Russia’s failure to score a quick win against Ukraine has forced Vladimir Putin to adapt.
Over the past six months, Russia waged information warfare alongside its military campaign.
How Moscow Redirected the Internet
On May 30, the Internet connection in occupied Kherson was interrupted. It came back within hours, but people could no longer access sites like Facebook, Twitter and Ukrainian News.
The Internet had been redirected to Russia. The online activity of Kherson residents was now visible in Moscow and subject to censorship.
Internet traffic in Kherson was originally routed from network hubs elsewhere in the country and passed through Kyiv.
These connections remained in place for the first three months of the invasion before it was hijacked.
Since Kherson residents are now forced to use the Russian Internet if they want to connect, they are subject to Moscow censorship.
For three months they were unable to access Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Some Ukrainian news sites are also blocked.
Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, an internet surveillance company, says the rerouting has “effectively placed Ukrainian citizens under the responsibility and surveillance of the Russian state in a jiffy.”
Internet operators and monitors report that Internet access in large areas of Kherson is censored to a level similar to that seen in Russia. Some smaller areas face even harsher censorship, with certain Google services being blocked.
Ukrainians in Kherson are finding ways to evade Russian efforts to monitor and censor their online activity.
When Ivanna (pseudonym) leaves her home, she deletes social media and messaging apps like Instagram and Telegram in case she is arrested by a soldier searching her phone.
“You have to be careful,” she told Sky News, using an online messaging app.
It goes online using a VPN (virtual private network) that hides the user’s location and allows them to bypass Russian censorship.
Searches for the software increased in Kherson as controls on the internet tightened.
Russia has also closed the mobile phone network in Kherson and new SIM cards are sold to residents.
Ivanna told Sky News that a passport was needed to buy the SIM cards, raising fears their use could be tracked.
Cautious, she paid a stranger to buy a SIM in her name.
Targeted television and telephone communications
In unoccupied parts of Ukraine, Moscow has sought to destroy communications infrastructure – such as television towers and communications centers.
It’s a tactic Russia initially wanted to avoid because it didn’t want to damage resources that would be useful as an occupying force, says William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Russia thought they were going to win so fast [so wouldn’t] destroy the infrastructure because he was going to own that infrastructure,” he told Sky News.
But by keeping the lines open, Ukrainians were able to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world.
In the end, Russia decided to destroy what it could not quickly seize.
Examples of communications infrastructure attacks have been recorded by the Center for Information Resilience, which has tracked and verified attacks like these using open source information.
One incident recorded by the group involved a communications center in southern Ukraine.
Russia’s attempt to control information has also included the targeting of television towers.
Power outages in Ukraine have also caused the country’s largest broadband and mobile internet providers to lose connectivity.
Disinformation has doubled since the start of the war
Russia used disinformation during the war to influence those in Ukraine, the country’s allies, as well as its own population at home.
Examples of pro-Russian fake news include a clumsily faked video of the Ukrainian president telling people to surrender (known as deepfake video) and social media posts accusing bombing victims of being actors.
Some of Russia’s efforts have been effective. Moscow claimed that the invasion was partly aimed at fighting Nazism in the Ukrainian government. Searches for “Nazi” in Russia and around the world skyrocketed in the first week of the war.
The number of disinformation sites has more than doubled since the Russian invasion in February, according to Newsguard, which provides credibility rankings for news and information sites.
In March, its researchers found 116 sites publishing misinformation related to the Russian-Ukrainian war. By August, that number had risen to 250.
It is not possible to show that all these sites are run by order of Russia, however, Moscow has allocated an increased kitty to its propaganda branch.
The independent Russian-language news site The Moscow Times reported that the government had “significantly increased funding for state media amid the war with Ukraine”.
The article quoted figures provided by the Russian government. He said 17.4bn rubles (£244m) had been allocated to “mass media”, up from 5.4bn rubles (£76m) the previous year.
He said that by March, once the war was underway, some 11.9bn rubles (£167m) had been spent. That’s more than double the combined spending of the previous two months, which was 5bn rubles (£70m).
The research comes as no surprise to Mr Alberque, who says Russia’s disinformation campaign has been “constant”.
“As they go into war mode, [Russia] must move to direct payment of wages and no longer expect people to echo his messages but pay them to send a certain number of messages a day,” he told Sky News.
For the future, Mr. Alberque believes that the death of the daughter of an ally of Vladimir Putin will be a distraction for those leading Russia’s disinformation efforts.
Russia has pointed the finger at Ukraine for carrying out the fatal car bomb attack in Moscow, but Kyiv denies any involvement.
A reportedly high-profile killing in the capital has sparked a number of conspiracy theories, including claims that responsibility may lie with a Russian group seeking to influence the war.
“The Russian government is going to have to try to control this narrative,” says Mr. Alberque.
He adds that propaganda resources that would be focused on Ukraine could now be drawn into the fallout of death, saying: “I think it’s going to be a huge sink of information for them because it’s going to take time. and caring.”
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