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The Unprecedented Role of the Internet in the War in Ukraine

The impact of the Internet in the Russia-Ukraine war is unprecedented in speed and scope. The most visible example of this has been President Zelenskyy’s use of social media and teleconferencing in his roles as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, a global diplomat, and a leader of the Ukrainian people.

As shown above, Zelenskyy’s military meetings mix in-person and remote participants in a digital war room equipped with large displays for sharing information. Contrast this modern war room with the image of Putin meeting with military leaders around a huge conference table in an ornate room with a single monitor that is turned off and a console on a table at his left that looks like a 1950s intercom.

President Zelenskyy uses social media and teleconferencing in his roles as a national leader and global diplomat. He has been posting on the Presidential Telegram channel since he was inaugurated in May 2019. He has 1,421,358 followers, and his posts have included 414 videos and 499 photos—about half since the invasion. (Zelenskyy’s Telegram feed and other Internet content created during the war will be available to historians).

The post-invasion photos include visits to hospitals, troops, and national leaders. Sadly, the majority are evidence of war crimes, and the most winning are accompanied by love poems to his wife on her birthdays—reminiscent of President Obama. (You can see the 499 photos here and I will update the collection periodically).

Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist, describes her experience interviewing President Zelenskyy.

His Telegram videos show him receiving standing ovations during speeches at parliaments in Japan, Israel, the US, Canada, and Europe as well as mutational organizations like The Doha Forum and The United Nations Security Council. He even gave a talk during the US Grammy Awards and has been interviewed by news programs like Face the Nation and Sixty Minutes in the US. He also reaches out to individual leaders as in this message to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and posts daily messages for the Ukrainian people and the world, which are reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats with the American people.

Those and other photos and videos are available on the Internet, but more importantly, they are picked up by television and print media throughout the world. The resultant information flood led Russia to resign from the UN Human Rights Commission after 93 nations voted to suspend its membership. This occurred six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine.

While this information is blocked on the Russian Internet and in Russian media, it will gradually trickle in through virtual private networks, Internet services like callrussia.org and 1920.in that enable Russian speakers to call and send texts to randomly selected Russians, Russian casualties, and contacts with friends and family abroad.

Note that many of the videos and photos mentioned above were recorded by drones. Ukraine has used drones extensively for surveillance and targeting, as weapons, and for documenting atrocities and war crimes.

President Zelenskyy is in front of the cameras—a Churchillian rock star—but his contribution would not have been possible if Ukraine had not been digitally prepared.

For a start, they have a cabinet-level Ministry of Digital Transformation, headed by 31-year-old Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov. The first time I saw his name was in a tweet asking Elon Musk to supply Starlink terminals. Two days later the first shipment arrived, within a week more had arrived and were being used and there are now more than 5,000 in service.

Ukraine was working on “digital transformation” before the invasion. For example, they had a mobile app and platform called DIIA that enabled them to distribute subsidy payments of about $221 to nearly five million Ukrainians in war-affected regions electronically. When Tim Berners-Lee put the Web in the public domain, Zelenskyy was fifteen years old and Fedorov two—they are “digital natives.”

Of course, none of the above would have been possible without the Internet and Doug Madory, who monitors global Internet outages, says there have been temporary local outages, but for the most part, the country has remained online. (Mariupol is an exception). This resilience can be attributed to a combination of the courage and resolve of Ukrainian technicians and the competitive market and decentralized structure of the Ukrainian Internet. Madory also points out that the Russian army is using the Ukrainian Internet and may be reluctant to destroy assets that they hope to acquire (steal).

Early Internet users received first-hand accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre via Usenet News and email. Usenet and email were used both to report on and organize the demonstrations during the 1991 Russian coup attempt and Facebook and Twitter played prominent roles in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.

This is the teleconferencing and drone war.

Update Apr 12, 2022:

This 4m 35s video is on the Turkish Bayraktar drone which Ukraine uses to launch strikes and then post the results on social media. It shows soldiers literally singing its praise in a viral song, a tour of the very modern-looking factory with the drone’s designer Selcuk Bayraktar, the chief technology officer of Baykar Technologies.

Bayraktar is also the son-in-law of the Turkish president Erdoğan and he is clearly moved by the plight of the “brave people of Ukraine” who are “giving their lives up ... defending their homeland from an illegal occupation. That’s what brave people of Ukraine and its leadership has done.”

Update Apr 21, 2022:

According to the Daily Mail, the Russian Black Sea flagship the Moscova was hit by missiles launched from Crimea and subsequently sunk. Russia initially claimed that an accidental explosion, had sunk the ship but ex-president Dimitry Medvedev admitted the ship was sunk by Ukrainian missiles. He claimed that Starlink had been used in targeting the ship and said the destruction of Starlink satellites over the territory of the Russian Federation had been ordered. The Bayraktar drones mentioned above were used as decoys distracting the ship’s defenses.

Update Apr 28, 2022:

Viktor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection reports that:

  • Starlink terminals have been instrumental in keeping the country online.
  • He isn’t aware of any cyberattacks on those terminals, however.
  • Some Starlink customers have been attacked and some terminals have been destroyed during shelling.
  • The state only distributes the terminals, it doesn’t necessarily run them, so he can’t say how many were hit.
  • He expects most of the hits on Starlink terminals were “coincidental.”
  • While Russia may have tried to geolocate those terminals, he does not expect that they’ve been successful.

Update May 3, 2022:

War correspondents used to be writers who sometimes accompanied troops and reported on combat.

The Internet enables soldiers themselves to act as war correspondents in Ukraine. For example, James Vasquez, @jmvasquez1974, is using SpaceX Starlink to post reports on combat while he is engaged in it. In this video, he is thanking Elon Musk for his Starlink terminal.

Update May 28, 2022:

The PBS News Hour aired a segment on crowd-sourced and open-source intelligence in the Ukraine war. Two projects are featured Intel Crab and Bellingcat which use information from people on the ground in Ukraine and various online sources to debunk fake news and inform the public and the Ukraine armed forces of the movement and location Russian assets. The segment also has short interviews with experts

The Internet has also been instrumental in informing the Russian public about the war despite the government blocking many Web sites and closing down all independent media. Putin’s “iron firewall” is porous.

Update Aug 29, 2023:

New types of drones are striking deep within Russia but scaling up is hard and Russia is learning to defend against them and use drones themselves. For example, they put jamming devices on tanks and other high-value assets to make it difficult to target them using first-person-view drones.

Strikes on Moscow make headlines and bring Russians closer to the reality of war, but most of Ukraine’s strikes directly support the three-month-old counter-offensive,

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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