Shady Russian mobile operators appear in Ukraine

Shady Russian mobile operators appear in Ukraine

Since the companies emerged earlier this year, they claim to have expanded their services. Their websites list dozens of claimed places, including shops where people can buy SIM cards and internet access. In one online post, 7Telecom announces that it is hiring a recruiting manager, an office administrator, a sales manager and an IT specialist to work in the Kherson region.

It’s unclear how popular the networks are. Maps showing areas that receive a cellular signal cannot be verified, nor does the Russian media claim that 7Telecom has more than 100,000 subscribers. MirTelecom and the Gmail account associated with 7Telecom recruitment in Kherson did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. There have been a few sporadic online posts with company posters or flyers, but it is not clear how widespread these are. 7Telecom has a wider social media presence, with around 8,600 followers on its VKontakte account, the Russian version of Facebook. While both companies have unofficial Telegram channels linked to a firm that allows people to top up SIM cards, they each only have a few dozen subscribers. (Although that hasn’t stopped people from complaining about the poor connection.)

While the extent of their presence is unclear, both MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to have some ties to existing mobile companies that were created after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and became part of its longstanding occupation in the area. “The main Russian operators do not have a commercial presence in this part, and this is the same thing that they did in Crimea,” says McDaid. In Crimea and Donbas, Russian forces have created new Internet providers. In recent months, McDaid says, existing Russian mobile operators in the Donbas have updated their coverage maps, claiming new areas of Ukraine come under their service.

Analysis provided by WIRED, which McDade is due to present at a conference later this month, shows that MirTelecom and 7Telecom are linked to Crimean mobile operators KrymTelecom and K-Telecom, respectively. Details published by Mirtelecom and Russian media reports also contain some links. (Neither KrymTelecom nor K-Telecom responded to requests for comment.)

The ability to control the Internet gives occupying forces the ability to influence what people read, watch and hear. In parts of Ukraine controlled by Russian forces, internet censorship is reportedly more severe than in Russia, where suppression of freedom of expression is widespread. Lennon says control of mobile networks could also allow Russian forces to “calm down” the local population, as it could “deprive people of incentives to resist and potentially protest against the new local authorities.”

However, the course of the war in Ukraine began to change. Russian troops are no longer making as much progress as they were at the start of a full invasion, and successful Ukrainian counter-offensives are pushing Putin’s forces back to Russia’s borders. President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian troops were “clearly in a panic” during the retreat. Russian officials downplay any retreats.

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