Is Russia really about to cut itself off from the Internet? And if that happens, what can we expect?


The invasion of Ukraine led to a significant digital change for Russia. Sanctions imposed by governments around the world—combined with company shutdowns or mothballing—have had a significant impact on the country.

Multiple incidents, including cyberattacks, cybercriminal takeovers, and even a civilian IT army mobilized by Ukraine, have increased the onslaught on the digital world.

Sanctions against Russia have not only directly hit its economy (and thus the global economy), but now threaten Russian citizens’ access to the Internet.

The country is expected to limit its dependence on the global Internet soon. Although complete disconnection not yet confirmed, even partial disconnection would be a difficult task. And the consequences of Russia’s growing digital isolation for its own citizens will be enormous.



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Russia’s growing digital isolation

More than 85% of Russians use the Internet. Since the start of the Ukrainian occupation, people in Russia have been increasingly deprived of online services such as Facebook, Twitter and even Netflix – either Russia has restricted access to the sites or providers have withdrawn services.

There is currently no Facebook in Russia.
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Big financial players, including Apple Pay, Google Pay and the biggest credit card providers, have also pulled back, significantly affecting e-commerce.

Russia itself has implemented a digital divide with the rest of the world, though this could further undermine its economy. According to Kremlin documents, it is expected to start going off the global internet from March 11.

Russia has long controlled state media, but tolerates a level of free access to content and services over the Internet. Although such freedoms are waning, citizens are still able to access the wide web.

This open access is now cancelled. Russia will dominate internet services and heavily censor local media outlets to control information and bolster Kremlin propaganda.

Kremlin orders

As part of this plan, the Russian government ordered companies to move their web hosting and business services to Russian servers.

Although it is assumed that the “.ru” site is located in Russia, this is not always the case. Large organizations will often host their services on servers in remote regions. This could be to gain access to advanced technologies, increase service stability or benefit from reduced service prices.

Among the Kremlin’s demands is that all Russian services hosted abroad be relocated within Russia.
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A good example would be a content delivery network where the content is hosted on multiple servers around the world. This ensures fast access for users and resilience to outages and malicious attacks.

Moving an individual website to a new server is relatively easy, but doing so on a national scale is a huge logistical challenge. It is not known whether Russia has the power and capability to deliver the required resources.

Not the first attempt to disconnect

With increasing pressure from the West, Russia may build its own version of the Great Wall of China. In doing so, the Chinese government has implemented a series of measures that allow it to regulate and censor the local internet as it sees fit.

Although the current demands from the Kremlin are related to the availability of the service and the transfer of websites and services to Russian territories. can be the first stage of national disconnection with the global internet.

It should be noted that even if Russia adopts the local Internet, it still needs to maintain some bridges with the global Internet in order to communicate with other countries.

In 2019, Russia experimented with disconnecting the country from the Internet. There are few details about how long this test lasts.

The test was reported to be successful but not accepted. The Kremlin may not have been able to fully disconnect because of Russia’s reliance on global services such as social media and financial gateways.

As Russia is now increasingly isolated from global networks, it is potentially easier for the Kremlin to implement network changes that would give Russia complete control over the Internet.

Complications

Cutting off and censoring the global Internet inevitably slows down democratic development in Russia.

This will also affect the technological development of the country. Russia already faces severe chip shortages and the loss of access to advanced telecommunications technologies, including shipments from Ericsson and Nokia.

Even if Russia successfully creates its own separate Internet, it will be difficult for citizens to accept it.

Until recently, Russian citizens enjoyed the benefits of the global Internet, and they are likely to worry about its disappearance. Social influence will be extremely difficult to control.

While virtual private networks have previously been used within Russia to maintain anonymity or access censored resources, a properly implemented set of controls can effectively prevent the use of such techniques.

Is the internet safer without Russia?

Given the amount of cybercrime routinely attributed to Russian sources, you can imagine that Russia’s withdrawal from the global internet would make it a safer place for everyone.

While Russia’s isolation has had an initial impact, cybercriminal gangs and state-sponsored attacks will quickly return as criminals find ways to evade domestic controls.

In fact, state-sponsored attacks are likely to increase in the coming months as Russia seeks to retaliate against countries (and organizations) that impose sanctions on Russia.

If cyber warfare reaches a high level, other nations will have to focus on more defensive capabilities to protect their infrastructure. We could see the digital economy reshaping itself as it tries to deal with growing Russian threats.



Read more: How Australia (and the rest of the world) could suffer collateral damage as Russia wages cyber war on Ukraine




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