DRATING AND ideally destroying the enemy’s ability to communicate are elementary military tactics. And Russia certainly attempted this in its war against Ukraine. Today, blocking communications focuses on the enemy’s internet capabilities. It is therefore not surprising that analysis by NetBlocks, a London-based firm that monitors internet activity, suggests that the number of devices connected to the Ukrainian internet has fallen by almost a quarter since the Russian attack began. Alp Toker, the founder of NetBlocks, describes this loss as glaring. But it could be a lot worse because it means most Ukrainians are still online. What’s happening?
For one thing, Ukraine has an unusually large number of internet service providers – by one estimate, the country has the fourth-lowest internet market in the world. This means that the network has few bottlenecks and is therefore difficult to disable. In fact, it fulfills a goal of the 1970s ancestor of the Internet, ARPANET, which should be similarly resistant to attacks. For their part, the repair crews work heroically, including, where possible and more efficiently, by repairing equipment owned by competitors.
As for cyber attacks, early in the invasion, hackers cut off part of the satellite connections that Viasat, an American company, provides to customers that include the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This attack appears to have been a malware upload disguised as a legitimate software update. Overall, however, cyberattacks have not been as disruptive as feared. This suggests that the “cyber-aid” provided by the West in recent years has been money well spent. Josh Lospinoso, formerly of the US Army and National Security Agency (NSA) develop hacking software, says Ukraine’s cyber resilience could be a sign of authorities getting involved Nato Countries help secretly.
In addition, Russian units appear to be leaving parts of the network alone, at least for now. That includes departments that inadvertently feed them data on targets, says Kenneth Geers, also a former officer at the NSA and now work at Nato Cooperative Cyber Defense Competence Center in Tallinn, Estonia. dr Geers says Russians are leaking information to artillery teams by scanning social media and studying intercepted texts and calls to look for messages that reveal military prowess and intentions. If they can figure out where the senders are, artillery strikes can follow.
This implies Ukrainian carelessness. But another reason why Russian armed forces deliberately preserve parts of Ukraine’s telecommunications is that their own military communications equipment is scarce or inadequate.
Follow plan B and C
Overall, however, Russia wants to stop the talks between the Ukrainians. To counteract the power and connectivity loss imposed by this, a series of clashes, workarounds and jury rigs are being prepared.
Some use available materials. Yuri Vlasyuk, head of iLand, a computer shop in Kyiv, says batteries that power electric vehicles are being used to make power banks for use during power outages. However, electric cars are still uncommon in Ukraine, so Mr Vlasyuk called some friends in the Czech Republic and Lithuania to help. Eventually, they managed to ship several hundred batteries for electric cars to Kyiv. If the power goes out there, the assembled battery packs will power smartphones and other devices. Mr Vlasyuk says his gizmos have been distributed across Kyiv and to soldiers at the front.
Another approach is to increase a phone’s range – a handy trick when nearby cell towers are destroyed. This can be done with commercial devices called signal boosters, but makeshift range extender antennas will also work. These consist of coaxial cables and conductive household materials, “copper wire, Coca-Cola can, empty, stuff like that,” says a retired radio technician in Warsaw who follows such wartime jury manipulations. Under the right conditions, such devices can triple the range of a cellphone to about 15 km, greatly increasing the number of towers it can communicate with.
Then there are shortwave radio amateurs. Many of Ukraine’s roughly 15,000 amateurs now man radios for military or intelligence units, says Artem Biliy, an amateur radio operator in Lviv. To help, Ukraine has temporarily banned traditional ham transmissions. But if necessary, radio amateurs could represent a kind of alternative Internet, notes Mr. Biliy. Using modem software, digital data on smartphones and computers can be converted into analog signals for shortwave transmission. Using the same software, radio operators hundreds of miles away can translate the signals into text or images. But that’s cumbersome. It takes several minutes to send a low-resolution photo from one ham radio to another.
And this is where Elon Musk comes in. In response to a call for help from the Ukrainian government, Mr Musk, head of SpaceX, an American rocket company, was quick to deploy internet terminals that connect to a constellation of satellites called Starlink. With Starlink satellites orbiting just 550km high, the service is faster than those that rely on geostationary satellites nearly 36,000km away.
Early batches of these terminals went to eastern and central Ukraine. The first delivery to the west of the country arrived in Lviv on March 22. Lviv IT Cluster, a group of information technology companies working with SpaceX, is swiftly distributing the terminals. How many there are is a secret. But Stepan Veselovskyi, Lviv IT The head of the cluster says there is enough for hospitals, utilities and emergency services, as well as “critical” government agencies, military units and businesses. Smartphones and computers connecting to a Starlink terminal via Wi-Fi download about 150 megabytes of data per second, enough for 12 minutes of video.
To support their use in wartime, SpaceX has adapted the terminals to draw power from vehicles’ cigarette lighter sockets and has provided special adapters for this purpose. It has also supplied more conventional energy sources in the form of solar panels, battery packs and power generators. Starlink is Ukraine’s closest thing to a backup internet. Russian officials are furious. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, has slammed Starlink as “the West we should never trust.”
There is a risk in using Starlink. Emissions from the terminals make them bright targets for missiles sent to seek radar positions, says a Ukrainian army colonel. Because of this, he says, troops will only use Starlink as a backup. While Starlink is useful, it could only connect a tiny fraction of Ukraine’s population in the event of an internet and telecommunications network outage. However, this populace so far seems to be making a pretty good fist at keeping these networks going through other means. ■
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This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the heading “Dealing with Degradation”