Not Even State Media Believes Kremlin Claims that a Russia-Only Internet Is Ready to Go
But a series of August tests shows that Moscow is still working to enable the country to unplug from the World Wide Web.
Russian officials say they have finally figured out how to take their country off the internet, but even Kremlin-backed media acknowledges that might not quite be true.
“The Russian segment of the Internet has proven its ability to work steadily in the event of its complete disconnection from the World Wide Web,” the Russian news site CNews.ru reported last week, noting tests of the RuNet network conducted in August. But its article also acknowledged that some RuNet sites still rely on “foreign software libraries.”
The Russian government has for years been working on ways to monitor Russians’ internet activities and to block foreign sources of information.
In 2016, the Russian government set up a closed internet for military use with the aim of eventually expanding it for wider use. The following year, Moscow created an alternative Domain Name System, or DNS, to steer Russian internet users away from sites the government didn’t particularly care for. In 2019, the Russian duma passed a law to better monitor the country’s internet and help enable the Kremlin to disconnect Russia from the broader digital world.
Still, many remained skeptical that Russia might be able to simply disconnect from the outside world with little disruption to Russian users. Even Putin’s top IT advisor Herman Klimenko said it would be difficult. In 2019, Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, expressed similar doubts.
A series of late 2019 tests caused slowdowns and service disruptions, reported Meduza, an independent Russia-language news site. Even CNews acknowledged that the results “were very, very disappointing. During testing, a high degree of vulnerability of Russian cellular networks in terms of signaling channels was discovered.”
Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Adviser at the CNA Corporation, told Defense One last week that “There are significant obstacles to the ‘full separation’ that the Russian government wants to test.”
But as Justin Sherman, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, acknowledged in a 2021 issue brief on RuNet, the efforts, however flawed, still show that “the Russian government is escalating its consolidation of control over internet architecture and internet packet routing, changing what the Russian internet looks like to those inside and outside of the country in the process.”
The Russian government has said that the purpose of such efforts is to better insulate the country from outside cyber attacks. An additional but less stated goal, as Sherman points out, is better control over speech and freedom in Russia. Even if the disconnect proves successful, the costs will ultimately fall on Russia’s young people and its IT sector, which is already collapsing as IT companies and workers flee the country.