Ukraine banned two popular social media sites Tuesday, in a new attempt to purge Russian influence in the country. The move to block these Russian websites is an extension of sanctions against Russia that have been in place since it annexed Crimea in 2014. Personally announced by President Petro Poroshenko, the order affects individuals and organizations operating in Ukraine – cracking down on 468 companies and 1,228 people currently living in the country.
The new ban has caused outrage in the country of 42 million people, where 12 million Ukrainians reportedly use social site Vkontakte – making it the second most visited site in the country. Five million more are registered on Odnoklassniki. While the human rights organization Freedom House currently lists Ukraine's online freedom as "partially free," this block will likely see that rating fall dramatically. On Wednesday, the German foreign ministry voiced concerns over the sanctions, adding that Chancellor Angela Merkel would raise them with President Poroshenko at their next meeting on May 20.
As well as blocking social media networks, the decree also targets an email hosting platform used by millions of Ukrainians – Mail.ru – the popular search engine Yandex, and the use of software from Russian cybersecurity giant Kaspersky, which has previously faced allegations of close ties with Russian security services.
This latest crackdown comes three years into the ongoing conflict between Russian and Ukraine, which began when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in early 2014 and quietly started sending troops and military equipment across the border into Ukrainian territory. The resulting violence in eastern Ukraine has now taken the lives of nearly 10,000 people according to official United Nations figures, and more than 1.8 million people have been displaced.
The ban is purportedly a preventative security measure in the information war between Russia and Ukraine, but it will likely put a screeching halt to vital open source intelligence gathering efforts. The banned websites often provided vital incriminating evidence of Russia's extensive military engagement in eastern Ukraine. The sites were key resources for a VICE News report on the participation of active duty Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine, and have been extensively mined for information by journalists investigating the downing of MH-17.
The blog OdessaTalks, a site popular among Ukrainian analysts and experts, pointed out Wednesday that banning VK access in Ukraine does nothing to alter the data that already exists on the site – which can be easily harvested by Russian intelligence services. Nor does it prevent access for Ukrainians living outside the country, which is important considering the European Union recently granted Ukrainians visa free access.
Not everyone is opposed to the block however. "This is exactly what people were standing on Maidan for, to have a responsible government that can guarantee security and integrity of the state, and protect citizens, as well as their personal data from being used by Russian security services for espionage purposes and destabilization," says Yevhen Fedchenko, a journalism professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
As an example of destabilizing tactics fomenting on the networks, he cites a spate of recent anti-Polish demonstrations in Ukraine which he believes were coordinated on VK with the help of Russian intelligence.
But despite Poroshenko's firm words, the government may find it a challenge to actually block the social networks entirely. "Schoolboys told me that they are not going to close their profiles and will simply go through VPN's," says Ukrainian investigative journalist Kristina Berdynskykh, "and Vkontakte has already sent out detailed instructions on how to bypass the ban."
Ukrainians took to social media with memes ridiculing the decision Tuesday. In an online poll of 11,000 people on Tuesday afternoon, 66 percent said they were "categorically against" the ban of the Russian social media sites. Another 11 percent said it would be easier to "ban the whole internet, like in North Korea."
The news is likely to further destabilize the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Despite mostly staying silent on Kremlin attempts to erode free speech, Russian media organizations were quick to accuse Ukrainian authorities of censorship, and when asked about the sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman told journalists Tuesday that Russia had not "forgotten about the principle of reciprocity."
Christian Borys is a Canadian journalist based in Ukraine covering conflict. Follow him @itsborys.