Amid the Ukraine conflict, Moscow hints that it's ready to isolate itself from the global internet. But experts say that isn’t easy.
Between June and July last year, Russia cut itself off from the global internet network in a series of radical experiments aimed at testing if the country has what it takes to survive going “offline.” It was an attempt to prepare officials for an event when Russia might be blocked from using the world wide web.
As things stand, Moscow might just be preparing to put that idea to the real test, which could potentially unplug an estimated 100 million Russian internet users from the rest of the world.
Amid the conflict with Ukraine that has invited harsh western sanctions, Russia is believed to be actively considering ways to isolate itself from the global network as it tries to protect sensitive military data and social media information of its people.
Though Russia has denied such a move, a document issued by Russia's Ministry of Digital Development has set the cat among the pigeons.
As far back as 2016, German Klimenko, a former internet adviser to President Vladimir Putin, had hinted at such drastic action in the event of a crisis.
One of the largest talking points from the latest document is the directive to all state-owned websites and online portals to transfer their domain name system (DNS) to servers physically located in Russia.
This will practically allow Russia to operate a parallel internet outside the global DNS run by the US-based non-profit organisation Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
What is a sovereign internet?
At the heart of Russia’s confidence to isolate itself from the global Internet network is the concept known as “Sovereign Runet,” adopted by Moscow as legislation in late 2019 as the “Sovereign Internet” law.
The law has been described as Russia’s answer to the “aggressive nature” of the US’s cybersecurity strategy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has emphasised that the concept of sovereign and free internet is not contradictory, dismissing concerns that Moscow would use the law to curb free speech.
But as recent examples show, Russia has used various measures to slow down and block Twitter and Facebook, which it claims "violate the rights of Russian citizens.”
Artem Kozlyuk, the head of the NGO Roskomsvoboda, insisted: "The state is now systematically going towards it, and almost all major services have already been blocked."
Then there’s the matter of a document signed by Deputy Minister of Digital Development Andrey Chernenko that was leaked on Telegram. It’s about a recommendation to government agencies to check their domain data and, if necessary, transfer it to Russian servers and update passwords.
On March 9, Russians received official recommendations from the Ministry of Information to install "Yandex Browser" to have access to all websites and online services, including the Gosuslugi portal, used to access government services.
According to the Ministry of Information, "Gosuslugi" and other sites may no longer work with any security certificates for internet resources other than Russian ones.
The spate of directives has left Russians wondering if they will end up with a North Korean version of the internet—totally sanitised to bring them only the government’s side of everything.
However, experts are sceptical over the efficacy of Russia’s potential move.
Karen Ghazaryan, the director of the Internet Research Institute (IRI), says that the steps described in the documents of the Ministry of Information are recommendations that state agencies were supposed to implement following a law adopted three years ago, but for some reason, haven’t yet.
Taking these measures now—in the wake of several cyberattacks on Russian websites and the termination of some foreign services in Russia—is quite logical.
"Changing passwords, two-factor authentication will help avoid serious consequences," cyber lawyer and co-founder of the Roskomsvoboda community, Sarkis Darbinyan, clarified.
Is it possible to disconnect from the ‘external internet’?
Two main topics are relevant in this respect: can others disconnect Russia from the world wide web, and can Russia itself disconnect itself? Experts say both are difficult to do.
"We cannot disconnect from the global internet overnight," says Darbinyan. Technically, it is possible to disconnect all delimited transmission points, and that will be the end of it (and there will be no global internet in Russia,) but in terms of economic factors, a disconnection is far from simple.
"The entire Russian economy is tied to the global network, its disconnection will have a much more significant impact than the sanctions that are now being imposed and are already affecting the economy," says Darbinyan.
There is an unpleasant precedent: "Russia has already been disconnected by the backbone provider, the American company Cogent," he says.
“This is not fatal: it accounted for only three-four percent of traffic, but now it is absolutely unclear what to expect from others."
He believes that it is unlikely that all hubs in the world will simultaneously shut down Russia; in addition to Western hubs, there are hubs in Asia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia.
"In a moment, it can create turbulence, foreign sites will not load well, but the total disconnection of Russia will not happen anyway," he says. Completely disconnecting Russia from the outside is an extremely difficult task, because there is no single "switch" to put this into practice.
And if they do disconnect, will everything break down?
"If we get shut down completely, services will start to crash, and devices will face glitches. Besides, no one can guarantee the fact that the digital solutions that help run the traffic, factories, and security can perform without external links," argues Kazarian of the IRI.
Smartphones, which constantly receive updates from manufacturers, will also "turn into a pumpkin” (become useless), unlikely to be able to launch a single app.
"A disruption in connectivity would be a major disaster. A situation in which they start shutting down the internet is comparable to a nuclear explosion," warns Kazarian.
Even if the West deprives Russia of traffic, nothing will happen to the domestic Russian network. Experts believe that problems will arise with the foreign part of the world wide web. "I would say that now the probability of a 'sovereign' internet is about 50 percent, and if the situation worsens, a big shutdown and disconnection from the global network awaits us," Sarkis Darbinyan reflects.