Annexing territory is the easy bit. It’s the hard slog of bringing it into the fold that takes more patience, money, and time. Four months after Crimea officially became a part of Russia, and three months after Russia’s Rostelecom finished laying a 46 km (27 mile) submarine cable along the Kerch Strait that separates the peninsula from the Russian mainland, Crimean internet service providers (ISPs) have started finally started sending traffic through Russia, according to Renesys, a company that monitors the world’s networks.
On July 24th, Renesys observed traffic flow from two Crimean ISPs to Miranda Media, Rostelecom’s agent in Crimea. In the two days to July 31, another two ISPs climbed aboard. According to Renesys, with these two additions, “a significant portion of Crimean Internet customers now enjoy direct domestic connectivity to Russia.”
There are two reasons why this is important. First, Russia is understandably paranoid about domestic data transiting via servers and exchanges in foreign countries. In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations about US government surveillance, Russia lawmakers went as far as to suggest prosecuting for treason any officials who used American social networks or web services for government work. Creating a domestic connection ensures at least some security from snoopers and wiretappers.
Second, the new connection will also make it faster for Crimean internet users to access content hosted in Russia. In the past, such requests went through Kyiv and Frankfurt before reaching Moscow, thanks to the nature of the high-bandwidth routes connecting regional networks. A survey (link in Russian) cited by Renesys claims that a majority of Crimeans have switched to getting their news from Russian media in the past two years. Moreover, it gives Crimeans another route to the outer world; without the new cable, ISPs had to connect through Ukraine.
But there are also reasons for concern. If Ukraine should now disconnect its cable to Crimea—or if Russia should choose to disconnect it, perhaps to ward off Ukrainian government surveillance of Crimea—the peninsula would again have only a single connection to the world, through Russia. That would leave it at risk of being cut off entirely. It would also mean that accessing websites and social networks based in Western Europe or the Americas would take two to three times as long.