What button makes Russia disappear from the Internet?

Wipe Russia off the map. In one sentence, that was Ukraine’s urgent request to international Internet organizations. But it is not so easy in the online world. The Internet is a set of organically grown networks over which no country is in charge, nor a cafe with a doorman. In addition, human rights experts warn, it is not a good idea for millions of people in the Wworld wide web close.

The “military operation in Ukraine”, as it is euphemistically called in Russia, and subsequent Western sanctions, are further dividing Russia and the West online. Western tech companies massively announced their exit from Russia, (partially) ceased their services and suspended investments. At the same time, Russia is also trying to isolate itself on the World Wide Web. What buttons are Russia and the West pushing to sever their mutual connection?

Button 1: The West isolates Russia

Mychailo Fyodorov (31), the young Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, called at the end of February to ban Internet access throughout Russia. “Help us to save the lives of our people.”

Ukraine asked ICANN, the organization responsible for managing country domains (such as .nl in Dutch Internet addresses), to remove Russian country domains such as .ru and .su. Russian websites would then become inaccessible, as would Russian email addresses. Russia would keenly feel such an online sanction.

Fyodorov also turned to RIPE NCC, the Amsterdam-based organization that issues Internet addresses for Europe and the Middle East. That would have to take all Russian IP addresses, so that all Russian servers, computers and smartphones are isolated from the rest of the Internet in one fell swoop.

Both organizations refused, because such political intervention would jeopardize their neutral position. Fyodorov’s request is also difficult to implement: it requires the cooperation of thirteen independent administrators of the main Internet signals.

Close all of Russia, the Internet community does not want to do that. However, specific sanctions are possible. A club of Internet experts this week called for a new impartial arbitrator who could cut off network paths, using a technique now used to disable cyberattacks. According to researcher Niels ten Oever, one of the initiators, this new governing body for Internet sanctions could be operational within a month.

Many of the major Russian telecommunications companies are connected to the global Internet through the US providers Cogent and Lumen. Both Cogent and Lumen announced the divestment of major Russian clients, although previously disconnected connections appeared to have been restored on Friday.

read also Russians hardly have access to independent information anymore due to the blocking of Facebook and Twitter

Erik Bais, CEO of Dutch internet provider A2B Internet, also doesn’t think Russia will go offline completely if providers exclude Russian customers: “The internet is made in such a way that we can all connect separate islands and routers discover each other. what is the shortest path between them. If that is not directly to Europe from Russia, it will go through the Middle East or through China.” As a user, he will notice that: “If that route is a goat trail through Moldova, you will experience a lot of delays. Traffic isn’t coming, you can’t download videos anymore, big emails take days because they just don’t come through.”

Button 2: Russia isolates itself

Russia could decide to (partially) disconnect from the global Internet. For years we have been working on our own ‘sovereign’ internet. In 2019, the State Duma passed a series of laws that would allow Russia to disconnect its own Internet from the World Wide Web in the event of external or internal “threats”. Due to its vague formulation, the law is very applicable. “There is talk of a threat, but the law does not specify the circumstances under which the closure can be carried out,” Russian internet expert Andrei Soldatov said earlier. NRC

With decoupling, Russia can try to protect the economy against “hostile” actions from abroad, such as the closure of payment systems. Such a national ‘intranet’ also gives authorities the ability to monitor citizens’ online behavior and take Russian regions offline during social protests.

Russian authorities are instructing companies to move their websites to Russian servers. That fuels rumors of a further disconnect. But experts are skeptical. According to Erik Bais, Russia “could probably last a few hours.” After that, crucial functionality is lost.

Russia could also simply order all providers in the country to take their networks offline. So there will be no internet traffic at all within Russia. Such complete blackouts sometimes occur, such as during protests in Iran or Myanmar, but they cannot be sustained for long: the economic damage is enormous.

Button 3: Russia will no longer receive hardware

The sanctions also affect Russian telecommunications companies. Ericsson and Nokia have stopped supplying mobile infrastructure to Russian operators such as MTS, MegaFon and Amsterdam-based Veon. Russian cell towers contain 40 to 60 percent Nokia or Ericsson equipment. In the absence of domestic alternatives, Russian telecommunications providers rely on technology from elsewhere. The main candidate is the Chinese Huawei, which is not yet participating in the sanctions.

But quickly replacing technology is not one of them. A forced switch is estimated to cost the Russian telecommunications sector billions of dollars. Semiconductor suppliers are also banning Russia. Chipmakers AMD and Intel can no longer supply electronics. Russia designs its own computer chips and parts, but remains dependent on overseas chipmakers such as TSMC and Samsung. They have already stopped their deliveries.

This creates opportunities for Chinese chip suppliers in the long run. However, those companies cannot produce the most advanced chips; China is also likely awaiting sanctions from American customers.

Button 4: The West disrupts payment systems

Russia’s closure of the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard means that Russian payment cards no longer work abroad, and foreign ones no longer work in Russia. However, this measure leads to payment system failures rather than a complete blackout of payments. Additionally, Russians can continue to use their Visa and Mastercard cards for domestic transactions until their card expires. In addition, citizens massively use the Mir payment system of the Russian central bank, and the Chinese UnionPay.

The departure of Google Pay, Apple Pay and PayPal caused queues in the Moscow metro because people could no longer pay with their phones. Blocked payment systems also cause headaches for popular online sales platforms such as Yandex Market and Wildberries. Sales continue, however, and Western luxury brands are also widely available online. Russian tech sites also share plenty of tips with which consumers can bypass payment restrictions.

Button 5: The West is throttling the software

Many tech companies have partially banned Russia. Microsoft stopped selling Office products to the Minecraft video game. The Kremlin’s response: A new law should allow Russian companies to also use expired software licenses from vendors that are withdrawing on the basis of economic sanctions. It is a license to continue using Microsoft, Oracle or Cisco software illegally.

US tech companies have not yet gone so far as to discontinue their actual services in Russia: Office and Outlook work as usual in Russia.

Such an intervention is possible: the US government banned Google in 2020 from providing software to the Chinese Huawei. Another option is to stop updates, which makes Russian systems more vulnerable to hacking attacks.

A lot of technical talent is now trying to get out of Russia. This brain drain is hampering the rate at which Russia can develop its own alternatives to Western software and online services.

Button 6: Censor Both Sides

While Western countries blocked Russian state channels like RT and Sputnik for spreading disinformation, Russia stepped up censorship measures internally. Last week, Putin signed a law that imposes severe penalties on civilians for “discrediting the Russian military.” To protect users in Russia, popular video service TikTok has disabled features to prevent users from uploading or live streaming new videos.

In addition, Russia blocked hundreds of independent news sites, Twitter and Facebook, and police officers checked citizens’ phones for prohibited content during demonstrations in Moscow.

The strict measures led to a run of VPN services, with which IP addresses are masked and blocks can be bypassed. Popular western VPN services were downloaded more than 1.3 million times in a week in Russia. It is difficult for Russian government sites and service providers like Aeroflot and Russian Railways not to be accessible via VPN.

No matter how many buttons are pressed on either side, the West and Russia are too interconnected to be completely disconnected. In addition, the desire to isolate Putin now mainly affects the Russian population, activists warn.

“Internet access is vital for Russians to receive objective information and make the right decisions,” wrote Roskomsvoboda, an organization that works for a free internet. “The mass shutdown of Russian users by US and European tech companies will not improve the situation in Ukraine, but it will worsen the human rights situation in Russia.”

ICANN President Göran Marby agreed: “Only through unfettered access to the Internet can citizens receive reliable information and differing opinions.”

Leave a Comment