Putin’s quest to disconnect Russia from the global internet
26 Sep 2023|

In late June, in the aftermath of the failed Wagner Group rebellion, the Kremlin moved swiftly to censor social media and scrub the Russian internet of details of the attempted coup. The digital crackdown has continued in the months since, as President Vladimir Putin has sought to reconsolidate control. But at the same time, another, less-publicised endeavour also took place—the Kremlin embarked on a test to disconnect Russia from the global internet.

The exercise, which took place on 2 July, tested Russia’s ‘sovereign internet’ and its ability to act independently. According to a statement released by Russia’s Ministry of Communications, the test was a success. Roskomnadzor, the government agency responsible for controlling Russian mass media, worked with telecommunications companies and internet service providers to disconnect the country from the global internet for a few hours.

While the statement claimed that the test wasn’t in preparation for a permanent disconnection, Russia has been attempting to create a sovereign internet—or ‘RuNet’—for years.

Since the birth of the internet, the Russian government has had an uneasy relationship with the technology, balancing the economic benefits of the open internet and access to the global economy with concerns about the security of the regime. A turning point came in 2011, when mass protests prompted the Russian government to increase its control over online platforms.

Moscow also stepped up its international advocacy for the concept of cyber and internet ‘sovereignty’, pushing for more state control over the governance of the internet in forums such as the United Nations. These efforts—supported by China and other authoritarian countries like Iran and North Korea—have so far had limited success, prompting Putin to explore how Russia could independently break away from the global internet architecture.

The passage of Russia’s controversial Sovereign Internet Law in 2019 provided the government with the legislative authority to create a ‘sustainable, secure and autonomous’ online environment and establish the technical means to create a ‘sovereign Russian internet’. The law empowered the government to establish a national domain name system (DNS) to route and monitor internet traffic within its borders and mandated annual tests to ‘disconnect’ Russia from the global internet architecture—just like the one conducted in July.

Unsurprisingly, the new legislation caused an outcry—both in Russia and internationally—about creeping censorship and surveillance and the stifling of free speech in Russia. The only saving grace at the time was that, despite the law, the Russian government didn’t really have the technical means or the political will to completely disconnect from the global internet.

Russia’s previous tests to disconnect from the internet have had little success. Russia is heavily reliant on the global economy and Western technology platforms and its population expects engagement with the outside world. So even if Russia could technically disconnect from the global internet, it couldn’t afford to get cut off from the rest of the world.

However, the situation changed after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The West acted quickly to put sanctions in place, cutting Russia off from the global financial system. In response, Putin banned access to Western social media and technology companies like Facebook, Twitter (now X) and Instagram. Independent news websites were blocked and the Kremlin increased its censorship and enhanced its ability to monitor internet traffic and block access to websites or topics that it deemed ‘illegal’.

In March 2022, Ukraine asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit group that oversees the global DNS, to effectively disconnect Russia from the internet by revoking Russian domains and shutting down DNS root servers in Russia. ICANN rejected the request. It doesn’t have the technical ability to take down domains, and wouldn’t even if it could since its role is to uphold the free and open internet.

ICANN’s response goes to the heart of the challenges Russia faces in trying to create a truly sovereign internet.

Built as a decentralised network of networks, the global internet is designed to allow information to flow freely across borders. The multi-stakeholder model of the internet—with civil society, industry, governments and international bodies all playing a role—ensures that no single entity, including governments, can wield absolute control over the entire digital realm.

This, of course, is based on the assumption that a country is connected to the global internet. North Korea has never been physically connected, and China created a domestic network with a careful selection of limited entry and exit points to the global internet from the very beginning.

In contrast, Russia initially welcomed the internet with open arms, leading to a complex web of interconnections that now complicates its pursuit of internet sovereignty. This makes it almost impossible to pinpoint and regulate every entry and exit point through which digital data flows.

Russia therefore has to take a different approach to China and North Korea. Central to Russia’s efforts is the manipulation of the processes and protocols dictating internet traffic—the DNS, often referred to as the internet’s address book. Russia’s approach involves creating a localised DNS system that directs citizen internet traffic solely within Russia’s geographic boundaries. By redirecting traffic to approved sites hosted inside Russia, the Kremlin aims to reduce the need to filter and monitor external information from the broader internet. This would allow Russia to effectively attain a sovereign internet while not completely disconnecting from the global internet architecture.

While there’s no reason to be confident in Russia’s ability to undertake such a genuinely complicated and complex endeavour, the successful test in July, and the recent news that Russia is preparing to block VPNs (virtual private networks), suggest that Putin is inching closer to his goal of effectively creating a sovereign internet. If he is successful, it will not only usher in an even more repressive digital environment in Russia but will serve as an attractive model for other countries to follow.