After the Arab Spring, Vladimir Putin began to see the internet as a “tool of Western power projection,” according to Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. His belief that the U.S. created the internet as a means of asserting its power has led to a range of moves restricting Russians’ access to the internet—and it’s given the Kremlin an excuse to use the internet as a weapon for its own purposes. Now, as Western tech companies are pulling out of Russia, will Putin act decisively against the internet?
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Justin Sherman about how Putin wants to wall off Russia from the rest of the digital world. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: The early 2000s were marked by the color revolutions in former Soviet countries, including Ukraine. Did technology start to play a role at all there? How has Putin’s thinking on the internet evolved since he first came to power at the start of the century?
Justin Sherman: Technology did not have a huge role in those early color revolutions, but this thread is really, really important for understanding how we got—and how Putin got—to where we are today. The color revolutions did send fear rippling through the Kremlin about Russia losing influence over former Soviet republics, and also about foreign governments toppling regimes that are close to the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin doesn’t see opposition movements as legitimate. He sees people protesting on the street, and says “There must be some foreign plot here where a government is orchestrating this behind the scenes.” And so, though the internet role in those early ones was minimal, they really did explode that fear in the Kremlin’s head that other states, other mysterious forces, were trying to reduce Russia’s influence over surrounding countries.
In 2008, the Kremlin’s fears began to be realized. In August of that year, Russian forces invaded Georgia. The conflict itself only lasted five days, but it marked a turning point in Russia’s ability—or perhaps its inability—to control information and the narrative around what was happening. What role did the internet play in that conflict?
You had that gap between what people were seeing on television, which is near totally controlled by the Russian government by that point, and what they were seeing on the internet, which was not that filtered and was pretty open in Russia at the time. People easily could go on sites that were up in Georgia and say, “Oh, well, the Kremlin says there weren’t any casualties, and yet here, this website says that Georgians killed a bunch of Russian soldiers.” That worried a bunch of Russian officials. That really made people sit up and pay attention and say, “Hey, even in a traditional armed conflict, we have to pay a lot more attention to this internet thing.”
There is the striking quote from Putin in 2014 that the internet is a “CIA project.”
It’s easy to dismiss that as propaganda, to say, “That’s ridiculous. He can’t literally think that the U.S. government controls the internet and controls every tech company.” But Putin very much was serious when he said that. The Arab Spring had just happened and that freaked Putin out. And then 2014 really was the nail in the coffin, which was the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine.
This is right after the Snowden leaks, and all this stuff about U.S. government surveillance globally. Next thing you know, Facebook and Twitter are huge points of mobilization to overthrow the Kremlin-friendly Yanukovych regime in Ukraine. He really did believe that the internet is a CIA project and that Western tech companies, too, were arms of the U.S. government. And when you have this view that the U.S. built and uses the internet to hurt Russia and to hurt other countries, the view in the Kremlin is, “If we’re using disinformation, if we’re cyber attacking you, that’s not escalation. We’re just doing back to you, what we see you doing to us.”
As Vladimir Putin sees it, the very architecture of the worldwide web is threatening. What he would prefer is a domestic internet: One that could control all information within Russia’s borders. What steps have been taken toward creating a domestic internet?
In 2014, you had Russian officials talking about building a domestic DNS system, the domain name system that converts website names like slate.com into IP addresses. They were saying, “We need our own. We want independence from the global web.” There were many people who even scoffed at that idea. But in 2019, the Russians put all of this on paper. Putin signed a law saying, “We need to be able to isolate the internet in Russia from the rest of the world at a moment’s notice.”
Is their attempt to create a “Russian internet” more about blocking and monitoring Western providers and infrastructure, or is it about creating something that is uniquely Russian?
It’s both. It’s wanting this idea of a Russian internet. Wanting one where Russian-language content can thrive, where the state can control and decide for people, what is the best kind of information and the best kind of services to have. It is also a desire to have that deeper level of independence from the global web. There are other countries who are very happy to censor the internet, to block websites, to filter traffic, but they’re still using global protocols. Russians, time and time again, talk about going deeper, talk about being able to flip a switch and have no data going in and out of Russia.
You wrote a piece for Slate back in 2019 with this headline: “Russia’s Domestic Internet Is a Threat to the Global Internet.” What is it about this project that is so threatening to the foundational ideas of the internet?
Part of it is that Kremlin drive to actually set up a Russian DNS, to set up different Russian protocols and infrastructure. Not many countries are pushing for that level of isolation. Even the Chinese government, which changes protocols internally and does a ton of filtering, is still pretty reliant on global internet technologies. Even in Iran where there’s a national information network, a domestic intranet that has a lot of state content on it, there still is access to the global internet.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has moved incredibly quickly against Western tech companies and websites either by blocking or throttling them. Many of those companies have pulled out of Russia for the moment. Russia also passed a new law that threatens websites and publishers with prison time for “misinformation about Ukraine.” What is still to come?
There are really a bunch of different things to watch here. One is, in past years, the Russian government has tried to block access to things or slow down access to things and has failed. Yet now we do see a bunch of blocking of foreign sites, slowing down access to websites. It does seem, even if a little bit, that the Kremlin has improved those filtering capabilities.
The other big thing to watch is Putin’s rhetoric. Just last week, for example, Russia’s internet censor said that YouTube was a tool of Western information warfare against Russia. And so the fact that the state is getting more escalatory in its language also suggests that these tech actions are angering the Kremlin and that there may be more and more crackdowns than we’ve ever seen in the coming months.
Do you think we might be moving toward something that looks like a Chinese Great Firewall, or is it a very different tactic from the Russians?
We could be moving to more filtering, but the Russian internet control model has for a while relied on far less blocking than in China. China has a really sophisticated data filtering apparatus on its gateways and in the country. The Russian internet control model instead relies on a lot of traditional coercion: law enforcement harassing you, intelligence services following people at tech companies, confusing and inconsistently enforced speech laws. The point is very much so that citizens think about posting something and say, “Well, so and so got arrested for posting that, maybe I shouldn’t post it.” It’s that kind of hesitance, it’s that kind of fear injection that the Kremlin knowingly uses to shape the internet environment within the country.
Is the fear the point?
The fear is the point. Masha Gessen said this recently: You can’t talk about censorship in Russia, whether that’s a newspaper or social media, without talking about the economy of fear. And that worry, that fear about getting arrested, that fear of being separated from your family, of getting beat up at a protest, all of those risks are part of this internet control model. Even in recent weeks, the Russian government has introduced new punishments for people sharing information about the war. It released a directive last week, telling citizens not to share anything about Russian forces killing Ukrainian civilians and not to share anything about Russian troop casualties. All of these things are in flux, and it’s a really scary environment to be living in Russia.
Is the early-aughts dream of an open internet that connects us all just sounding even more silly in the face of all of this?
I don’t think it sounds silly. Russia’s troop buildup and disinformation—and now second illegal invasion of Ukraine—has had such a strong internet element. We’ve seen so much information coming out of Ukraine by people posting online. We’ve seen unprecedented action by foreign governments all at once, real time, disclosing Russian covert action and other things. There really is a strong internet theme with all of that. It might not be silly to believe in a global internet, but it’s silly to think that these companies have all the right incentives. It’s silly to think that other governments are not aggressively trying to undercut the global web as we know it.