The international surge to help keep Ukraine's frontlines connected

Residents watch the news on a laptop in the carpark of a large apartment block that they are using as a bomb shelter on March 01, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

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While the threat of a massive cyberattack wiping out Ukrainian infrastructure looms, network operators on the ground are dealing with a much more old-fashioned form of the devastations of war.

When occupying Russian forces began to fire in residential areas, Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure also took a hit. The nation has so far proven mostly resilient in keeping its cellular services online thanks to a customer-sharing agreement between the nation’s largest three providers and the diligent work of engineers repairing war-torn infrastructure in hot zones like Mauripol. But steady internet service on the front lines remains a challenge, especially when it comes to getting working equipment into the right hands.

“It became not about like actual cyber defense against attacks against the internet … but basically destroying infrastructure itself,” Vadym Gudyma, co-founder of Digital Security Lab Ukraine, told CyberScoop.

In non-war times, Digital Security Lab Ukraine focuses on helping human rights groups and journalists shore up their cyberdefenses. While the group has continued that work during the war, its members have increasingly found themselves helping out in other ways, including collecting supplies for refugees and even military service. In Gudyma’s case, he has been getting equipment to the frontlines to help keep human rights defenders and journalists connected.

Gudyma stressed that the biggest obstacle was logistics. “Just getting the right equipment to the right people is hard,” Gudyma said.

So far, Gudyma has visited five sites and his colleagues have worked in additional cities. He said they are mostly relying on donations for equipment.

The need for telecommunications equipment is one that Global Network Operator Groups (NOGs) Alliance, a nonprofit supporting community network operators around the globe based in the Netherlands, is trying to solve.

The group decided to launch its “Keep Ukraine Connected” task force after chair René Fichtmüller drove a truck to Ukraine himself to take networking supplies. When the group advertised a second upcoming drive, their phones didn’t stop ringing with dozens of people seeking to donate servers, network equipment and even software licenses, said Sander Steffann, one of the group’s board members.

“There’s always a lot of stuff, people gathering donations, but then if you just dump it in a warehouse in Ukraine it’s not going to be very useful. So we’re actually focusing on collecting all the stuff that is being offered, but also the other way around asking the network operators what they need and then try to find that for them.”

Sander Steffann, nogs Alliance Board member

The group is also working with private companies to donate equipment and to cover shipping costs. One company alone offered 50 routers to help network shelters in Ukraine.

Because the group is already connected to local network operators in Ukraine, it got a jump-start in making sure the equipment gets into the right hands for immediate use.

“There’s always a lot of stuff, people gathering donations, but then if you just dump it in a warehouse in Ukraine it’s not going to be very useful,” said Steffann. “So we’re actually focusing on collecting all the stuff that is being offered, but also the other way around asking the network operators what they need and then try to find that for them.”

Collective efforts

The effort is just one of many to get more equipment into Ukraine. Nongovernmental organizations like Télécoms Sans Frontières and even the government of Croatia have contributed to efforts to keep the country online and citizens connected. Private companies have also stepped up in the form of financial donations and equipment. Cisco announced Wednesday it was working alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and NetHope to deploy its equipment and help provide secure internet to humanitarian agencies working with displaced Ukrainians.

Perhaps the most widely-publicized effort is the donation of thousands of Starlink satellite internet kits from Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Ukraine. The kits have been used as a backup to regular service, Victor Zhora, deputy chairman of the country’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, told reporters in a press conference Wednesday.

Zhora says that the government has also received telecommunications equipment donations from other companies but did not name them to reporters.

The donations come with some security concerns. Elon Musk warned on Twitter that the Starlink system could be a target for Russian hackers and potentially fall victim to an attack similar to the one against the Viasat satellite systems that knocked out a significant swath of communications in Ukraine at that start of the war.

NOGs Alliance volunteers can make sure a hard drive is clean but the volunteers don’t have time to do a thorough security audit of each piece of donated equipment, Steffann said.

Russian hackers have also started targeting charities helping Ukrainian refugees, putting those offering aid at a security risk.

Ultimately, it’s the operators and engineers on the ground that are key to making a difference, Zhora said: “This is one of the factors that probably explains the success of the Ukrainian resistance.”

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internet freedom, Russia, Ukraine
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