As Ukraine faces a possible invasion from Russia, misinformation and confusion are a danger, either through propaganda the difficulty of reporting during heightened tensions.
Usually, such matters are outside DCD's remit, but occasionally geopolitical conflicts overlap with our beat: Understanding the digital infrastructure of the modern world.
With that in mind, several DCD readers have sent us a number of stories, from sites including the New York Times, which claim that in 2014 Russia cut a submarine cable when it annexed the Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea.
Why would Russia cut its own cable?
These stories say Russia plunged the Crimea into an information blackout by cutting the cable, and suggest it might repeat the process should it invade more of Ukraine.
However, this action did not happen. In 2014, Russia did target and take over infrastructure and telecommunications sites, and used DDoS attacks on government and media websites, but it did not cut a submarine cable.
The most recent claims in the New York Times and other places can be traced to an Atlantic Council article which said that "when Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, one of its first actions was to cut a submarine cable linking the peninsula to the outside world."
This piece cited a US military blog, which itself cites a loosely-researched Newsweek article from 2017. That article appears to claim it got the information from a report by influential British center-right think tank Policy Exchange.
DCD profiled that report in 2017 and noted it came from a lobbying group with hidden financial backers. It is focused on potential Russian attacks against the UK, including hits on cables and landing stations. It does not provide detailed sources for many of its claims, and states that "Russia successfully took control of land based communications infrastructure early in its annexation of the peninsula," not clearly referring to submarine cables.
The only submarine cable to Crimea is the Kerch Strait Cable, which in 2014 was newly installed by Russia's state-owned Rostelecom. This comes from Russia, who would not need to cut it. It Russia wanted to deactivate it, they could simply switch it off.
At the time of the Policy Exchange report, the European Subsea Cables Association's chairman said that while cables should be protected, "ESCA notes there are some inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the report, about which it has some concerns."
The Atlantic Council article has since been updated to remove the submarine cable claim, but still contains errors. Instead, it claims a 'cable,' presumably terrestrial, was cut - but uses the same flawed sources, so it cannot be verified.
Ukraine has land-based cables
It still says that Russia could cut the Kerch Strait Cable, this time to impact the rest of Ukraine. There's just one problem: "Mainland Ukraine doesn't rely on the Kerch Strait cable for Internet connectivity," - tweeted Doug Madory, director of Internet Analysis at Kentik, whose research into the cable misinformation we made generous use of for this piece.
The Kerch Strait Cable travels a short distance from mainland Russia to Crimea, an unlikely route for Ukraine's Internet, which uses terrestrial connections to link to Eastern Europe, as well as to Russia.
These connections, mentioned briefly in the updated Atlantic article, could indeed be targeted. However, that would not involve slicing submarine fiber, and there is no evidence Russia did that before.in Crimea..
How Russia treats the network after an invasion could be more important. Researchers found that the segment of the Internet network located in the separatist areas of Eastern Ukraine was reorganized in 2018 so that "available data paths entering or leaving the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were suddenly only transiting through Russia and not through Ukraine anymore."
In Donbas, "local inhabitants must now mainly rely on Russian operators for their connection to the Internet."