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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Batteries Are Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia

In January 2022, Valeria Shashenok uploaded a TikTok video of herself playing tourist in Paris: red beret, fresh croissants, posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. A month later, her videos took on a much different character: Touring the bombed-out buildings of her town, Chernihiv, Ukraine; racing for cover as the air raid sirens soundedreviewing the military rations served in her local bomb shelter.

Through the next year, Shashenok’s social media documented her life in the early days of the war, before seeking refuge in Western Europe—and then returning to Ukraine. In October, Shashenok uploaded a video promising to show her followers “how people live without electricity in Ukraine.” More than 3 million people watched the tour of her darkened city, all set to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago tomorrow, it has worked feverishly to stop Ukrainians like Shashenok from broadcasting to the world. Yet, even with the power out, Shashenok continued streaming to the world. The enormous work that has gone on behind the scenes to make that possible is a story of resiliency, planning, and batteries.

In the early days of the war, Russian airstrikes hit cell towershackers targeted Ukrainian internet service providers, and soldiers cut fiber optic cables. In the areas that Russian forces managed to occupy, internet traffic was rerouted through Russia’s heavily censored and aggressively monitored version of the internet. As the war raged on—and Moscow’s territorial ambitions were rebuffed by fierce Ukrainian resistance—Moscow resorted to even more desperate tactics, like shelling energy infrastructure, plunging Ukrainians like Shashenok into the dark.

“One thing that was demonstrated by the war is how important communication is for us,” Yurii Shchyhol, the head of Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection, said in a media briefing last month. “When it’s up and running, everyone thinks that everything is normal—and this is how things should be. But when the communication disappears, we realize that we cannot get in touch with our loved ones, with our relatives.”

From the first month of Russia’s full-scale invasion, SpaceX’s Starlink service helped keep Ukraine online, even as the country’s communication infrastructure was being knocked offline. “We cannot ignore the fact that Starlink has been the signal of life for Ukraine,” Olha Stefanishyna, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, told journalists late last year. “Our government has been able to be operational because I had Starlink over my head.”

While Starlink has been a critical stopgap, Kyiv has turned its attention to getting its regular infrastructure back up and running—thanks in no small part to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s hot-and-cold routine with Ukraine. Just this month, SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said the company cut off Ukraine from using Starlink to connect its fleet of drones.

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“Given this huge range of instability in the position of the SpaceX CEO—from the willingness and then unwillingness to continue financial support—we’re doing contingency planning for ourselves,” Stefanishyna said.

That’s where Shchyhol’s ministry comes in. Working with private industry, his agency has laid or repaired 3,200 kilometers of fiber optic cable and built or rebuilt 1,500 mobile base stations—another name for cell towers—since the war began. That work has returned Ukraine’s mobile communications to about 77 percent of its pre-war capacity. The biggest problems are in the areas along the front lines, such as Zaporizhzhya and Odessa, and towns occupied by the Russians in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. 

Kherson, which was liberated in November, has had a particularly hard time getting back online. “When the occupiers leave the occupied areas of Ukraine, they destroy the base stations, they destroy the fiber optic cables. So in the south of the country, we rebuilt the internet from scratch,” Shchyhol said during the press conference, adding that they have managed to repair about 20 percent of Kherson’s infrastructure. That’s only one part of the challenge, Shchyhol said. There’s still “the issue of electric power supply.”

Mobile base stations are normally hooked up to the power grid, using that electricity to amplify the cell signal to the broader area. During a power outage, an on-site battery kicks in to keep the tower running. If the outage persists, a crew could arrive with a diesel generator to keep powering the tower. That means Shashenok can keep uploading TikToks by candlelight in her neighborhood restaurant.

But Ukraine hasn’t just experienced a few short outages. Since October, it has faced an onslaught of attacks against its power grid, causing long periods of darkness. Ukraine responded by outfitting around 5,000 base stations with better generators. But those generators, and the diesel they rely on, are increasingly scarce, expensive, and in high demand everywhere in Ukraine. But they’ve been necessary, as the old lead batteries attached to its base stations only run for two or three hours, if that.

So Kyiv has turned to a simple solution: better batteries.

High-capacity lithium-ion batteries mean the base stations, Shchyhol said, “should have reserve power sources for at least three days.” And they can recharge themselves when the power comes back online.

Two of the biggest telecommunications firms in Ukraine have, between them, already sourced and installed 22,000 new high-capacity batteries. Shchyhol said his ministry has identified another 8,000 base stations that need to become “energy independent.” With demand for those batteries only increasing as Russia mounts a more serious offensive to break a stalemate in eastern Ukraine, there is a scramble to source more. And not every cell company is about to source tens of thousands of those batteries on their own.

“The main reason why we can still talk and have access to the internet, first of all, is because we have a very diverse market of internet providers,” says Vitaliy Moroz, a Kyiv-based outreach and support consultant for cybersecurity firm eQualitie. “This is quite a good situation for the customers because they can switch from one ISP to another.”

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The Montreal-based firm has stood up an array of tools to help Ukrainians defend themselves against Russian cyberattacks and connect Ukrainians living under occupation to uncensored news and information, creating peer-to-peer connections that aren’t reliant on local internet access.

Late last year, eQualitie bought and shipped 172 batteries from Poland—the shipment weighed about 6.5 tons—thanks to funding from the Canadian government. Some of those batteries went to a small ISP in Chernihiv, which services hundreds of large residential buildings in the north-central Ukrainian city. ”With just five batteries, which they received within this donation, it means that tens of thousands of residents of Chernihiv remain connected,” Moroz says—residents like Valeria Shashenok. Now, eQualitie is crowdfunding for a second shipment.

“The issue of connectivity is not very clear for everyone,” Moroz says the morning after another wave of airstrikes on the country’s energy grid. “Ukrainians have, for example, apps or websites where they can follow all the air alarms, which may happen almost every day.”

Internet and mobile service in Ukraine is surprisingly good, even by American standards. Moroz points out that for about $8 per month, Ukrainians can get download speeds of around 100 megabytes per second. “People now need immediate information. They want to know, right now, what's happening,” he says. “So access to internet … means security for people, it means being connected with their families and friends.”

Staying connected also means staying hopeful.

When the Ukrainian Army liberated Izium, which is near the border of Dontesk, they also liberated the residents from Russian propaganda—the only source of news for many in the city. “They believed Kharkiv was also surrounded by Russians. And it was under Russian control, which is not true,” Moroz says. 

“So all this, the combined efforts to keep Ukraine connected, is because everyone understands that the ultimate goal of Russia is to demoralize civilians—because if civilians are demoralized, the government will lose support,” Moroz says. “Instead, it’s the opposite: Civilians realize they might have some hardship in their lives, but still they manage to build their lives around all these difficulties.”

eQualitie is still raising money to purchase a new shipment of batteries to Ukraine. Shchyhol, meanwhile, is bullish that he could get Ukraine’s mobile networks back to 100 percent.

But, like many aspects of this war, Ukraine continues preparing for the worst. Late last year, after waves of brutal assaults on Ukraine’s cities and critical infrastructure, president Volodmyr Zelensky announced the creation of thousands of Points of Invincibility across the country—in government buildings, pharmacies, gas stations, and banks.

“All basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit,” Zelensky posted on Telegram. “Absolutely free and 24/7.” The sites will be powered by generators and connected to the world via Starlink.

“This is what the Russian flag means—complete desolation,” Zelensky said in another address in November. “There is no electricity, no communication, no internet, no television. The occupiers destroyed everything themselves—on purpose.”

Updated 10:25 am, February 24, 2023: eQualitie's first shipment of batteries to Ukraine was paid for by Canada's government, not crowdfunding. The security firm is crowdfunding its second shipment.

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