Can Russia stop the data flow from Ukraine?

On March 1, 2022, a Russian missile hit the 385-meter high TV tower in Kiev. TV broadcasts were temporarily disrupted by the attack. Communication and information networks are often under attack in a war.

The editors regularly receive reader questions. This question came from reader Jeroen:

“We follow this war through images and messages from air raid shelters, from closed off and bombed cities, and from the countryside where burned-out tanks can be seen. Due to the internet and mobile telephony we have the idea that we are on top of it. Journalists bring a mix of their own stories and Twitter feeds. In short, the Internet is enabling information war in a whole new way. What would it take to stop that traffic? And what does that mean for the course of the war?”

NEMO Kennislink editor Roel van der Heijden answers.

Ukraine is still online. While parts of the country have been at war for nearly two months, messages, photos and videos continue to reach the outside world. Valeria Shashenok made from Chernihiv in Northern Ukraine TikTok-updates about her life in the air raid shelters and the city badly damaged by the war. She has now fled the country, but she reached millions of people with her videos. And even from the heavily besieged Azovstal steel factory, one of the last pockets of resistance of the Ukrainian army in Mariupol, there were recently videos are sent out from the cellars† Horrifying images of mass murders of civilians reach us from the former front areas in the north of Ukraine.

A war often also means an attack on the local means of communication and the provision of information. But where you used to take a TV channel or telephone network off the air with a targeted bomb, today’s internet is so intertwined that it can hardly be ‘bombed’. In addition, the internet also serves the warring factions, as a communication channel and for patching up the morale of combatants.

What is the physical state of the internet in Ukraine after almost two months of violence? And how do the messages from the area influence the course of the battle?

Not to bomb

An often praised aspect of the Internet is the fact that it is decentralized. It is a big spider web within which information actually reaches its destination via many different routes. The internet is everywhere, there is no central point through which all data flows. Yes, there are big data nodes like the Amsterdam Internet Exchange. This handles a large part of the traffic in the Netherlands. Yet such an exchange is more than ‘double’ and spread over different locations. “And even without exchange, many providers can communicate with each other,” says Aiko Pras, professor internet security of the University of Twente. “All in all, you can say that the information provision in a technical sense is now much more robust than it used to be.”

leave anyway updates from UK company NetBlocks see that the internet in Ukraine is taking a lot of dents. The internet is sometimes down for a few hours in a city and then comes back online. According to NetBlocks, there is hardly a working internet connection in the destroyed city of Mariupol. The reasons NetBlocks cites for the damage are power failures, cyber attacks, sabotage and physical damage to the network. A reduction in internet activity is also measured due to people fleeing regions or disconnected connections because people no longer pay their bills.

Pras suspects that Ukrainian telecom companies are assisted by Western companies to keep the infrastructure afloat at all costs. And if no connection is possible via the ground, in some cases this can be done via satellite communication. So the United States recently shipped 5,000 receivers for the Starlink network, a constellation of satellites that enables high-speed internet worldwide. “If you have such a receiver and electricity, for example from a solar panel, then you are online. Those satellites are not shot out of the sky,” says Pras.

Cyber ​​attack

In addition to physical attacks, Russia is also fighting cybersecurity, NetBlocks sees. A common way to do this is by overloading computers (eg from a network provider) with messages, so that they no longer have the capacity to handle the usual traffic, a so-called DDoS attack (which stands for distributed denial of service† “Think of it as sending trucks full of letters through the post at the same time,” says Pras. “If you just ‘feed’ the postal service enough material, then no regular mail will arrive.”

For that deluge of disruptive packets, hackers usually use a large number of computers. According to Pras, these are PCs and laptops, but just as much smart TVs or routers. “In the run-up to an attack, you make sure that you have as many devices under your control as possible that will simultaneously send all those packets,” says Pras. According to him, the Russians are now too late for a large-scale DDoS attack on the Ukrainian internet, they should have prepared earlier.

It is likely that the Russian military could hurt the Ukrainian internet more than it does now. But one of the explanations for why that doesn’t happen is perhaps that it also cuts itself in the fingers. From the early days of the conflict, there are reports of Russian soldiers allegedly using Ukrainian mobile phones because their own communication tools were frustrated or malfunctioning† And on Vice news site, NetBlocks boss Alp Toker said: that if possible they also shut down the internet from the Russians living in Ukraine† Without the internet, the Russians can no longer reach them.

Residents of Kyiv take shelter in a metro station.

War and propaganda

How do all those reports and images from the front affect the war? Historian and media expert Pien van der Hoeven conducted research into propaganda in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars and recently wrote the book Spoken over† She says that reporting and propaganda are effective tools in the fight, as long as the ‘fertile ground’ is there.

The image of a Vietnamese fighter who was executed in 1968, for example, further tilted public opinion about the Vietnam War. But there was already great disagreement within the administration of President Johnson about continuing that war. Because that division came out, the media and the public became more critical and that photo could have such an impact,” she says. The images of the recent massacre by Russian soldiers among civilians in Ukraine’s Butha also had that effect. “They made the Western allies sharper in their condemnation of the conflict and gave them the drive to send more weapons, for example. But little happens without a breeding ground. take the current war in ethiopia† There are also horrific images of that, but they do not fall into fertile soil here.”

By inflicting many casualties, the Viet Cong made it clear to the Americans that the war was unjustifiable.

In his own country, President Putin has a very firm grip on the reporting about this war, which may not even be called a war (a prison sentence hangs over your head). The official state media are the only official media channels that still exist, the social medium Telegram is also still operational. The images that we According to Van der Hoeven, seeing them from Ukraine will not have that much impact in Russia either. “The Russians now have a pretty distorted image of the West,” says Van der Hoeven. “The only thing that is ultimately difficult to hide with propaganda are the body bags with fallen soldiers who go back home. That was ultimately the tactic of the Viet Cong against the Americans: to make as many victims as possible with a guerrilla war.”


Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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