For many Ukrainians, staying online has been daunting as Russia attacks telecoms and power supplies, but some people, like Oleg Kutkov, a software and communications engineer, are testing out a new way to stay connected.
In a FaceTime interview with VOA Mandarin from Kyiv, Kutkov held up the components of the two-part terminal needed to connect via Starlink, an internet constellation of some 2,000 satellites operated by billionaire Elon Musk’s private firm SpaceX, one of a growing number of enterprises supporting Ukraine.
The Starlink dish and modem setup is easy to use, according to Kutkov, who is in his mid-30s.
“You just place the receptor outside, power on, wait a few minutes, and then you can go online without any additional tuning,” he told VOA Mandarin on Monday.
Kutkov said, “Our government is communicating with citizens using social (media) channels, and we are getting all the information from them on the internet. Not from TV or radio, but the internet. So [having connectivity] is very important.”
Skylink arrived in Ukraine with next-generation speed. On Feb. 26, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, tweeted to Musk, “while you try to colonize Mars — Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.”
Hours later, Musk tweeted that Ukraine would soon have Starlink service and despite criticism that he was using the crisis as a marketing stunt, the hardware began arriving there on Feb. 28.
Fedorov tweeted on March 9 that a second shipment of Starlink equipment had arrived as the situation in Ukraine continued to deteriorate.
According to NetBlocks, a London-based organization tracking internet outages around the world, several major cities in southern Ukraine, including Kherson and Mariupol, have experienced severe internet disruption due to attacks on infrastructure and power supplies.
In other areas, including Kharkiv and Kyiv, internet connections were disrupted as Russian troops launched cyber assaults targeting financial and government websites in Ukraine.
And even though Musk has cautioned the Skylink connection is being used by Russia to target users, Kutkov has been sharing his experiences with the service on Twitter. He told VOA Mandarin that he has received requests for support from across the country, including from ordinary citizens, companies and even those in the military.
“Ukraine is a highly digitized country,” Kutlov said. “We have everything online.”
SpaceX is one of a growing number of private companies that began taking an active role in supporting Ukraine in the fight against Russia almost as soon as Russia began missile and artillery attacks on Feb. 24.
Mobile phone carriers including T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon have waived charges for calls and texts to and from Ukraine.
Tesla is allowing any electric vehicles to use its charging stations along the borders of Ukraine with Poland and Hungary.
Airbnb, the online marketplace for lodging, stepped up to organize free short-term accommodation for 100,000 refugees from Ukraine.
Google and Facebook have banned Russian state media from their European platforms while working with European governments to combat the spread of disinformation from the Kremlin. Twitter began labeling all tweets containing content from Russian state-affiliated media outlets on Feb. 28.
As of Friday, more than 340 companies have announced their withdrawal from Russia’s economy in protest of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the Yale School of Management.
Russia has threatened to counter that exodus by nationalizing foreign-owned businesses that have decided to flee the country in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Eli Dourado, a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, told VOA Mandarin the reason that so many private companies have taken action is that Russia’s invasion has “shocked and disgusted much of the world.”
He said the circumstances of the conflict have left a lot of people feeling that “it’s almost pure good versus evil.”
Abishur Prakash, co-founder and geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future, a Toronto-based advisory firm, said one of the reasons Western corporations, especially tech companies, are taking sides is “because the global landscape has now permanently shifted.”
“The West is trying to permanently decouple from Russia, and Western tech firms are more than complying,” said Prakash, author of The World Is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalization, in an emailed response to VOA Mandarin. “There is a tacit acceptance in the boardrooms of technology companies that Russia has become ‘off limits.'”