Online Commentary

April 06, 2022

Russia’s Technological Isolation

Russia has pursued a policy of digital sovereignty for years. It is now being put to the test as sanctions have restricted purchases and maintenance of foreign technologies that many industries and the military rely on. The country’s economy and government are facing a shock as it scrambles to replace foreign technologies with poor quality and home-grown alternatives. Meanwhile, the state’s attempts to seal the information space are being foiled through widespread use of VPNs and CDNs.

 

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Illustration of a Russian flag and the word RuNet displayed on a laptop screen
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Russia’s war in Ukraine has accelerated two major trends in Russia’s digital policy. It has led to increased state control over the internet and forced the state to switch to domestic technologies. In both cases there are significant limitations to Russia’s ability to meet these goals. It is not sufficiently prepared to totally control information within its borders and provide comprehensive substitutes for Western technologies.

A digital iron curtain between Russia and the West has not fallen yet, but a high-tech curtain is falling quickly. This is severely damaging Russia’s economic strength. The West should help Russian society maintain access to open information to counteract propaganda. At the same time, it should leverage access to its advanced technologies to increase the cost of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.

Russia’s Limited Internet Control

Vladimir Putin has used the war in Ukraine to intensify his long-standing battle against freedom of information in Russia. His regime is deploying every method and tool it has created in the last decade to deprive Russians of independent information and social networks. Russia’s so-called “sovereign internet” was invented as an answer to an open and global internet that threatens the effectiveness of Russia’s propaganda machine and by extension Putin’s authoritarian regime. Indeed, creating a centralized state censorship apparatus has been the main goal of Putin’s internet and digital policy for the last decade.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the goal of total information control has become urgent as free access to open information could destroy the Kremlin’s propaganda narrative about the “denazification of Ukraine”. Russia has blocked several news websites including BBC, Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle (DW) and Meduza, as well as social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

How Russian Citizens are Bypassing Censors

Roskomnadzor – Russia’s federal censor – cannot however claim total control over information flows. There are still ways for citizens to get around censorship, including through VPNs – Virtual Private Networks – which facilitate access to prohibited content in Russia by routing traffic through other countries. VPN tools have become the most downloaded apps in Russia in the last couple of weeks.

One other way of getting around the censors is through mirror websites. These are exact copies of censored sites that are placed on content delivery networks (CDNs). CDNs host many other services, meaning that if Russian authorities block one mirror website, they could end up blocking many more and even inflict collateral damage upon themselves. Reporters Without Borders uses the mirror site technology to unblock access to Meduza and DW.

Twitter took matters into its own hands and announced implementation of services via the anonymous Tor browser to keep the social network online despite it being officially blocked.

There need to be more solutions for Russian society to retain access to free and fair information. Uniting Western governments, IT firms, and civil societies to develop and provide accessible technological tools that bypass blockages in Russia could be a strong and effective countermeasure to Putin’s digital curtain.

The Perils of Russia Blocking YouTube

Even if they were made broadly accessible, such tools cannot replace unfettered access to information for all people. After all, a significant number of Russian users might not know how to, or be interested in, taking extra steps to bypass censorship. However, YouTube – the most popular social media platform in Russia – is still available to users. Blocking YouTube remains a difficult task for Roskomnadzor because it uses the Google Global Cache, which is one of the world’s largest CDNs. Blocking YouTube could lead to a multitude of other problems for Russia. Blocking YouTube might also force Google to leave the country, which may prevent Russia accessing its other services and products, such as Android operating system. Android makes up roughly 75 percent of the mobile device market in Russia and there is no workable alternative. Russia’s own mobile OS – Aurora – is unproven and not compatible with most smartphones used in the country.

However, blocking YouTube cannot be ruled out. According to Bloomberg, Google has already begun evacuating its staff from Russia in case pressure grows. If Google services shut down, Russians might have to fall back on unproven domestic alternatives or underdeveloped services such as RuTube while the war and domestic tensions continue.  

Digital Migration to Opaque Networks

Russians have already begun switching to alternative platforms after Facebook and Instagram were blocked. Social platforms VKontakte (VK) and Telegram are becoming the main beneficiaries of Russia’s escalating conflict with US-based companies. In the first two weeks of March, Telegram’s share of total instant message traffic increased from 48 percent to 63 percent. Telegram caught up with WhatsApp – the most popular instant messaging app in Russia. According to network operator Beeline­­, the volume of user traffic on Telegram is 15 times higher than on WhatsApp.

Telegram has built a solid reputation over the years among government oppositionists and protest movements in Hong Kong and Belarus. Now, it also a crucial platform for sharing information about the war in Ukraine. Its Russian founder – Pavel Durov – worked hard to circumvent government blocking of the tool while experiencing major disputes with the Russian state between 2018-2020. Despite efforts to maintain its security, Telegram is criticized by digital rights activists for lacking end-to-end encryption by default. Instead, Telegram users must switch to “Secret Chat” to activate encryption. This does not mean that Russia’s security services have access to Telegram users in Russia, but the absence of clear transparency and accountability measures induce such suspicions.

Switching to VK is a difficult trade-off for many Russians. The company – also founded by Pavel Durov – was once independent in the early 2000s. Now it is completely under state control. It is no secret that VKontakte has cooperated closely with Russia’s secret services ever since Durov was forced to leave the company. VK is currently obliged to collect, store, and provide Russian law enforcement authorities all data on users’ activities and interactions. It is well known that VK easily blocks undesired information following direct requests from state authorities. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of administrative and criminal cases brought against VK users for their online activities. Hence, VK is not a real alternative for users who care about freedom of speech and secure communication. Western companies should consider providing alternatives for Russians that have high standards for protecting digital rights, such as Signal, Briar, or Fireside messenger. It should also stop providing technologies that the state relies on for surveillance and to restrict other freedoms in Russia.

Hasty IT Import Substitution with Unknown Digital Future

As the situation rapidly develops, the EU should continue coordinating closely with the US and differentiate their approach to Russia’s internet and technology policy between keeping the internet open for people and levelling sanctions on the state. On the one hand, keeping information and communication channels open and operating internet connectivity infrastructure for the Russian people should be a high priority of the Western companies. On the other hand, the West should make sure that technological sanctions remain in place and that the Russian state cannot get around them as long as it continues waging war in Ukraine. Despite spending years pursuing its digital sovereignty strategy, Russia still cannot maintain key industries and its economy without advanced Western technologies. It has only limited options to rely on China.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the US introduced a powerful sanctions mechanism called Foreign Direct Product Rule (FDPR). FDPR bans exports of a range of US tech products. It doesn’t matter where in the world those products designed or manufactured, but if they involve or use US software and equipment, they cannot be sold to Russia. This mechanism primarily restricts products that support Russia’s military and economic strength. However, it does not constrain the flow of other consumer goods, such as mobile devices and laptops, to Russia. Over 30 countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and EU member states joined the US in applying export control sanctions. Shortly after the introduction of FDPR, major global tech companies began to stop exporting to Russia and suspended new sales of their products and services there.

This hits Russia hard because it cuts the country off from advanced semiconductors and information and communication technologies (ICT). All advanced semiconductors in the world are made with US, UK, or EU software or tools, which makes all of them unavailable for Russia. Most of Russia’s businesses, state authorities, and critical infrastructure rely on various ICT technologies from US and European companies, which are now unavailable to them.

By far the worst impact of these sanctions is not that sales are suspended but that maintenance and software updates will also stop. Russia’s industry, logistics, and energy sectors are heavily dependent on SAP and Oracle. Once the current version of these products expires, Russian organizations will not be able to run their databases anymore. Russia’s banks are already facing problems with import substitution in the IT-infrastructure as they try to switch from key American vendors such as Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft to home-grown solutions. Some banks are not able to get software updates or renew licenses for some foreign-made software products. Russia’s agricultural sector is facing problems ahead of the sowing season in May because they cannot access technologies from US companies, like Trimble and Raven.

In the long-term perspective, one might expect the departure of Western companies to create increased tariffs for cloud services used by domestic vendors, not to mention growing costs of digitalization in general. Combined with its inability to import foreign hardware and software, Russia will face a slowdown in digitalization projects. In some cases, these projects may be completely frozen.

China cannot easily step in and substitute the whole technological stack Russia urgently needs. China itself depends on imports for producing semiconductors and it is also unlikely China would help Russia for fear of being targeted by the same FDPR. This mechanism has already been applied against Huawei and hit the company hard, causing serious revenue losses. Finally, in some areas there are no Chinese alternatives that can substitute products such as Microsoft’s Windows or IT solutions for the oil and gas industry from Halliburton.

Despite its proclaimed efforts at IT import substitution, Russia has not achieved technological sovereignty. Now, under extreme conditions, it has been forced to hastily switch to domestic alternatives. For years, state authorities and businesses have been reluctant to decouple from proven Western technologies. Now they have no choice. Such a transition requires a lot of time and expertise. Russia lacks both. The staff needed to make those switches and maintain systems are fleeing the country, resulting in brain drain. In the first weeks of the war, around 70,000 IT specialists left Russia. Another 100,000 might follow soon.

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