Putin has for at least a decade viewed the internet as a threat to regime security. Now, Russia’s national defense conglomerate Rostec is reportedly looking to take over significant ownership of Rostelecom, Russia’s state-owned telecommunications provider. Rostec argued that it works in similar areas as Rostelecom and that foreign sanctions on Russia necessitate more coordination between the state and domestic industry.
This represents another step in Putin’s growing securitization of the internet—that is, bringing telecommunications and internet sectors further under the arm of the national security apparatus.
Rostelecom, like many Russian companies (especially state-owned firms), has always been beholden to the security interests of the regime. The Russian government has weaponized Rostelecom’s infrastructure to hijack the Border Gateway Protocol, the internet’s “GPS” for traffic, to misroute volumes of global internet traffic—including from Google and hundreds of other Western companies—through Russia’s borders for possible interception. Rostelecom’s CEO is paraded out about once a year in heavily scripted, Kremlin-publicized meetings with Putin to emphasize the firm’s telecommunications work and the importance of internet infrastructure to economic security. The 2020 “conversation” spanned plans including an undersea cable linking Vladivostok, a city near Russia’s borders with North Korea and China, to Hong Kong and Japan (now underway); expanding broadband access in Russia; and investments in data storage and processing infrastructure, for example.
Yet this recent announcement signifies a new step in Moscow’s securitization of the internet. Since 2014, Rostelecom has been Russia’s only universal service provider, maintaining 148,000 pay phones, 21,000 internet access points (unclearly defined), and more than 124,000 miles of fiber-optic cables, among other things. It even has a contract to provide broadband service in Crimea in Ukraine, which it was granted after Putin’s illegal invasion and annexation in 2014.
Putting Rostelecom under Rostec’s control would mean formally absorbing Russia’s key telecommunications provider and a significant portion of Russia’s internet infrastructure into the Russian military-industrial complex. Today, Rostec “incorporates over 700 companies and employs over half a million people,” all focused on military technologies; as Russian political analyst Pavel Luzin puts it, “if the Russian military can use it, Rostec has had a hand in making it.” Rostec is also known to capitalize on Russian proxy activity overseas to make a profit—moving into overseas markets once Russian military or proxy forces get a foothold—and the firm plays a key role in shaping Russian security policy. Sergei Chemezov, the defense conglomerate’s head (whose reported $153 million yacht was recently seized by Spain), met Putin in his KGB days—and Chemezov’s enterprise has long enabled Kremlin security objectives, like delivering weapons to Syria and other countries.
This ownership change would also mean more directly establishing the influence of Putin’s security advisers over the domestic internet. Some members of the Russian security services have long raised concerns about the internet, and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, configured online surveillance systems decades ago. But it wasn’t until the late 2000s and early 2010s—spurred by the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the 2010–12 Arab Spring, Russian protests against Putin in 2011 and 2012, and the 2013 Snowden leaks—that Putin became truly paranoid about the internet as a threat to regime security. That view has prevailed since and manifested itself in everything from Russia’s 2019 sovereign internet law to physically targeting tech company employees and calling YouTube a tool of Western “information warfare” against the Russian Federation.
In the coming months and years, the West should expect further securitization of the Russian internet industry, a continued backtrack, as Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov notes, from the relative liberalization of the Russian internet industry in the 1990s.
Rostec, in practice, is not a driving force of internet repression in Russia. The FSB runs a surveillance system known as SORM to spy on internet communications (originally, SORM-1 for phone calls, then SORM-2 for internet traffic, and now SORM-3 for all digital media); the media regulator and internet censor Roskomnadzor tells companies to delete state-critical information and oversees the blocking of platforms and websites; and the FSB and other security and law enforcement agencies intimidate those sharing information online through arrests, detentions, harassment, and enforcement of confusing, vaguely worded speech laws. Intentionally vague communication laws are even implemented and weaponized to intimidate Russian companies, and Russian courts use fines and other measures to enforce the Kremlin’s wishes.
Thus, in the immediate sense, such an ownership change would not immediately change how Russia’s internet works. Especially with all going on in Russia at present—including Rostec’s active involvement in supporting Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine—Rostec could quite likely allow Rostelecom to keep managing its own operation. Russians might not notice a single difference, and the security services would continue cracking down on internet-related speech and mobilization in tandem.
Nonetheless, to move the state-controlled telecom—which maintains large swaths of telecommunications infrastructure—under the defense conglomerate would increase the security apparatus’s sway over its decisions, especially in the long term. Paranoid, conspiratorial views of technology could become even more pervasive in the administration of Russian internet services, and Rostec’s security and security-profit mindset could bleed more into Rostelecom’s decisions on domestic and overseas internet architecture. For example, consider the aforementioned cable project linking Vladivostok to Hong Kong and Japan, which could be important to Russian internet connectivity and economic development. Defense personnel could instead see it as a national security threat, including from entanglement with a country (Japan) that continues imposing sanctions on Russia. At a minimum, the decision itself signals a Kremlin focus on controlling the Russian internet ecosystem and securitizing the Russian tech sector in the face of Western sanctions.
The U.S. and other countries will have to develop policies that acknowledge even greater Kremlin control of Russian internet companies—however little Rostelecom’s autonomy and room for maneuver already, it will now have even less. Western governments are already investing in more foreign technology and foreign investment screening for security reasons, though, paradoxically, isolation of the Russian tech and internet ecosystem will likely catalyze the Putin regime’s push for a domestic, utterly state-dominated internet. The fact is Kremlin weaponization of telecommunications, internet, and related companies against foreigners cannot be divorced from Russian government surveillance and rights suppression at home.
And for those in Russia, internet freedom will only get worse—as Putin’s paranoid security advisers exert an even tighter grip over domestic internet infrastructure.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.