May 24, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

Ukraine Breaks Another Link to Russia


Cyberspace is the latest front in Ukraine's fight to distance itself from Russia. A decree signed by President Petro Poroshenko to block Russia-based social media and email services from Ukraine has been met with criticism and protests by some groups. And while it will be impossible to implement in full, the ban marks a further weakening of ties between the two countries that could resonate well into the future.

Since the Euromaidan uprising in 2014, Ukraine has steadily chipped away at the political, economic and military links between itself and Russia. Amid the ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the separatist territories were blockaded, driving the wedge between the countries even deeper. Now the gulf has widened with the decree, which entered into force May 17, cutting Ukranians' official access to popular Russia-based internet services. Ukrainian internet providers were instructed to block access to social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, the email service and the major search engine Yandex. Meanwhile, their parent companies will face a number of punitive measures, including asset freezes and trade restrictions.

At the time of the cutoff, about 60 percent of Ukraine's 43 million people were thought to be users of the Russian social media and search platforms. In fact, despite the deterioration of official ties between the countries, the popularity of the Russian sites in Ukraine had grown in recent years. More than 3 in 4 Ukrainian internet users had a VKontakte account before the ban.

When he signed the decree, Poroshenko cited the threat of Russian hybrid warfare, saying "massive Russian cyber attacks across the world — particularly the interference in the French election campaign — show it is time to act differently and more decisively." The ban has come amid global concerns over ransomware attacks, as well as increasing attention to allegations that Russia used cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to try to influence elections throughout the West.

Drawing the Line Online

Ukraine is certainly no stranger to Russian hybrid warfare. Moscow has used an array of tools beyond conventional military tactics against the country, particularly since the Euromaidan uprising in 2014. They include Russia's unofficial yet well-known support of separatists in eastern Ukraine and efforts by the Kremlin to shape the narrative of the conflict and to undermine the Western-oriented government in Kiev (as well as Western governments that support Ukraine). One method the Kremlin can use to carry out its wishes is the mining of social media metadata to map domestic moods and voter preferences. It could use the information gleaned from social media to propagate pro-Russia sentiments in an effort to destabilize the country politically, sow the seeds of further separatist movements or interfere in 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections.

Concerns over those capabilities may have led to the ban, but it is unlikely that the Ukrainian government can fully follow through on it. Users can employ virtual private networks, or VPNs, to circumvent the ban by routing internet traffic through other countries. Before the ban took hold, the site instructed its users on how to get around the firewall. The head of the information security service of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Valentyn Petrov, acknowledged that VPNs could offer a means of circumventing the restrictions, adding that Ukrainians who use them would face no penalties.

The Russia-oriented Opposition Bloc as well as media freedom and human rights groups have criticized the ban, with some likening it to the kind of censorship tactics used by Moscow. On May 19, about 150 teenagers staged a protest outside the Ukrainian presidential administration in Kiev. (VKontakte is particularly popular among Ukraine's younger generation.)

The Gap Widens

Many Ukrainian internet providers have begun to block the banned sites, though certain mobile operators and companies have said it would take more time to fully implement Kiev's order. The cutoff will likely lead to a significant reduction in Ukrainian traffic to those sites, with a corresponding shift to other social media and email platforms such as Facebook and Gmail. Many Ukrainian businesses have already notified their foreign partners and counterparts that they would implement changes to email and social networking sites. 

Beyond costing Russian internet companies business and possibly strengthening Ukraine's cybersecurity, the ban could well have important longer-term consequences, including weakening the social ties between the younger generation of Ukrainians, who are heavy social media users, and Russians. The memories and life experiences of the younger generation are becoming more and more distant from those of their parents, who grew up in the Soviet era. Younger Ukrainians are less likely to speak Russian as a first language and less likely to view Russians as their "Slavic brothers," as the Soviet generation did. They are coming of age at a time when direct flights between Ukraine and Russia are no longer permitted, Russian news organizations are banned in the country, and the conflict in eastern Ukraine shows no sign of abating. The loss of direct online ties to Russia is likely to only increase that cultural separation.

Even as it distances itself from its eastern neighbor, the Ukrainian government is moving closer to the West. On May 17, the European Council and European Parliament signed off on a deal allowing Ukrainians to travel visa-free to the European Union starting June 11. Poroshenko praised it as Ukraine "finalizing its divorce from the Russian Empire," and pledged to prioritize further integration with the Continental bloc. At the same time, despite the scrutiny of perceived ties between the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia, the White House has maintained its support for Ukraine and other states in the European borderlands, assuaging the fears those countries had of a U.S. pivot to Russia. And as Ukraine strengthens its ties to the West, the strategic gulf between Kiev and Moscow will widen.


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