrainian areas, Malon says, has the goal of spreading “Kremlin propaganda” and making people believe Ukrainian forces have abandoned them. “They are afraid that the news about the progress of the Ukrainian army will encourage resistance in the Kherson region and facilitate real activities,” Zhora says.
At the heart of the rerouting is Miranda Media, the operator in Crimea that appeared following the region’s annexation in 2014. Among “partners” listed on its website are the Russian security service known as the FSB and the Russian Ministry of Defense. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
In many ways, Crimea may act as an example of what happens next in newly occupied areas. “Only in 2017, Crimea was completely disconnected from Ukrainian traffic. And now, as far as I know, it’s only Russian traffic there,” says Ksenia Ermoshina, an assistant research professor at the Center for Internet and Society and an affiliated researcher at the Citizen Lab. In January last year, Ermoshina and colleagues published research on how Russia has taken control of Crimea’s internet infrastructure.
After it annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian authorities created two new internet cables running along the Kerch Strait, where they connect with Russia. This process took three years to complete—something Ermoshina calls a “soft substitution model,” with connections transferring slowly over time. Since then, Russia has developed more advanced internet control systems. “The power of the Russian censorship machine changed in between [2014 and 2022],” Ermoshina says. “What I’m afraid of is the strength of Russian propaganda.”
It’s likely that rerouting the internet in Kherson and the surrounding areas is seen by Russian authorities as a key step in trying to legitimize the occupation, says Olena Lennon, a Ukrainian political science and national security adjunct professor at the University of New Haven. The moves could also be a blueprint for future conflicts.
Alongside internet rerouting in Kherson and other regions, Russian officials have started handing out Russian passports. Officials claim a Russian bank will soon open in Kherson. And the region has been moved to Moscow’s time zone by occupying forces. Many of the steps echo what previously happened in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. “Russia is making it clear that they’re there for a long haul,” Lennon says, and controlling the internet is core to that. “They’re making plans for a long-term occupation.”