Russia aims to develop super-fast 6G technology, skipping the deployment of 5G networks altogether, hoping to achieve a generational leap.
The Russian government is going to invest more than 30 billion rubles ($501m) in research, supervised by Oleg Ivanov, a former deputy minister of the Ministry of Digital Development, now the head of the Radio Research and Development Institute (NII Radio).
This is, to put it mildly, ambitious. Russia failed to build 5G networks, initially because of resistance from the Russian military, and later because of Western sanctions. Experts inside and outside the country consider the project unrealistic, and yet the government plans to invest billions in the program.
Developing cutting-edge 6G networks in the country under stringent technological sanctions is not the only utopian project the Kremlin entertains.
The country has a cemetery of failed technological projects, all generously funded by the Russian taxpayer. Earlier examples include a “national search engine” called Sputnik, which was supposed to become a competitor to Yandex and Google and was promoted personally by then-President Dmitry Medvedev. It never took off and was quietly killed in 2020.
There was also a new tank called Armata that is “unique in many ways and with no competitors anywhere in the world”, according to the Ministry of Defense, which proudly rolled it into Red Square in May 2015, where it promptly stalled. The tank has not been seen on the battlefields of Ukraine.
Every year, the cemetery of failed projects grows.
Does that indicate that the Kremlin is just prone to unwarranted, futile adventurism in technological development, something you might expect of the country which repeatedly found itself lagging behind? This is obviously not the case: Russia has a long record of sudden, paradoxical technological breakthroughs which surprised the world. Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, was one. Its success has haunted the imagination of the Kremlin’s masters for decades. It is no coincidence that the Russian pandemic vaccine was called Sputnik, as well as a Russian government-sponsored attempt to substitute Google.
A special mentality among Russian leaders emerged which favors revolutionary technological breakthroughs to make up for backlogs. It was manifested most visibly with the Soviet slogan “catching up and overtaking America,” introduced by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1957.
Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia soon achieved a spectacular accomplishment when in the late 1990s and the 2000s, the country produced a national competitor to Google and Facebook — something West Europeans had failed to equal. Over the years, several explanations emerged of why Russia proved, time and again, capable of swift technical modernization. Start with strong engineering education. Add the existence of totalitarian regimes, from the tsars to Stalin, which made possible a massive concentration of resources of the vast country and its brutal exploitation. This narrative has formed part of Russian history, from Peter the Great to Stalin.
As we show in our recent report on Russian cyber capabilities, the agencies that develop and deploy the Kremlin’s cyber assets are closely linked with actors well outside the security state, including universities and private corporations. These, in turn, have until recently been integrated into global markets. In part, as a result, the unspoken ingredient in achieving such breakthroughs has been access to Western technology that is either voluntarily provided by the West, or sometimes involuntarily, via industrial espionage.
Stalin could have tortured his engineers in the Gulag for all eternity, but the Soviet Union would never have launched Sputnik were it not for German engineers snatched by the Red Army in occupied Germany at the end of World War II, along with the documentation for the Nazi V2 flying bomb.
In the 2000s, Russian engineers would never have developed Yandex were it not for five years’ worth of imports of American Cisco hardware, which formed the backbone of the Russian Internet.
This time, however, the Kremlin imagines it can achieve a technological leap to 6G networks, without access to Western technology. If he achieves this unlikely goal, Putin will truly have distinguished himself from earlier Russian leaders. Don’t count on success.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
This article is part of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)’s ongoing work to better understand Russia’s cyber operations and command and control structure. A recent report by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, “Russian Cyberwarfare: Unpacking the Kremlin’s Capabilities,” found that, following the Soviet legacy, the Russian security services are closely connected to universities, research centers, and private sector companies to develop their cyber workforce. In addition, they strongly depend on these organizations to develop new technology to strengthen the military’s cyber capabilities. In this article, Andrei and Irina highlight that despite the Russian government’s attempts to make rapid technological developments, it does not always work.
This publication was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative, US European Command, Stuttgart, Germany. Opinions, arguments, viewpoints, and conclusions expressed in this work do not represent those of RSI, US EUCOM, the Department of Defense, or the US Government. This publication is cleared for public release.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.