Civilians in the Russian-occupied areas of southeast Ukraine are being forced to use Russian SIM cards in their phones so Russia can block the flow of information from the areas it has captured.
Ukrainian civilians who have remained in the towns of Berdyansk and Melitopol on the coast of the Sea of Azov, which have been occupied by the Russian army, have been given Russian SIM cards by the occupying forces with which to communicate, according to a Western intelligence source.
Family members and rescue organizations trying to help Ukrainian civilians out of the war zones have reported being unable to call them over their cell phones and landlines, as the Russians have cut off the Ukrainian phone networks in that region. Any communications in that area must use a cellular network that the Russians have rolled out in the region.
According to reports from the region, smartphones using the Russian SIM cards cannot access the internet or send images, videos or voice files. In some cases, the cards were not activated immediately or were usable for only a short while and left their users cut off for days.
While the fighting on the Azov coast continues, particularly around the city of Mariupol, which has been bombarded relentlessly but where the Ukrainian defenders are still holding out, the Russians are already entrenching their occupation in various ways, such as abducting mayors and council members and replacing them with collaborators.
In some of the towns occupied by the Russians, citizens have continued protesting against their presence in marches flying Ukrainian flags. Replacing their communication channels and forcing them to use Russian SIM cards means that it will become much harder to get news and videos of these protests and of the Russian forces suppressing them to the outer world.
The replacement of the Ukrainian communication networks is another form of control. “They haven’t completed their military occupation, but they’re already starting electro-magnetic occupation,” says an intelligence source. “This has a wider psychological effect since those now receiving phone calls from their relatives in the Russian-controlled areas see on their screens incoming numbers with the Russian +7 country code, rather than the Ukrainian +380.”