Since the companies emerged earlier this year, they claim to have expanded their services. Their websites list dozens of alleged locations, including stores where people can buy SIM cards and internet access. In an online post, 7Telecom says it is hiring a recruitment manager, an office clerk, a sales manager and an IT specialist to work in the Kherson region.
It’s not clear how popular the networks are. Maps showing areas where cell phone signals are received cannot be verified, nor can Russian media claim that 7Telecom has more than 100,000 subscribers. MirTelecom and a Gmail account linked to 7Telecom’s recruitment efforts for Kherson did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. There have been some sporadic online posts with posters or promotional 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 for its account on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. While both companies have unofficial Telegram channels associated with a company that allows people to top up SIM cards, each has only a few dozen subscribers. (Although that hasn’t stopped people from complaining about bad connections.)
While the extent of their presence is uncertain, both MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to have some ties to existing wireless companies, formed following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and part of its long-term occupation in the region. “The main Russian operators do not have any commercial presence in this part, and that is the same as in Crimea,” says Mc Daid. In Crimea and Donbass, the Russian armed forces created new internet providers. In recent months, according to Mc Daid, existing Russian mobile operators in Donbass have updated their coverage maps, claiming that new areas of Ukraine are covered by their service.
An analysis shared with WIRED, which McDaid will present at a conference later this month, shows that MirTelecom and 7Telecom appear to be linked to Crimean mobile companies KrymTelecom and K-Telecom, respectively. Details publicly posted by MirTelecom and reports from Russian media also seem to show some links. (Neither KrymTelecom nor K-Telecom have responded to requests for comment.)
Being able to control the internet gives the occupying powers the power to influence what people read, see and hear. In parts of Ukraine where Russian forces are in control, internet censorship has reportedly been more enforced than in Russia, where there have been widespread crackdowns on freedom of expression. Lennon says controlling cellphone networks could also allow Russian forces to “pacify” local populations, as it “dissuades people from resisting and potentially protesting new local authorities.”
However, the tide of the war in Ukraine has turned. Russian troops are not making as much headway as when the full-scale invasion began, and successful Ukrainian counteroffensives are pushing Putin’s forces back toward Russia’s borders. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has claimed that Russian troops are “clearly panicking” during their retreat. Russian officials have downplayed any withdrawals.