Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Already Taking Down the Internet

Residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, woke up on Thursday morning to find they didn’t have internet access.
A woman reacts as she waits for a train trying to leave Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A woman reacts as she waits for a train trying to leave Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

For many of the residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, who woke in the early hours of Thursday morning to Russia’s invasion, their first instinct would have been to call or send messages to family members. But a significant portion couldn't. They didn't have internet access.

That’s according to NetBlocks, a digital advocacy group that tracks internet outages across the globe. “Network data from NetBlocks confirm a significant disruption to internet service in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city,” the group wrote on its website Thursday morning. 


According to an accompanying graph, up to 25% of internet users were impacted in Kharkiv and the surrounding region, which has a population of around 1.8 million people.

Internet outages now accompany almost every conflict that happens around the world, but typically these blackouts come during civil unrest, especially in places where an authoritarian leader has the power to unilaterally switch off access to the internet for a whole country. This happened in Belarus last year when President Alexander Lukashenko cut off access to the internet after widespread protests over the controversial election that Lukashenko won in a landslide.

But this is not the case in Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot simply pull the plug and take the country offline. However, there are still several things Russia can do to disrupt internet access—like blowing up power grids or attacking internet infrastructure like cell towers—as part of its wider disinformation campaign to create confusion and chaos online about what’s happening on the ground.

“If Russia is intent on switching off Ukraine as a nation, it would have to go for the providers and it would have to go for a means of disconnecting those other international connections; this would have to be done either kinetically by attacking telecoms infrastructure or through sabotage or internal connections, or indeed cyberattacks if it has that capability,” NetBlocks director Alp Toker told VICE News.


Toker says it’s still unclear what caused the outage in Kharkiv on Thursday morning, but the timing of it – coming at the onset of the attacks on the city – suggests there was a connection.

“We don’t have a root cause, but we are looking at possibly the impact of power outages or kinetic impact from the shelling, given the timing of the disruptions,” Toker said.

But kinetic attacks on power stations or cell towers are just one way Russia could bring down Ukraine’s internet access, and in the days leading up to Thursday’s invasion, there was evidence that Moscow was already testing out these techniques.

Last Thursday, for instance, there was a large outage in the east of the country, with NetBlocks reporting “a multi-hour loss of connectivity on infrastructure used by the Vodafone mobile network, corroborating user reports of loss of cellular service in Luhansk and Donetsk.”

A day later, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of the interior, posted images of a severed internet cable to his Facebook page, commenting: “Tonight, purposeful diversions were made on the lines of communication of the Vodafone operator in Luhansk and Donetsk regions."

Then, hours before the physical invasion took place, Ukrainian financial and government websites were hit with a crippling cyberattack, which the UK and U.S. quickly blamed on Russia. Toker said that by Thursday morning those attacks had mostly fizzled out and that “banks and government sites are mostly accessible again.”


In a Telegram post this morning, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister Mykhaylo Fedorov said cyberattacks were ongoing, though “everything is stable,” Forbes reported.

But these incidents show just how vulnerable internet infrastructure can be, and fears of a more widespread outage are “legitimate,” Toker said.

“It is legitimate to be concerned about connectivity in times of conflict. There can be attacks from the aggressor. These could be in the form of cyberattacks or physical attacks—sabotage on infrastructure—particularly keeping in mind that there are sympathizers within Ukraine who may see this as a way of supporting the Russian advance.”

Ukraine has a fairly diverse internet infrastructure, Toker said, with connections to networks in multiple neighboring countries, meaning there is no single point of vulnerability that Russia could attack to take Ukraine offline.

But one possible point of weakness is the fact that Russia itself supplies internet connectivity to eastern parts of Ukraine, including the occupied territories and Crimea—so if it really wanted to, it could disconnect a significant number of Ukrainians with the flick of a switch.

The chances of this happening are slim, Toker said, given the impact such action would have on Russia’s own citizens.


“There’s a double-edged sword here, because if Russia seeks to disconnect parts of Ukraine through the Moscow [internet service provider], then that is going to cut off its own people,” Toker said. “And it’s going to affect its own controlled territories more than it’s going to affect central or western Ukraine or Kyiv, by the sheer fact that those areas are connected to European and Western providers as well.”

In recent days, Russia’s amateurish and slapdash efforts at spreading disinformation about Ukrainian attacks on its troops and positions have been debunked in real time, thanks in part to the presence of journalists and civilians on the front lines who have been able to upload verified images and videos of what’s happening on the ground.

As Russian troops cross the border into Ukraine, they may seek to keep their movements and positions as secret as possible, and to do that, Russia may seek to target larger-scale network disruption.

“If military columns start to move towards Kyiv, then that could be another point where telecommunications at national scale are at risk because obviously there's the risk for Russia that user-generated content could reveal key positions or confidential positions of military installations and movements,” Toker said.


“Then, there will be an actual incentive to jam or restrict or disconnect connectivity at a larger scale.”

Along with the threat from shelling and bombing, disruption to power grids, insider threats, and cyberattacks emanating from Moscow, it’s possible employees at cell providers and other internet service providers, like employees at many companies in Ukraine, will not show up to work in the coming days out of fear for their safety.

Another concern is that subscribers may be cut off if they fail to pay their bills or top up their accounts because of the disruption caused by the invasion. On Thursday morning, the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine called on operators “not to disconnect subscribers in case of a lack of funds on their accounts.” 

Regardless, it now seems a matter of when, rather than if, further internet disruption happens in Ukraine in the coming days.

“All of this can contribute to the fog of war,” Toker said. “We think that loss of connectivity and services are inevitable to some degree, whether that becomes a blackout of connectivity really remains to be seen, because that would be almost unprecedented at the scale of Ukraine. But then, there are a lot of unprecedented things going on right now.”

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