The final iron curtain for Russia’s internet?

The final iron curtain for Russia’s internet?

Russian legislators sparked hot debate this month voting by an overwhelming majority to permit a trial shutdown of Russia’s segment of the internet (runet). The ‘rehearsal’ they claim is necessary to assess national resilience for a feared scenario in which western powers move to disconnect Russia from the world wide web. The shutdown is scheduled to take place sometime before April 1st.

One reading away from shutdown

Despite Russia’s broader debate on ‘internet sovereignty’ this bill does not yet seek to sever Russia’s ties with the global community. Instead, it is presented purely as a test to ensure the stability of state infrastructure in the eventuality that foreign powers switch off Russia’s segment.

On December 14th Andrei Klishas and Lyudmila Bokovaya, along with State Duma deputy Andrei Lugovoi submitted a draft of the bill before parliament. On Tuesday 12th February MPs approved the bill, in its first reading, by an overwhelming majority of 334-47. The details will have to undergo one further reading before Putin adds his signature. The full details and implications are still under expert revision, with presidential press secretary Dmitri Peskov declining to comment before journalists.

A similar attempt to close down the ‘runet’ was made back in 2014 but came to nothing. What is new here is the government-wide backing and tougher US stance.

Why has this happened?

Cyberspace has never been hotter with the number of real and perceived threats. This adds to mounting pressure on all sides to combat ‘enemy disinformation’. Putin often refers to the internet as a CIA project and highlights the introduction of new and alarmingly aggressive US cyber strategy towards Russia back in September 2018. The West, in turn, has attributed a number of destructive high profile attacks to Russia alongside Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s US elections meddling.

The bill’s author Andrei Lugovoi argues the rehearsal is firmly in the interests of national security. Lugovoi is interestingly the same alleged perpetrator behind the assassination on FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko. He lobbied for the action citing Edward Snowden’s allegations that the NSA’s elite hacking teams have carried out analogous attacks, most notably against Syrian state infrastructure back in 2012.

Conspiracies aside, there have been no official precedents, as of yet, of foreign powers disconnecting rival nations from the internet. The trend which does exist, as in the case of China, Turkmenistan and North Korea, is extreme authoritarian regimes isolating their own citizens within carefully censored cyber barriers. Also, Iran harbours similar ambitions. In practice this would involve, but is not limited to:

– the centralized control of all traffic within the country and minimisation of canals open for transferring data both in and out of the country;

– the installation of tools capable of identifying the source of internet traffic and “limiting access to websites containing banned information;

– greater powers delegated to state watchdogs to oversee the bans and shutdowns.

The most likely motivation in Russia’s case is profit with domestic software designers poised to flourish under new demand. The regime’s critics have also asserted that the new US cyber law merely provides an excuse for long planned censorship. With broadcast media firmly under state control, social media in particular, is seen as too powerful a facilitator of popular uprisings. Many fear the rehearsal provides covert groundwork for full ‘sovereignty’; a worrying step towards full authoritarian rule as Putin enters his last presidential term.

What to look for going forwards

Against a climate of rising pension ages, economic stagnation, falling Presidential approval ratings and unscripted challenges to United Russia’s regional rule the Kremlin has legitimate cause for concern. It is conceivable that Putin’s administration seeks to create, through this bill, a heightened sense of national alert. This tension would smooth the passing of other previously unthinkable civil rights breaches. This is what the international community needs to be watchful of going forwards.

How likely is ‘full sovereignty’?

Not likely, neither on a technical nor financial front. Technically, the labyrinth of cables laid by private internet providers would require constant monitoring. Financially, this would not be an affordable solution. Whilst politicians have rallied round, the mood amongst commentators, businessmen and citizens is one of bewilderment. The Kremlin has so far given only confused statements as to what the rehearsal and full sovereignty will cost. Estimates for the proposed monitoring centre alone range from 1.8 to 22 billion rubles. However, the real funds needed to rebuild entire sectors would dwarf these data. Despite lavish promises that state coffers will provide, even Russia’s oil and gas industry relies heavily on foreign technology. Federal reserves are, reportedly, substantial, but no-one ever doubted the Kremlin’s ability to amass wealth and overstate ambitions. The weakness remains, still, in turning that into sound economic policy that might actually afford Russia more dignity.

Experience too warrants scepticism. In 2014 Roskomnadzor (federal media and technology watchdog) tried and failed to invoke a shutdown of Russia’s chunk of the internet and the popular messenger ‘Telegram’. Experts concluded then that the chaotic number of private ISPs within the country whose cables stretch across Russia’s vast borders pose too big a headache for state monitors.


What is clear is that cyber defence is top of the agenda for both sides. However brilliant Russia’s fiercest hackers may be, the West’s combined military and intelligence resources pose a formidable threat. It will be in national interests to plan for the worst. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the wider context; the broader debate on internet sovereignty, previous attempts to shut down popular messengers and the Kremlin’s waning popularity. Russia does not need further pariah status. Digital isolation could prove one paranoid step too far. Russia’s elite and their rapacious demand for all things high-tech and Western may not support it. Observers are hoping the bill’s second reading, sometime this month, provides more clarity and justification.

About Author

Rebecca Emerick

Rebecca joined Global Risk Insights from leading executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. She previously spent three years living and working in Russia following a degree at the University of St Andrews. She is bilingual in English and Russian and conversational in French and German. Rebecca takes an active part in the London Russia emigre cultural scene and focuses on analysis for Russia and the CIS region.