The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the first war in history where internet connectivity has been contested and weaponised. Russia’s sophisticated cyber capabilities have attracted significant scholarly attention, which has predominantly focussed across two domains: the information domain – research into disinformation and computational propaganda on social media platforms; and, to a lesser extent, the cybersecurity domain – research into cyberattacks and data breaches perpetrated on behalf of the Russian state. While timely and comprehensive, these analyses rarely account for the weaponisation of the media infrastructures that enable connectivity, such as cellular towers and submarine cables. These developments largely go unnoticed, yet their consequences are profound: while the construction of the Crimean bridge connecting the illegally annexed peninsula to mainland Russia has been widely publicised, it was the laying of a new underwater communication line – the Kerch Strait Cable – that enabled Russia to maintain hegemonic control over Ukraine’s occupied territories since 2014. 

Roads, bridges, and communication networks are routes of colonial expansion. Often imagined in their capacity to connect people and territories, they can also become sites of division and inequality, designed to control and inflict harm on those who use them. The infrastructures that have come to shape Ukraine carry multiple legacies of colonial violence: from the famine-genocide perpetrated under the banner of industrialisation, to the nuclear catastrophe precipitated by pushing the country’s energy networks over their limit. From the media infrastructure standpoint, contemporary Ukraine emerges as a site of different overlapping colonialisms: on the one hand, there are enduring social, cultural, and institutional path dependencies underpinning Russia’s reinvigorated attempts at colonial expansion; on the other, there is large-scale resistance to occupation that explicitly relies on tech corporations, e.g. SpaceX. This context turns Ukraine into an urgent, yet critically overlooked case of maintaining digital sovereignty and resilience in the face of colonial techno-geopolitics. 

This project offers the first systematic mapping of digital sovereignty in Ukraine by attending to the changing social, cultural, and institutional practices surrounding its media infrastructures. It documents how shifting state borders are enacted and encoded through digital technologies, drawing links among topographical layers of internet connectivity that exist at different scales and constitute colonial media ecologies. Maintaining technological autonomy and resilience – a necessary condition for achieving digital sovereignty – is contingent on an intricate understanding of pathways and materialities of media infrastructures that enable it. This includes the technologies themselves, as well as the social, cultural, and institutional norms and contexts surrounding internet connectivity. Drawing attention to the materiality of information and communication technologies, this project contributes a unique regional perspective to a recent shift in critical internet studies – away from studying content and its diffusion across platforms, and toward a holistic, relational view of the systems that route and distribute global internet traffic. Achieving digital sovereignty takes more than building resilient information and communication systems – one also needs to consider cultural practices and knowledge systems of those constantly threatened by infrastructural expansion. At the most recent annual conference in Dublin, the Association of Internet Researchers issued a call for a radical rethinking of the emerging forms of coloniality and resistance as subjects, objects, and contexts of research (2022). Situated in the context of contemporary Ukraine and led by a Ukrainian-born media scholar, this DECRA project would make an authentic, unique, and substantive contribution to the overwhelmingly Western-centric narratives of European digital sovereignty. Mapping colonial topographies of digital infrastructure and foregrounding their links to historical and digital forms of dispossession will have enduring relevance in the Indo-Pacific as the region continues to grapple with its own colonial histories.