The Russian sovereign Internet

Juha Kukkola,
Captain, M.Soc.Sci, Doctoral Student,
Finnish National Defence University,

The Russian state has from the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s third term tried to acquire control over the national Internet. Although this policy seems to have originated as the regime’s reaction to the demonstrations of the Russian opposition in 2011—2012, it is not only a project to control the society and the political opposition. It is in fact an effort to create a closed national network based on Soviet era ideas which could transform the Russian society and provide Russia a strategic asymmetric advantage in the future.

In 2014 the Russian Security Council announced that Russia would seek to create an ability to disconnect Russia from the global Internet.  This decision was followed by the Information Security Doctrine in 2016 which stated that Russia would protect its sovereignty in the information space and develop a national system for the management of the Russian segment of the Internet. In 2017 Russia adopted a Law on Critical Information Infrastructure which made it mandatory to protect certain critical objects of the Internet residing on the Russian territory. A National Program of Digital Economy adopted in 2017 declared that Russia would achieve ‘digital sovereignty’ in 2024. Finally, in 2019 president Putin signed a so-called Law on Sovereign Internet which took effect in December 2019. If fully implemented, the law will create a truly unified, resilient, and secure national segment of the Internet which can be disconnected form the global Internet by government decision.

The Russian idea of creating a closed national network and the strive for digital sovereignty has its roots in the Soviet-era cybernetic thinking. Although the Soviet Union failed to create an all-state command and control network, the ideas about the cybernetic control of society and economy did not perish with the Union. In the early 2000s the ideas coalesced in the writings of Russian scholars into a system of national information security. Theoretically, this system would enable state control over the national information space and protect it from inside and outside threats. As president Putin began his project to rebuild the Russia’s allegedly lost great power status, the ideas of information scholars started to interact with ideas of military scholars who at that time were  discussing strategic deterrence, asymmetric response, and information superiority – ideas which also had their roots in the Soviet times. Therefore, the 2014 decision to build the ability to disconnect the national segment, viewed in the context of threatening Western sanctions, was a product of historical continuity interacting with new technology and a novel challenging strategic environment.

Disconnecting the Russian segment from the global Internet is based on imposing top-to-bottom control through a centrally controlled system upon an independently developed Russian Internet. According to the official Russian documents, a closed national network will be controlled by the FSB and other federal agencies through cyber security and defence systems which can counter cyber threats and monitor, filter and drop data traffic inside the Russian segment and at its borders. These systems are supported by mandatory state-controlled encryption and authentication, targeted and mass surveillance systems, censorship and blacklisting, and domestic software and hardware production. Moreover, the Russian critical information infrastructure is already being catalogued, and its owners are obligated to protect it under the threat of penalty. Additionally, state corporations have acquired some important elements of the infrastructure and will duplicate some of them to maximize the resiliency of the national segment. The legal categorization and ownership of the infrastructure creates de facto Russian borders in cyberspace. This delineation of cyber borders is supported by Russia’s efforts to promote information sovereignty in the UN.

When the above-mentioned policies and systems are viewed as a state-controlled whole, they form a system of systems of national information security and defence like the one envisioned by the Russian information scholars. The system could be used to control the society and economy and to protect Russia against internal and external threats, ultimately turning Russia into a kind of digitalized version of the Soviet Union. Moreover, Russia would be able to defend itself from outside and inside cyber and information attacks better than states which leave their networks open. Its networks could be more resilient through state control and coordination. Russia could attack other states pre-emptively or in retaliation through proxy actors from behind its closed borders. Altogether, Russia would gain an asymmetric offensive and defensive advantage in cyberspace. It is tempting to perceive a closed national network as a ‘utopian project’ and to dismiss Russia’s government policies as unfeasible, backward, and authoritarian. However, we should not dismiss the strategic implications of the ‘sovereign Internet’.


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