For six months, people in occupied Ukrainian cities have lived under the gloom of Russian rule. Across the south and east of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s forces have tried to legitimize makeshift administrations: Newly announced referendums would see occupied areas officially join the Russian Federation; citizens have been previously handed Russian passports; and troops have tried taking over the internet, potentially submitting people to the Kremlin’s powerful censorship machine.
As part of these efforts, in recent months two new Russian mobile and internet companies have appeared seemingly from nowhere in occupied Ukraine—claiming to provide cell phone coverage across “liberated territories.” At the same time, existing Russian internet companies in the separatist areas of the Donbas claimed to have expanded their mobile coverage, experts say. These are some of the latest efforts to convert areas of Ukraine to Russian infrastructure and control, with the actions mimicking a playbook similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“All this seems to be so obviously priming customers for taking away this impression that they’re bringing connection and peace and liberation to these areas,” says Olena Lennon, a national security practitioner in residence at the University of New Haven who has looked at the new mobile companies. “The language is very propagandist and manipulative,” says Lennon, who is from eastern Ukraine. She compares the actions to an act of “soft power.”
The two mobile providers—7Telecom and MirTelecom—have both been visible since around June, when people spotted new, unbranded SIM cards being sold in occupied Ukraine for the first time. Both companies use the +7 Russian mobile code, and their websites are registered on Russian domains. They claim to provide mobile coverage over Ukrainian towns and cities in the Kherson, Melitopol, and Zaporizhzhia regions.
The 7Telecom operator says people need to register for its services at one of its offices and must bring ID when they do. Lennon says the mobile tariffs she has seen show MirTelecom charging more for calls to Ukrainian phone numbers than for calls to Russian numbers. (Internet companies in Ukraine have previously said Russian occupying forces have taken over their equipment to run services. In some cases, Ukrainians have purposefully destroyed equipment to stop it from falling into Russian hands.)
The new Russian companies claim to offer both 2G and 4G cell service in the regions. Cathal Mc Daid, the chief technology officer at mobile security company Enea AdaptiveMobile Security, is researching the companies and says this approach makes sense. The 2G mobile spectrum will allow for a wide coverage for calls, while 4G coverage, where available, will let people use data to get online.
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This, Mc Daid says, suggests Russian forces expect to occupy the areas for some time. “[In] contested areas, you don’t generally have two or three new operators coming to a place,” Mc Daid says. “I would say also, that’s a sign that they expect to be there for a while.” Mc Daid says the networks may also have been created for Russian troops to use.
Since the companies emerged earlier this year, they claim to have expanded their services. Their websites list dozens of claimed locations, including shops, where people can buy SIM cards and internet access. In one online post, 7Telecom says it’s hiring a recruitment manager, office administrator, sales manager, and IT specialist to work in the Kherson region.
It isn’t clear how popular the networks are. Maps showing areas receiving cell phone signals cannot be verified, nor can Russian media claims that 7Telecom has more than 100,000 subscribers. MirTelecom and a Gmail account linked to 7Telecom’s Kherson recruitment efforts did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. There have been a few sporadic online posts showing posters or advertising flyers for the companies, but it’s not clear how widespread they are. 7Telecom has the larger social media presence of the two, with around 8,600 followers of its account on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. While there are unofficial Telegram channels for both companies, linked to a firm that allows people to top up SIM cards, each has only a few dozen subscribers. (Although this has not stopped people from complaining about poor connections.)
While the scale of their presence is uncertain, both MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to have some links to existing mobile companies, which were created following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and have formed part of its long-term occupation in the area. “The main Russian operators are not operating a commercial presence in this part, and this is the same as what they did in Crimea,” says Mc Daid. In Crimea and the Donbas, Russian forces created new internet providers. In recent months, Mc Daid says, existing Russian mobile providers in the Donbas have updated their coverage maps claiming that new areas of Ukraine fall under their service.
Analysis shared with WIRED, which Mc Daid is due to present at a conference later this month, shows MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to be linked to Crimean mobile companies KrymTelecom and K-Telecom, respectively. Details posted publicly by MirTelecom and reporting by Russian media also appear to show some links. (Neither KrymTelecom nor K-Telecom responded to requests for comment.)
Being able to control the internet gives occupying forces the power to shape what people read, watch, and hear. In parts of Ukraine where Russian forces have control, reports have indicated that internet censorship is more heavily enforced than in Russia, where there have been widespread crackdowns on freedom of expression. Lennon says that controlling mobile networks could also allow Russian forces to “pacify” local populations, as it may “disincentivize people from resisting and potentially protesting against new local authorities.”
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However, the tide of the war in Ukraine has started to turn. Russian troops are no longer making as many gains as they were at the start of the full invasion, and successful Ukrainian counteroffensives are pushing Putin’s forces back toward Russia’s borders. President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed Russian troops are “clearly in a panic” during their retreats. Russian officials have downplayed any retreats.
Large parts of the Kharkiv region have been retaken by Ukraine’s forces, the country’s troops are making important gains in Luhansk, and a long-awaited counteroffensive in the Kherson region has begun. The Ukrainian victories have revealed mass graves and potential Russian war crimes, but they also mark one small step toward Ukraine regaining control. For instance, Ukraine claims it has arrested Russian teachers who had been shipped into occupied areas.
As Ukraine has retaken occupied areas, some of its mobile and internet connectivity has returned. On September 11, one of Ukraine’s biggest internet providers, Kyivstar, announced that “communication” in the city of Balaklia in the Kharkiv region had been restored. Since then it tweeted that its engineers have brought connectivity back in the cities of Izyum and Chkalovskoe, along with multiple towns and villages in retaken areas. The company said in a post that it restored 195 base stations in one area during a single week and tweeted: “Where the armed forces go, we go there too!”
While some people’s connectivity is being restored—allowing them to reunite with loved ones and let them know they are alive—the newly created Russian-linked mobile internet firms appear to be scrubbing some of their presence in occupied areas. Until the middle of September, MirTelecom’s web page showing its claimed cell coverage included three maps: the Kherson region, the Zaporizhzhya region, and the Kharkiv region. Then Ukrainian troops retook Kharkiv.
MirTelecom has now removed its coverage map of Kharkiv, only displaying the other two areas. MirTelecom also appears to have wiped news pages from its website: A page introducing the director of MirTelecom’s Kharkiv branch is no longer live, and an article about its “first sales office” in the area is also dead. An archived version of that page claims the company exists to help “erase borders.”