It seems strangely appropriate that the largest series of protests that Russia has seen in years is due to the state attempting to do new things with the Internet.
Just last week, General Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff who is widely credited with expanding the role played by cyberwarfare and misinformation in its military doctrine, reiterated his support for these tools. Fair enough – they’ve helped expand Russian influence and belligerence to a degree unseen since the end of the Cold War. On the flip side, they’ve also led to tight sanctions on Russia’s economy, which has led to hardship, dissent, and a dip in Putin’s popularity. Much of the dissent bubbles away online, in the same cyberspace where the state’s troll armies have been able to successfully influence the citizens of other countries – but apparently not their own.
Also last week, Russia announced a “digital iron curtain” – reclaiming their cyber sovereignty, as it were, by building metaphorical walls and gates and patrols and spy networks around Internet connections to the outside world. Information transmitted between Russian computers will now route through Russian servers instead of international ones, shifting and slowing global Internet traffic. Russia seeks to protect its cyberspace from attacks and information operations from other countries while doing exactly that in those countries. (If one were a cynic, one would say that this is the first step in the demise of the global Internet as states expand the degree of control they have over their respective cyberspaces).
But this move, while perhaps necessary at a strategic level, is a misstep tactically. Russia’s online denizens participate in the global economy, are active in hacker networks and portions of the country’s digital economy are critically dependent on the Internet’s ability to anonymously connect users. In addition, the state seizing the ability to shut down the Internet in particular regions, severe all outside traffic to Russia, or generally throw a spanner into the digital economy legal or illegal, could be catastrophic to its citizens’ rights as well as their wallets.
And yet, the government seems unapologetic. Russia’s Parliament has approved laws that would fine or jail people for criticising the government online, as well as fine and block websites that carry content designated as “fake news”. The government will soon be regulating cryptocurrency as well, choosing not to ban it outright. It seems like a sign that all these moves are part of a broader digital economic and security policy – “hybrid” is now moving from warfare to governance. Will it give the Russian state an unprecedented degree of control over its population and additional cards in the geopolitical game? Or will it set deadly off economic and social shockwaves? Time will tell.