Over the course of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the whole world has become accustomed to communicating via video calls. But there’s still something surreal about seeing the president of a beleaguered country, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, touring the world's parliaments and even sitting at the Nato Security Council table via videolink.
Indeed, Russia’s war against Ukraine has manifested itself as a striking blend of archaic warfare – such as the sieges the Russian army is laying to cities using heavy artillery – and ultra-modern warfare, involving armies and populations that maintain a near-perfect internet connection.
How is that even possible? As Politico stresses, “cybersecurity experts expected Russian forces to take out at least some Ukrainian phone lines and internet services as part of a ground invasion.” This didn’t happen, which means the whole world can have live access to a tremendous amount of information coming from Ukraine, in the form of testimonies, photos and videos shared by millions of Ukrainians and foreign nationals on the ground.
Experts believe Russia has a vested interest in keeping phone and data networks up and running in Ukraine. Politico refers to three main benefits for Russia: 1) Russian intelligence services can eavesdrop on phone calls and emails, and also gather geolocation and other metadata; 2) the Russian army is using Ukrainian commercial networks to communicate; and 3) Russian forces don’t want to destroy the infrastructure that they will need if they succeed in conquering Ukraine.
According to The Economist, the number of devices connected to Ukraine’s Internet has dropped by a quarter since the war began. However, the resilience of the Ukrainian network is surprising. The newspaper underlines that the Ukrainian network “boasts an unusually large number of internet-service providers […]. This means the network has few choke points, so it is hard to disable.” The country's cybersecurity skills, probably supported by Nato, are also noteworthy. Finally, Elon Musk’s decision to support Ukraine by providing access to Starlink, SpaceX’s own Internet access network, may also be playing a role.
In any case, Zelenskiy’s government has long relied heavily on the internet to help its citizens. Before the war, the government had already launched the digital platform Diia, where every Ukrainian citizen can create an account to access a wide range of services. To encourage vaccination against COVID-19 during the pandemic, the Ukrainian government offered monetary incentives to the population and transferred money to vaccinated people through the Diia app.
This method is proving useful today: the government has promised UAH6,500 ($220) worth of assistance to anyone living in regions with ongoing hostilities. The sum is accessible directly from the Diia application, and can be spent or withdrawn at an ATM. The government has allocated UAH21.45bn – nearly $726mn – for this programme and expects to make payments to about 3.3mn people.
This article originally appeared in FPRI's BMB Ukraine newsletter. Click here to learn more about BMB XXX Ukraine subscribe to the newsletter.