Russia’s War Against Ukraine Is Catalyzing Internet Fragmentation
On March 11, 2022, many observers held their breath: the Russian government had instructed Russian website operators to make themselves independent of the worldwide web by that date. While it soon became clear that only state-owned websites and services were separating, the idea of Russia decoupling from the global internet has persisted in discussion and reporting.
Within weeks after its invasion of Ukraine, Russia had indeed dropped a close-meshed “digital iron curtain” between its more than 140 million citizens and the rest of the world. The Russian government blocked numerous news sites and banned many popular Western internet services and social platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. New laws against “fake news” threaten administrative and criminal charges against those Russians that inform about their country’s war in Ukraine.
Notwithstanding this crackdown, Russia has not severed ties with the global internet. Still, the idea of an autonomous “RuNet” is more than just a rhetorical device. Russia’s 2019 "internet sovereignty" law created the legal basis for an on/off switch of sorts. It requires internet service providers (ISPs) to enable the routing of traffic through exchange points approved by the federal agency Roskomnadzor. It also empowers Roskomnadzor to force ISPs to route traffic via special override systems that authorities can use to filter and re-route traffic. Moreover, since 2021, Russian ISPs must be able to process queries to the Domain Name System (DNS)–the internet's “telephone directory”–on servers located within the country, ensuring that computers can locate internet resources even in the event of a nation-wide disconnect from global networks.
How these systems will perform in real-life situations remains difficult to evaluate. An autonomous segment that replicates much of the functionality of the global internet is more challenging to implement technically than to envision politically. In any case, while Russia’s ability to cut off cross-border data transmissions is not implausible, it is hardly conceivable that this would not cause significant service degradation. Such a drastic step, therefore, seems improbable unless the Kremlin deems it necessary to regain information control or counter cyber incidents.
And yet, the war in Ukraine may further catalyze a more fundamental fragmentation of global digital connectivity. One dimension is the politicization of technical internet governance, and, with that, the long-term risk of fragmenting the internet’s logical layer, which ensures that data can flow among the many networks that–together–make up the internet as a seemingly single entity. Russia and China, among others, have long advocated for a stronger role for states in technical internet governance. But pressure for a greater political footprint of related institutions has also come from other sides. As a reaction to Russia’s aggression, Ukraine retaliated with an attempt to sever Russia’s ties to the global internet and even limit its ability to resolve requests within the country. To that end, Ukraine sent a letter to ICANN, the organization coordinating the DNS, requesting it to revoke top-level domains issued in the Russian Federation (i.e., “.ru”, “.рф”, and “.su”) and shut down DNS root servers located in Russia. Ukraine also asked RIPE NCC, the regional internet registry for Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia, to revoke Russian IP addresses.
Both ICANN and RIPE NCC declined Ukraine’s request and underlined the importance of their neutrality in technical internet governance with a view to preserving a global and interoperable internet. Ukraine’s request would have set a precedent for an interlacing of foreign policy and technical administration, undermining these institutions’ role as universally legitimate governance bodies. Should the global consensus on the technical governance of the internet erode, the emergence of competing institutions – and with them, divergence at the logical layer – becomes an acute risk.
Even as governance institutions resisted political requests, increasing struggles over the control of digital infrastructures could deepen internet fragmentation. The war in Ukraine has increased interest in high bandwidth and low latency Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, and questions remain about their interoperability and role in the global internet. This has spurred countries’ efforts at developing–and controlling–their own satellite constellations. The (undersea) cables that carry more than 95 percent of the global internet’s data traffic are also increasingly shaped by political and security considerations. In 2019, Australia completed a new undersea cable with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea that originally would have been built by Chinese company Huawei Marine Networks. In 2020, an eight thousand mile undersea cable backed by Google and Facebook was rerouted to circumvent Chinese territory following U.S. government pushback. Just last month, Chinese telecoms groups pulled out of the Sea-Me-We 6 cable project connecting Asia and Europe amidst mounting tensions with the United States.
One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country’s decoupling from the global internet has not materialized. The war underscores, however, the temptation for states to weaponize technical internet governance and infrastructures. Even as some of the more brazen attempts at doing so have been averted, the broader geopolitical confrontation around the war is amplifying a deep-running fragmentation of global digital connectivity. Strategic considerations increasingly trump technical rationale, and shielding the governance institutions and technical infrastructures that sustain the global internet from political maneuvers is becoming more challenging.
It is high time for states to double down on efforts at preserving the internet as a global public good. With the work towards a Global Digital Compact, facilitated by the UN Secretary-General’s Tech Envoy and to be agreed in September 2024, a global and inclusive process to develop shared principles for the digital space is ongoing. This is a key opportunity for forging a universal recognition of the global internet as a critical enabler for addressing common challenges, including those laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Efforts should also entail targeted dialogue, for instance in the Group of 20, on key fragmentary drivers such as concerns about espionage and sabotage of internet infrastructure. Stemming the tide of internet fragmentation can appear like a daunting task–but the stakes are high.
This article was published by the Council of Foreign Relations as a Blog Post on March 13, 2023.