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ICT and telecommunications infrastructure is usually one of the first elements that are impacted by wars and conflicts, leading to disrupted communication services and unstable network experiences. However, in some cases, mobile networks can be leveraged to serve the war’s objectives.

While during conflicts, countries tend to tighten their censorship measures and block media content that didn’t serve their interest, Russia refrained from disabling phone and data networks in Ukraine during the ongoing calamity, and not because it couldn’t.

Cybersecurity experts believe that keeping telecommunications running in Ukraine is actually helping Russia. The latter is using the network for surveillance and geolocation purposes. Prior to the 2014 Crimea annexation, most of Ukraine’s telecommunications providers were either owned by Russians or Russian-Ukrainian businesspeople, giving Moscow the opportunity to lean on the private sector for help infiltrating networks, said Chris Kubecka, a cyberwarfare specialist. “It’s easy to put surveillance on telecoms if you have a foothold,” Kubecka said. “Now the Russians have blueprints, probably backdoors.”

Furthermore, Russians are using Ukrainian commercial networks instead of military communications lines that can be intercepted, thus hindering their operations. Hacktivist groups including Anonymous claim to have interrupted Russian military communications which further explains why Russian soldiers would communicate via commercial networks

Another valid reason why Russia wouldn’t destroy Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure is that it doesn’t want to incur the cost of having to rebuild entire cell towers. When Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014, it took Moscow about three years to take full control of the region’s mobile infrastructure, even though it remained intact. That’s why if Russia succeeds in taking control of Ukraine, the last thing it would want is to spend exorbitant costs over a number of years to rebuild the telecommunications infrastructure.

Social platforms: The new weapon

Social media platforms have become a new fighting weapon in conflicts over the years. In this context, Meta announced recently Russian attempts to use its Facebook and Instagram social networks for spying, hacking and disinformation, as the digital platforms have become one of the fronts in the war in Ukraine.

A group of hackers called Ghostwriter, which seems to operate from Russia, has thus intensified its activity, according to the security team of the Californian group. Ghostwriter uses phishing to entice its victims to click on links to malicious sites to steal their passwords.

“Since our last update, the group has attempted to hack into the Facebook accounts of dozens of Ukrainian military personnel,” Meta notes in its report. “In a handful of cases, they then posted videos calling on the army to surrender,” posing as the real owners of the hacked accounts.

Meta has already taken steps to curb Russian disinformation: Russian state media are no longer allowed to run ads, and RT and Sputnik are even banned altogether in the European Union.

On the other hand, Russia's telecoms watchdog said it was banning Google from advertising in Russia, accusing its YouTube platform of spreading false information about Russian forces engaged in Ukraine.

Moscow has launched an all-out crackdown to curb the spread of information that does not fit the official line.

“YouTube has become a key platform for disseminating “fake” information about the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine, discrediting the Russian armed forces,” says Roskomnadzor, which also accuses the site of publishing the content of Ukrainian “extremists”. It also accuses the site of censoring Russian state media, whose YouTube channels have been closed.

As a result, Google will no longer be allowed to “advertise Google LLC” and its platforms in Russia. In addition, Russian search engines will have to indicate that Google and its subsidiaries are violating Russian law when a search is performed on their names.

These measures are much less severe than those that have targeted other web giants for similar accusations. Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are thus blocked in Russia. Moreover, the dissemination of information discrediting the Russian army is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

An example of a new model

The war between Russia and Ukraine can serve as a new model whereby ICTs are a lever instead of a target for destruction. Using the telecom network in place instead of destroying it can actually help the first party initiating the attack. This is where the importance of telecom infrastructure prevails as one of a country’s essential elements of survival and perseverance.

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