Creating the PutinNet: The Russia-Ukraine War on the Internet
By Zsuzsa Detrekői
There are signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have been preparing for the war for a while, online and offline. Hints about a Russian-run alternative of the internet were made by him already in 2014. The first news about Russia’s possible disconnection from the global internet broke in 2017. In April 2019, the Russian Parliament (Duma) voted for a bill called Sovereign Internet Law that made cutting off the country’s internet traffic from foreign servers possible. Several tests of this new Runet were held, with the last one from 15th June to 15th July 2021. Runet worked successfully without disruption.
The purpose of this sort of online “iron curtain” is twofold. On the one hand, it aims to prevent cyberattacks as a new form of warfare. On the other hand, it can be used to restrict Russians’ access to independent information.
Russian hackers have been infamous for their cyberattacks. Suspected Russian hackers, allegedly working for their state, were behind an attack in 2015 that the FBI categorized as “among the most sophisticated attacks ever launched against U.S. government systems.” Ukraine has faced numerous cyberattacks suspected to originate from Russia. In 2015 and 2016, the Ukrainian power system was hacked, which is reportedly still vulnerable today. In 2017, encrypting malware “NotPetya” was used to attack Ukraine’s financial sector, infecting millions of computers worldwide, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage. In October 2020, several Russian intelligence officers were charged by the US for their alleged involvement in the malware’s development and in hacking Ukraine’s power system.
Two weeks ago, just before Ukraine’s invasion started, the websites of the Ukrainian government, foreign ministry and state security service, as well as those of several banks, were hit with a denial of service (DDoS) attack. The internet infrastructure was also reported to be attacked, resulting in an internet outage that affected a number of cities. Now, thousands of Ukrainian professionals from the digital sector have volunteered to return the cyberattacks on Russia.
In support of Ukraine, hacking group Anonymous has declared a cyber war against Russia. On Saturday, several Russian state websites, including those of the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense, went dark due to a cyberattack claimed by Anonymous. Anonymous is also allegedly disrupting Russian radio broadcast with the Ukrainian anthem; it has reportedly hacked several Russian television channels to broadcast coverage of the war; and it claims it has hacked hundreds of Russian CCTV cameras and overlaid text on them about the situation in Ukraine.
Some U.S. intelligence and military officials have reportedly proposed to U.S. President Joe Biden to “to carry out massive cyberattacks designed to disrupt Russia’s ability to sustain military operations in Ukraine.” The options presented include “disrupting internet connectivity across Russia, shutting off electric power, and tampering with railroad switches to hamper Russia’s ability to resupply its forces,” sources told NBC. Putin was clearly aware of these possibilities and took precautions several years ago by creating Runet.
The other aim of a separate network is to prevent Russian people from accessing independent information and therefore to have the ability to manipulate their opinion through the net.
Russian citizens’ access to information has been heavily controlled by the state through the obligatory registration of newspapers and blogs, and through blocking and filtering sensitive political and social content. Officially 315,000 websites were reported to be blocked in 2019; however, the real number is estimated to be over 4 million. The Russian government has also put social media sites under pressure to increase control over their content moderation policies. Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media, is entitled by a 2020 law to levy fines on social media platforms for failure to remove content it has banned. Twitter, Google and Facebook were sued by Russian authorities during the nationwide protests for Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny based on this law. Last September, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram were fined for not removing content; in December, Meta and Google were given “massive fines” for the same reason.
Another law, passed in 2020, enables Russian authorities to block websites for alleged “censorship” if they remove Russian state media outlets’ content. In summer 2021, Putin signed a law requiring big foreign tech companies to establish in-country offices that liaise with Roskomnadzor. However, these Russia-based employees can be coerced and threatened to follow Roskomnadzor orders. This law was the reason behind Apple and Google’s decision to delete the Smart Voting app, used by Navalny and his party as a primary tool to consolidate votes against Putin’s regime in 2021, from their app store.
Last week, Russian legislature passed a law that imposes up to 15-year prison terms for sharing information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now according to Russian media there is no war, but Russia launched a special military operation in Ukraine to protect the eastern Ukraine Donbas region after it turned to Russia for help.
Meanwhile, the major tech platforms try to fight against Russian disinformation in their own way. Facebook refused to comply with a Russian order to stop fact-checking and labelling content; for this, it was first partially than then completely blocked last Friday for censorship based on the 2020 law. Roskomnadzor said that “Facebook had ignored its demands to lift restrictions on four Russian media outlets on its platforms — RIA news agency, the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV, and websites gazeta.ru and lenta.ru,” Reuters reported. Twitter has temporarily paused its ads and some recommendations in Russia and Ukraine to prevent misinformation from spreading but was also reportedly restricted for sharing “false information.” YouTube told Recode it was “evaluating whether new economic sanctions on Russia may impact what content is allowed on the platform.” Google turned off live traffic data on its map in Ukraine to keep local communities safe.
The war is also taking place on the internet, using means ranging from total disinformation to immense cyberattacks. The Russian authorities deny that they have plans to resort to the ultimate solution of cutting the total Russian internet off from the global world wide web, although recently leaked information suggests that Russia’s disconnection will happen, and it is scheduled for 11 March.
This solution might be very unpopular in Russia and may also be counterproductive. Putin can try to hide the fact that there is a war going on, but too invasive measures might make people suspicious that indeed, something is happening. Meanwhile, the five top downloaded apps in Russia last week were VPN apps, used for a more secure internet connection and enabling users to circumvent the internet blockage.
Zsuzsa Detrekői is a TMT lawyer and the former general counsel of a major Hungarian online content provider. Currently she is legal counsel of a major ISP in Hungary. She also provides legal support for the Association of Hungarian Content Providers. Her research area is online content and internet related regulations. She wrote her thesis on this topic, earning her PhD in 2016. She is a Fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society.