Russian Officials Talk About Unplugging the Country from the Internet. But Is That Possible?
For all its efforts, the Kremlin may still lack the capability to close off news from beyond the borders.
Russian officials are talking about cutting their country off from the internet amid the international and domestic backlash to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But would the systems developed to enable this self-isolation actually work?
“The state must control this area completely. Of course, not from the point of view of restrictions or some kind of totalitarian control, but from the point of view of the realization of national interests," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday via the TASS state-media outlet.
Despite years of talk and research into essentially closing Russia off to all outside internet traffic, Zakharova said that “the ‘socket’ into which this ‘digital plug’ is plugged is located outside our homeland, very far away, and we do not control it.”
Zakharova’s remarks were echoed Thursday by Russian senator Alexei Pushkov, who said, “The sphere of the Internet and digital sovereignty are those areas, those areas where we must prepare for a possible negative scenario. Russia's disconnection from the global internet, I would not rule out such a scenario.”
Since launching its attack on Ukraine, Russia has taken steps to restrict or block Western social media companies. But the Kremlin has devoted more energy to persecuting expressions of dissent within Russia and making it impossible for independent media to function. While Russian state television carries Kremlin propaganda about the war without pause—part of the reason the war remains popular particularly among older people who only get their news from TV—younger people ause virtual private networks and other simple technological tricks to tap into news sources beyond Russia’s borders.
Russian officials started talking about the need to develop a closed Russian internet more than half a decade ago. In 2016, the Russian military began work on what it called the Closed Data Transfer Segment, essentially a massive military intranet. Russian government researchers said that they hoped that the CDTS might one day be able to carry the entirety of Russian internet traffic. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has passed laws requiring any company that holds data about Russian citizens to store that data in servers on Russian soil, where it could be available to Russian law enforcement and prosecutors. In 2019, another law began requiring internet traffic into and out of the country to run through Russian servers, which immediately alarmed human-rights advocates. And the Kremlin has built its own domain name system to essentially mirror that of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, allowing the state to redirect site traffic.
Also in 2019, Russia conducted some very limited tests of its ability to disconnect from the global internet. The government claimed that the tests were “successful” but offered few other details.
Western military observers, such as NSA head Gen. Paul Nakasone, have expressed skepticism that Russia would be able to completely disconnect from the global internet. In 2019, Nakasone told a crowd at the annual RSA conference, “While we take note of what they’re trying to do, I guess I would say I’m a bit skeptical that they will be able to pull this off.”
Russia remains, for now, still very connected and increasingly vulnerable, especially as more and more Western technology companies shun the new pariah state.
“Russia's previous concerns about its dependence on imported technology and international processes for key domestic digital infrastructure are now in visceral focus as the Russian state is seeking to pivot to domestic technology to replace imported tech, while maintaining that Russia is not seeking to close itself off from the outside world,” said Samuel Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an adviser at the CNA Corporation. “Russia is looking to China and India for many IT solutions.”