The New Iron Curtain Part 1: Putin Wakes Up to the Danger of a Free Internet

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in front of a laptop computer during an online interview in Moscow, March 6, 2001. Putin answered questions live on the internet on Tuesday in an unprecedented webcast from the Kremlin, and said he would protect democracy and market reforms in the country. Credit: CVI/CRB
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in front of a laptop computer during an online interview in Moscow, March 6, 2001. Putin answered questions live on the internet on Tuesday in an unprecedented webcast from the Kremlin, and said he would protect democracy and market reforms in the country. Credit: CVI/CRB

Inside Russia, the Internet remains up and running, and news from Ukraine has become more and more dangerous to Putin.

As Russia sends tanks and soldiers to take over Ukraine, it is also dispatching censors and regulators to strangle the Internet. In this special series by the Center for European Policy Analysis, The New Iron Curtain, Senior Fellows Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan argue that both invasions are linked and represent the culmination of a more than a decade-long trend to throttle the free and open flow of information in Russia.

On March 7, 2022, 12 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian Deputy Minister for Digital Development Andrei Chernenko wired an urgent order. government agencies must switch from foreign web hosting to Russian services and move their websites to the .ru Internet domain. The order prompted a disturbing question: was the Kremlin cutting Russia from the global Internet?

Since the start of his first presidential term, Vladimir V. Putin has been obsessed with control over Russia’s information space. Despite this distrust, he allowed the Russian web to develop free of government control. That was not because he favored the free Internet. It was because he underestimated the Internet’s power.

Russian censorship focused instead on throttling traditional media, most importantly on television. This oversight proved costly. Unlike communist China, Putin missed the initial opportunity to impose control over national Internet infrastructure.

The Kremlin awoke to the challenge only in 2011, during massive protests in Moscow. Authorities installed Internet filtering. They unleashed repression on bloggers and platforms.

This initial crackdown proved ineffective. Russians continued to log onto social media, especially global platforms, sharing and spreading uncensored information.

In response, The Kremlin began working on a new system of control. Government censors identified six challenges:

  1. The major threat to the Kremlin’s narrative does not come from abroad, but from within Russia.
  2. Ordinary Russians who witness something extraordinary and post it online are more dangerous than activists.
  3. Russians prefer global apps to Russian apps.
  4. Video is the online content most likely to generate mass protests.
  5. The decentralized Internet allows events not just in Moscow or St. Petersburg but from anywhere in the vast country to be publicized and promoted.
  6. Russian telecom companies are unwilling to pick up the bill for censorship and surveillance tools.

Russia’s security services insisted that the Internet was a dangerous arm of the West. They portrayed cyberspace as a territory with virtual borders which correspond to real state borders.  Putin’s extensive nationwide system of Internet censorship represented a defensive mechanism against enemies plotting from abroad.

For the last three years, Putin has built a new Iron Firewall. He calls it the Russian Sovereign Internet. A control center in Moscow has taken control of Russian Internet traffic. It’s connected with Internet service providers (ISPs) via specially designed filtering equipment. The goal is to isolate specific sections of the network, cut off entire regions in case of protests, and slow down or suppress traffic from a particular platform or website. A special effort was made to force Russian users to migrate from global apps to Russian-made apps, overseen by Russia’s security services.

In 2021, Putin activated this Russian Sovereign Internet. His initial target was Twitter. Access to the social media website was slowed. Dozens of VPN services, which could circumvent official controls, were blocked.

The invasion of Ukraine represents the Sovereign Internet’s biggest challenge. Instead of sporadic blocking and delays, the Kremlin now demands a total information monopoly. Putin’s Sovereign Internet no longer is a defensive mechanism. It is also an offensive weapon, aiming to silence Russian independent media and block global platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Rhetoric about defending the country’s Internet sovereignty has turned out to be a smokescreen for a plan to silence dissent.

Success remains far from assured. When the invasion started, Ukrainian hacktivists attacked Russian government websites.  Putin’s website Kremlin.ru went offline. The Ukrainian cyber offensive prompted the Deputy Minister’s urgent order to federal agencies to switch to the Russian servers.

Inside Russia, the Internet remains up and running, and news from Ukraine has become more and more dangerous to Putin. In response, the Kremlin is resorting to traditional censorship and repression. It has blocked independent media, closed radio stations, and forced more than 150 journalists to flee. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been banned. New legislation punishes independent reporting on the war with up to 15 years behind bars; the term “war” and calls for “peace” are forbidden.

Was this assault on independent thought inevitable? In the following series, we attempt to answer this question.

Andrei Soldatov is a nonresident senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Andrei is a Russian investigative journalist, co-founder, and editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities.  He has been covering security services and terrorism issues since 1999. 

Irina Borogan is a nonresident senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Irina is a Russian investigative journalist, co-founder, and deputy editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities. 

March 23, 2022

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Part 2: The Free Internet Stymies Putin

Despite Putin’s best efforts, it has become clear that Russia’s Sovereign Internet filtering system is ineffective.

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Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in front of a laptop computer during an online interview in Moscow, March 6, 2001. Putin answered questions live on the internet on Tuesday in an unprecedented webcast from the Kremlin, and said he would protect democracy and market reforms in the country. Credit: CVI/CRB