Several weeks after taking over the southern port city of Kherson in Ukraine, Russian soldiers arrived at local internet service providers’ offices and ordered them to give up control of their networks.
Internet providers said the Russian soldiers came into the office, put guns to their heads, and said “Do this.” Russian authorities then rerouted mobile and internet data from Kherson through Russian networks, government and industry officials said.
Access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter has been blocked. So too has access to Ukrainian news websites and any other source of independent information. Ukrainian cellular networks were then shut down, forcing people in Kherson to use Russian mobile service providers instead.
Kherson is not alone. What is happening in Kherson is playing out in other parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine. After more than five months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia now controls swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine. Bombings have leveled cities and villages, civilians have been killed, detained, and tortured, and food and medical supplies are running low.
Ukrainians in those regions have access now only to Russian state television and radio.
Now, Russia is also occupying the cyberspace of these areas too.
This has severed off Ukrainians in Russia-occupied Kherson, Melitopol, and Mariupol from the rest of Ukraine. In some territories, the internet and cellular networks have completely been shut down altogether.
Restricting access to the internet is a part of the Russian authoritarian playbook, which is likely to be replicated further if they take more Ukrainian territories. These digital tactics put Ukrainian areas in the grip of a digital void and massive censorship, as well as a sprawling surveillance apparatus. Russia is able to track web traffic and digital communications, spread propaganda, and manage what news reaches people.
The depth to which Russia has gone to reroute and censor the Ukrainian internet has little historical precedent anywhere else in the world.
In Russian-controlled Ukraine, the internet restrictions began with key infrastructure built years ago. Data from Ukrainian networks is now being redirected south through Crimea, where Russia built infrastructure in order to redirect traffic after it annexed the peninsula.
Russian forces are also destroying infrastructure that linked the internet in the occupied areas to the rest of Ukraine and the global web.
In some parts of Russian-occupied territories, digital censorship is even worse than it is inside Russia. In the regions of Kherson and Donetsk, Google, YouTube, and the messaging app Viber have also been blocked.