How to keep a network running during war
Big Interview

How to keep a network running during war

Vasyl L Neqsol.jpg

The Russian military has been attacking Ukraine’s digital infrastructure, as well as its people and buildings, since February 2022. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to Vodafone Ukraine’s Vasyl Latsanych about how the company keeps connected

For a raw, sobering view of the impact Russia’s war on Ukraine has had, talk to Vasyl Latsanych, chairman of the board of Vodafone Ukraine, and Yevgeniya Denysyeva, strategic communications director at Neqsol Holding, the Azerbaijan investor that owns Bakcell in Azerbaijan, Vodafone Ukraine and other telecoms businesses in the region.

Latsanych, a Ukrainian who has run companies in Russia and Ukraine, has not been back home since before Vladimir Putin’s attempt to conquer a democratic country. Denysyeva spent weeks after the unprovoked 2022 invasion sheltering in a basement in Ukraine. Both still have family in Ukraine, but we are drinking coffee in a comfortable, safe hotel in London, next to Victoria station. Both are on their way to Azerbaijan for business meetings.

Latsanych spends some of his time living in the south of England, some time in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, and the rest in Amsterdam, when he is setting up an office for Neqsol.

“My home in is Ukraine, but most of my family is in the UK,” says Latsanych, with a look of sadness.

When both he and Denysyeva were born, Ukraine was part of the USSR, which broke apart in 1991. They still have connections on both sides of the frontline in Ukraine. Latsanych has worked for telecoms companies in both Ukraine and Russia, including years at MTS in Russia, and more at Beeline, the Russian brand used by VimpelCom that was owned by Veon at the time.

Two decades ago, he was marketing manager at UMC, a mobile operator in Ukraine that was at the time part of MTS, a conglomerate that is owned by the Sistema industrial group, which reputedly has close connections to Putin.

UMC is now owned by Neqsol Holding and operates as Vodafone Ukraine, which means Latsanych has returned to his home – even if the war means he has been working remotely since February 2022.

Neqsol, which he joined as head of telecoms in 2021, owns a range of telecoms interests apart from Vodafone Ukraine and Bakcell. It is at the centre of a plan to build a subsea cable that will run east-to-west across the Caspian Sea, as part of a plan to build an Asia-Europe link. More of that later.


Keeping in business

But in the security of the London hotel, we talk about how Ukrainian operators – not just Neqsol’s Vodafone-branded business – have kept in business.

Those of us in the rest of the world can see President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meeting foreign visitors and see and hear contributions from the world’s correspondents, which shows the resilience of Ukraine’s telecoms infrastructure. Latsanych and Denysyeva, and other Ukrainian exiles, have been able to keep in touch with their families at home. And, let it be said, with families in Russia.

How, I ask Latsanych over that cup of coffee, have you managed to keep going? Not personally, but technically, as a business.

It’s odd, he says, especially as two of the mobile networks have such close Russian connections. UMC/Vodafone Ukraine was a sister company of MTS, and Beeline in Russia was a sister company of Veon-owned Kyivstar.

“The Russians had a lot of information,” muses Latsanych. “I was expecting they’d use that knowledge to black out communications as soon as possible.” He thought mobile infrastructure “would be the prime targets”.

But “they were not even close”, he says. He wonders if the Russian army thought it “was strong because [they’ve] launched 60 missiles”, even if many missed. “I was afraid they’d be attacking the towers. But it’s expensive to attack towers – they are small and this network is so distributed.”

In the first six months of the war, just 250 out of Ukraine’s 10,000 base stations were put out of action, he says.

The three mobile networks in Ukraine – Kyivstar, Vodafone Ukraine and Turkcell’s Lifecell – have worked together to distribute their operations “and the core is distributed as well”.

Base station controllers are not co-sited with the towers, he says. Indeed, they’re not even in Ukraine, he smiles. “And we build so densely that coverage overlaps,” he says, before adding: “I used to be sceptical about virtual core networks.”

Virtualising the core in Ukraine was not a deliberate security policy, but the process had begun and was then maximised, along with virtualised billing.

“The network will be run out of the cloud – completely,” says Latsanych.



Latsanych pays tribute to the brave staff of Ukraine’s mobile networks. “What the people did is incredible.”

As an example, he says, Vodafone Ukraine has two copies of its home location register (HLR) database: one in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and one in Kharkiv, a northern city that is a short drive from the Russian border.

“Kharkiv was the first to be attacked,” by the Russians, he says.

An HLR is a vital database that is essential to the continued running of a mobile network. “The staff put it in a van and drove it 1,200km, under bombing, holding the pieces in their hands,” to protect them from the bumpy roads and explosions.

Meanwhile, invading Russian troops had made a habit of cutting the network’s fibres in occupied territories. “By the next morning, the network was working again,” says Latsanych. “It was cut again a week ago, but our people are crawling in during the night and re-connecting the optics.”

If the Russians had found the engineers, “that would have meant a death sentence on the spot”, he says.

Meanwhile, the company’s equipment vendors released a software patch across the network that turned off the lights that blinked at the top of masts – they are, it turns out, controlled by software.

Roaming between the three national operators has also given extra resilience, Latsanych adds.

After the war is over, what has happened since February 2022 with Ukraine’s telecoms systems will be studied by engineers across the world, where such extreme tests may occur in the future.


Digital silk

We turn to long-term plans for Neqsol, which is building the Digital Silk Way as a fibre backbone through the Caucasus, and an alternative to other Asia–Europe subsea and terrestrial routes.

That also has a relevance to the war. Connections between Asia and Europe are vital to the world’s economy. For years, the main Asia-Europe fibres have run across the Indian Ocean, along the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean.

And for years, Russia has been building terrestrial alternatives, for example, by exploiting wayleaves along its rail network. That will probably not be regarded as viable after February 2022.

Neither is an Arctic route from the north of Scandinavia to Japan, because much would run through Russian – or at least contested – waters.

So what about other overland routes? While links between Israel and the wider Middle East that will then reach out to Europe and Asia are emerging, Neqsol is planning a trans-Caspian route.

“Connectivity between China, the ‘Stan’ countries and Europe is critical,” says Latsanych. The main route of the 340km submarine cable will run from Aktau, Kazakhstan, to Siyazan, Azerbaijan. A reserve cable with length of about 330km will be laid from the Kazakhstan port of Kuryk to Buzovna, a municipality north-east of Baku.

Neqsol plans to run terrestrial connections east and west of the landing points on the coasts of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water.

“We can’t go south or north,” Latsanych says, “but the link between China and western Europe is the shortest connection.” While he says the project is “absolutely not straightforward”, Neqsol says it has the expertise to work with operators between Europe and China.

The company is working on a joint venture with Kazakhtelecom that will be part of the east-west link.

“We can collect traffic in the Caspian area. But there are a lot of countries, a lot of difficulties,” he said.

He hopes that partnerships, routes and connections can be negotiated and that the Digital Silk Way can be in service in “two to three years”.


International deal

Telecoms operators in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan signed an agreement to build the Caspian Sea section of the Digital Silk Way in January, a few days after I met Latsanych.

At the signing, Sergey Nazarenko, chief operations officer at AzerTelecom, said: “For Kazakhstan and Asian countries this is a new alternative route, as well as an improvement of the network connectivity and reliability, while for Azerbaijan it means a transformation into a regional digital hub.”

Almat Karamanov, chief executive for business-to-business at Kazakhtelecom, said at the same time: “With its implementation, we’ll get an additional access to international traffic and a new channel, which will ensure the transit of the global traffic flow from Asian countries through Kazakhstan and via a submarine cable to Azerbaijan with further access to Europe through Georgia, the Black Sea, and Bulgaria.”

It looks as though the old overland Asia-Europe trade routes are coming back, but this time they will be carrying data instead of silk and spices.

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