Demonstrators shout during the Free Internet rally in response to a bill making its way through parliament calling for all internet traffic to be routed through servers in Russia — making VPNs ineffective, March 10, Moscow.

Demonstrators shout during the Free Internet rally in response to a bill making its way through parliament calling for all internet traffic to be routed through servers in Russia — making VPNs ineffective, March 10, Moscow. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russia Will Test Its Ability to Disconnect from the Internet

The nascent RuNet is meant to allow the country to survive an attack — and Putin to monitor and control the population.

Russia will test its internal RuNet network to see whether the country can function without the global internet, the Russian government announced Monday. The tests will begin after Nov. 1, recur at least annually, and possibly more frequently. It's the latest move in a series of technical and policy steps intended to allow the Russian government to cut its citizens off from the rest of the world.

“On Monday, the government approved the provision on conducting exercises to ensure the stable, safe and holistic functioning of the Internet and public communications networks in the Russian Federation,” notes an article in D-Russia. (The original article is in Russian. We verified a translation with the help of a native Russian speaker.) “The exercises are held at the federal (in the territory of the Russian Federation) and regional (in the territory of one or more constituent entities of the Russian Federation) levels.” 

The word “holistic” shows that the exercises follow April’s passage of the sovereign internet law that will require all internet traffic in Russia to pass through official chokepoints, allowing the government to shut down outside access, block websites that they don’t like, and monitor traffic. 

In 2016, Russia launched the Closed Data Transfer Segment: basically, a big military intranet for classified data, similar to the Pentagon’s Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. The following year, Russia announced that it intends to build its own domain name directory, which would allow it to re-route traffic intended for one website to another. And last year, Putin’s top IT advisor Herman Klimenko and others suggested that the military intranet, properly expanded, might be able to carry the rest of the country’s internet traffic. Klimenko cautioned that moving to the new system would be painful — and as recently as March, Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, expressed skepticism that Russia would succeed. 

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Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the CNA Corporation and a fellow in Russia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, said the announcement shows that the Russian government is eager to address what it sees as a strategic vulnerability: reliance on Western IT. “The larger context is Russia’s dependence as a nation on imported/foreign hi-tech and the perceived vulnerabilities that Russia sees in such technology use. With so many government, public, and private-sector nodes using such foreign tech, the Russian government is seeking to impose a measure of control over how Internet communication over this technology is conducted,” Bendett said. “In the event of what the government sees as outside influence affecting RuNet, the state can act — hence the annual exercise.”

RuNet isn’t expected to improve the online experience for Russian people or companies. It’s all about control, making the country more technologically independent, and reducing the Putin regime’s vulnerability to popular uprising.

“The Russian government, particularly since seeing the role social media played in the Arab Spring, has wanted over the last decade to exert tight control over the online information space within Russia’s borders,” said Justin Sherman, a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America who studies internet governance and digital authoritarianism. “Free information flows are a threat to regime stability, and they need to be controlled, the narrative goes.”

As the Russian government has built infrastructure that can disconnect Russia from the global internet, it has also worked to limit Russian citizens’ access to sites and services that allow citizens to mobilize and protest. Access to services such as LinkedIn, Zello, and Telegram is limited by a 2006 Russian law (27.07.2006 number 149-FZ) that requires foreign companies to open their software to Russian security services and to hand user data to law enforcement agencies. Sherman said the passage of the sovereign internet law is one more item in this trend.

“When Russia passed its domestic internet bill into law, it wasn’t clear how much the government would actually work to make it happen, but now it’s clear they do intend to modify systems so the internet within Russian borders can be cut off from the global net at will,” Sherman said. “These disconnection tests which Russia has planned for the near future—as well as, according to documents, annually going forward—are steps in the direction of making this so-called RuNet work. They also line up with a series of international pushes by authoritarian governments to make 'cyber sovereignty' of this kind more palatable to the global community.”

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