At the moment, the question may more be whether the West cuts off Russia than the other way around. However, documents acquired by Vice show plans by Vladimir Putin to drop a “digital Iron Curtain” onto his subjects, blocking access to any Western media sources by turning off the global Internet. That would leave Russians at the exclusive mercy of Putin’s propaganda outlets.
The internet in Russia is already a very different place than it was before the invasion of Ukraine just two weeks ago. There’s limited access to major social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Movie fans can no longer stream Netflix. Creators can no longer upload videos to TikTok. Freelancers can no longer find work on Upwork. And citizens can only see what the Kremlin wants them to see about the war in Ukraine.
But new documents published by the Kremlin this week suggest that the Russian government is preparing for things to get much worse. The documents reveal that the Kremlin is seeking to eradicate reliance on any Western internet services, potentially isolating itself from the rest of the global internet, a move that would send Russia back to the digital dark ages, further crippling its economy and ending the promise that a free and open internet could act as a check on authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin.
This isn’t just playing defense on propaganda, but also against the kind of hacking that Russians have employed for their own purposes over the years:
These documents outlined a series of measures the Kremlin wants state-owned websites and online portals to implement by the end of this week in order to “coordinate actions to defend telecommunication services on the internet.”
Essentially, the Kremlin was taking steps to allow its government websites to continue to work in the event of further cyberattacks, which have bombarded Russian online portals since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion.
Yesterday, CNN also took a close look at Putin’s other moves, which would have led to a system like China’s even if still connected to the global Internet. Putin’s Iron Curtain II project had already been long underway before the Ukraine invasion two weeks ago. However, Western firms have accelerated the process in the past fortnight:
Many of Russia’s recent curbs on western tech platforms stem from a “sovereign internet” law enacted by Russia in 2019 that allows Roskomnadzor to more tightly control internet access in the country and potentially sever its online ties to the rest of the world altogether.
A law passed by Putin’s government on Friday further ratchets up the hostility to western services, making it a crime to disseminate “fake” information about the invasion of Ukraine, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The law prompted several news outlets, including CNN, to suspend their coverage from within Russia. TikTok also cited the new legal environment in announcing its decision to prevent new uploads and livestreams on its platform in Russia.
Other tech companies previously dialed back their presence in Russia amid the Ukraine conflict. Apple, Microsoft and Intel stopped all sales and restricted services in the country, while Google, Twitter, Netflix (NFLX), Spotify (SPOT) and Meta have blocked or restricted Russian state-run media outlets and, in some cases, halted advertising in the country altogether. Cogent Communications, one of the world’s largest internet traffic hosts, reportedly began cutting off some Russian service providers from its network on Friday.
It’s a perfect storm that could lead Russia to finally seal off its population from the rest of the global internet, much like China already has.
Just how successful could that be, though? China’s regime has long groomed its population to revere the state and especially Xi Jinping, who’s cult of personality might surpass Mao Zedung’s. The vast majority of China’s population has never experienced the level of engagement and association with the West that Russians have over the last 30 years, even under the increasingly tyrannical yoke of Tsar Vlad. Most of China may not know what’s been taken away from them, but most Russians certainly will.
And if that comes along with the rapid economic isolation that the West has imposed on Russia, most Russians will likely suspect who to blame for that, too.
Plus, it appears that Putin’s had some issues of competence on the propaganda-isolation front too. Bloomberg reports this morning that Russians have figured out how to tunnel under his digital Iron Curtain, at least for the present:
Providers of virtual private networks, or VPNs, are recording a surge in usage from Russia after the Kremlin cracked down on Facebook and other services as part of a broader effort to silence dissent and limit information about its invasion of Ukraine.
“In the past week, we saw traffic to our website from Russia increase by around 330% week over week,” Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, said in an email to Bloomberg on Wednesday.
As of Tuesday, Russian interest in VPNs was more than eight times pre-invasion levels, according to data gathered by Top10VPN. Usage peaked at more than 10 times on March 5, the day after Facebook and Twitter were blocked by Russian authorities. …
Usage in Russia is also surging for Proton AG’s VPN and email offering, with VPN usage up 10-times from pre-war levels.
“A lot of sources of information that people would traditionally turn to to find the truth are either blocked or at risk of being blocked,” Proton Chief Executive Officer Andy Yen said. “To get the truth today in Russia, you need a VPN.”
That sudden spike in VPN usage might be one reason why the Kremlin is gaming out a complete disconnection from the global Internet. The question still remains, though, whether that would make a bad situation worse in Russia. People have already grown restive over the attack on Ukraine, and the families of thousands of missing soldiers are growing more bold about demanding answers. An abrupt move to cut Russians off from answers will only destabilize the situation further in Russia, where Putin may have a cult of personality in operation but still has to reckon with Russian skepticism and long memories of the lies they got from Soviet leaders over many decades.
And let’s not forget that Russians now have lots of ways to get information if they want it. The US and European nations need to revitalize the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, both key sources of information for dissenters during the Cold War period. A fact-based news source in Russian would do wonders for breaking through a new digital Iron Curtain. In fact, it would do wonders even if Putin rethinks the idea of a complete digital disconnect.
In short, Putin may well follow up a catastrophic series of miscalculations in Ukraine with an equally catastrophic series of miscalculations at home. It may not be the Russians at large destined for a dark age in the long run, but instead the Putin clique.
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