In the rubble of bombarded Ukrainian cities, technicians are risking their lives to keep the country online. Their government calls them the ‘hidden heroes’ of the war.
On March 11, in the city of Okhtyrka, in Ukraine’s northeast, Russian missiles hit a key hub of Kyivstar, the biggest internet and mobile operator in the country, with 20 million customers in a country of 41 million. It was one of Russia’s more precise strikes, and it cut off the city’s phone service. Okhtyrka, a town of nearly 50,000 before the war, had already suffered attacks on a power plant and residential buildings. Now many townspeople couldn’t do something they’d long taken for granted: make a phone call.
Kyivstar had a problem. Its employees in the area were already at work restoring lines in other besieged parts of the region. They turned to staff 60 miles south in the larger city of Poltava to come to their aid.
The company had hoped that the official safe corridor leading into and out of Okhtyrka — one agreed upon by Ukraine and Russia to allow for humanitarian aid to go in and for evacuees to get out — would allow the technicians to get to work. The Russian shelling, however, hadn’t stopped. It also didn’t stop the engineers, who went into the city, where they found that the place where the company’s machines direct internet and phone connections — called a node station — had been destroyed. That meant all base stations in the city had to be switched to a new node. Despite the threat of further strikes, Okhtyrka got its telephone network back. When Volodymyr Lutchenko, Kyivstar’s technical director, described the operation for Forbes, he reported not only on the work assignments the engineers had completed but whether the team had survived them.
“Thanks to the quick actions of our staff, we managed to restore the work of 11 Kyivstar base stations,” Lutchenko said. “Specialists successfully returned to Poltava, alive, unharmed and satisfied with their result.” (Forbes was unable to independently verify the narrative, though it’s one that was previously described by other Kyivstar employees on social media).
Elon Musk may have provided free internet from space via his Starlink satellites, which tens of thousands of Ukrainians are using, but back on planet Earth, network engineers are venturing out into war zones to fix cables and base stations in the minutes and hours after they’ve been damaged by Russian bombs. The work is hindered not only by curfews, poor light, bad weather, fried wires and blitzed server racks, but also the near-constant threat of being killed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war. The Ukraine government has hailed the country’s engineers as the “hidden heroes” of the conflict.
Earlier this month in Kharkiv, just down the road from Okhtyrka, two technicians working for Lifecell, the country’s third-largest telecommunications provider, were huddled over a manhole cover. The city has been under siege since the war began, and the men, encircled by bombed-out cars, smoke-blackened buildings, steel girders splintering like broken bones, were working to fix fiber-optic connections damaged by Russian armaments.
Hundreds of miles to the west, Lifecell’s manager for the Kharkiv region, Volodymyr Poltavchenko, is the one tasked with remotely organizing the engineers. From his office he can see which stations have been damaged, down to which routers or switches aren’t working. He can then decide what can be saved, what can’t, and what equipment is required to keep data flowing in Kharkiv. The best time to get engineers out is in the morning once the bombs have stopped, a “time window when it’s quite safe,” Poltavchenko said. Where necessary, engineers are accompanied by armed escorts from the Armed Forces of Ukraine or the Territorial Defense Forces, in case of a ground assault, according to Kyivstar’s Lutchenko. The IT guys don’t carry weapons, he said.
“Every day after each attack, we’re trying to restore our base stations and our services for our citizens,” said Bohdan Kashyntsev, a unit chief for internet connectivity at Lifecell, bald and bearded next to his long-haired colleague, both sounding determined, stoic, looking fresher than you’d expect for citizens of a country that’s just found itself embroiled in the most significant European war since 1945. Of his engineers, Kashyntsev said, “They are kind of like the medics — they’re not treating someone, but they are supporting people.”
Where Ukraine once had competing telecommunications companies whose profit motives fed a desire to take business from one another, they now not only share networks but staff too. In essence, there are no independent operators in wartime Ukraine. The companies, in particular Kyivstar, Vodafone and Lifecell, help fix each other’s bombed-out base stations and let customers move seamlessly over to another operator’s network should their contracted one go down.
Outside assistance is coming from major network providers, said Kashyntsev, whether that’s Ericsson, the Swedish telecom kit provider, or its rival Huawei, the Chinese company that saw two non-executive U.K. board members resign in recent weeks over the company’s decision not to condemn the Russian invasion. (Huawei hadn’t commented on what assistance it was providing to Ukrainian companies at the time of publication.)
The reason engineers remain in places like Mariupol and Kharkiv, where the tragedies get more harrowing by the day and Russian shells kill more and more people, is simple: the truth, they say. “The first thing the occupier does in the occupied territories is to set up his ‘zombie broadcast,’” said Kyivstar’s Lutchenko. “Therefore, access to the internet and truthful information is vital in the current situation.” As Kashyntsev put it, if Ukrainians have access to as many information sources as possible, they can decide “what’s true and what’s fake news.”
They’re also motivated because, like many others in Ukraine, they feel a need to do their part for their country, said Kashyntsev, whose wife and daughter evacuated to Poland. “They’re trying to defend their cities … with their network defense,” he said. Some can’t leave elderly parents or other family members in need of care, he added. Then there’s the simple explanation that networks allow families to stay in touch, that internet and phone connections often mean human connection.
For some telecom engineers, the constant work is a distraction, Kashyntsev said, noting that no one in the country gets a weekend anymore. “It helps us to think a bit more positively because we don’t have much time to follow the news,” he said.
To try to ensure their safety when tinkering with the network from afar, engineers are working from basements or bomb shelters, put in place in the months before Russia invaded. Supplies of food and water are provided by their employers. No injuries or fatalities have been reported by the telecom companies that spoke with Forbes.
There’s a theory that Russia is happy for Ukrainian mobile and internet networks to remain up, whether for intelligence gathering or because their soldiers need to use Ukraine’s resilient networks to report home. “They may well be using it for their own intelligence benefit,” said an intelligence official from a Ukraine-allied country in a briefing with U.K. journalists on Friday. “You’ll always have what we would call an intelligence gain-loss assessment in an operation. And it may be that they feel that the intelligence they get from their access to those capabilities are more valuable to them than disruption.”
Such concerns are one reason Kashyntsev believes that using apps made by Russians could be a risk, as they may grab locations that Kremlin agents could use to guide their attacks. But, the official added, it was clear the Ukrainians had shown a remarkable resilience in maintaining their internet networks, “an area that they put a significant amount of effort into.”
Whether or not Russia is actually exploiting Ukraine’s adaptable networks, it remains true that Ukraine’s resilience extends beyond its military and its political leadership to everyday people, like the IT workers keeping information lines open and flowing into and out of Ukraine.