Since the companies emerged earlier this year, they claim to have expanded their services. Their websites list dozens of claimed locations, including shops, where people can buy SIM cards and internet access. In one online post, 7Telecom says it’s hiring a recruitment manager, office administrator, sales manager, and IT specialist to work in the Kherson region.
It isn’t clear how popular the networks are. Maps showing areas receiving cell phone signals cannot be verified, nor can Russian media claims that 7Telecom has more than 100,000 subscribers. MirTelecom and a Gmail account linked to 7Telecom’s Kherson recruitment efforts did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. There have been a few sporadic online posts showing posters or advertising flyers for the companies, but it’s not clear how widespread they are. 7Telecom has the larger social media presence of the two, with around 8,600 followers of its account on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. While there are unofficial Telegram channels for both companies, linked to a firm that allows people to top up SIM cards, each has only a few dozen subscribers. (Although this has not stopped people from complaining about poor connections.)
While the scale of their presence is uncertain, both MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to have some links to existing mobile companies, which were created following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and have formed part of its long-term occupation in the area. “The main Russian operators are not operating a commercial presence in this part, and this is the same as what they did in Crimea,” says Mc Daid. In Crimea and the Donbas, Russian forces created new internet providers. In recent months, Mc Daid says, existing Russian mobile providers in the Donbas have updated their coverage maps claiming that new areas of Ukraine fall under their service.
Analysis shared with WIRED, which McDaid is due to present at a conference later this month, shows MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to be linked to Crimean mobile companies KrymTelecom and K-Telecom, respectively. Details posted publicly by MirTelecom and reporting by Russian media also appear to show some links. (Neither KrymTelecom nor K-Telecom responded to requests for comment.)
Being able to control the internet gives occupying forces the power to shape what people read, watch, and hear. In parts of Ukraine where Russian forces have control, reports have indicated that internet censorship is more heavily enforced than in Russia, where there have been widespread crackdowns on freedom of expression. Lennon says that controlling mobile networks could also allow Russian forces to “pacify” local populations, as it may “disincentivize people from resisting and potentially protesting against new local authorities.”
However, the tide of the war in Ukraine has started to turn. Russian troops are no longer making as many gains as they were at the start of the full invasion, and successful Ukrainian counteroffensives are pushing Putin’s forces back towards Russia’s borders. President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed Russian troops are “clearly in a panic” during their retreats. Russian officials have downplayed any retreats.