Kremlin Cracks Down on Internet Usage as Public Discontent Grows Ahead of Presidential Elections

A Kremlin-aligned internet safety group says it is ‘most likely’ that large virtual private networks, or VPNs, would be banned in Russia by March 1.

Russian Presidential Press Service via AP
President Putin at Moscow, June 26, 2023. Russian Presidential Press Service via AP

The Kremlin is poised to crack down on the flow of information online ahead of Russia’s elections in March amid growing public discontent over mounting war casualties in Ukraine. 

The Kremlin-aligned League for a Safe Internet said on Monday it was “most likely” that large virtual private networks, or VPNs, would be banned in Russia by March 1. These tools have become increasingly popular for Russian citizens to skirt government censorship efforts online. “VPNs, especially those that are free, they’re a total portal into hell,” the group’s leader, Yekaterina Mizulina, told high school students at the city of Yekaterinburg. “It’s a big black hole in your device.”

Ms. Mizulina subsequently backpedaled on that comment, calling it a “free interpretation” in a post on a social media app widely used in Russia, Telegram. On Tuesday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters at Moscow that there was “no talk yet” of a complete ban on VPNs. 

President Putin has long sought to cut off the flow of information from the West that could inspire his constituents to question his presidential authority. That threat has become more urgent as Russian mothers and sisters are leading unsanctioned protests, coordinated via Telegram, to demand a return of their family members drafted 15 months ago into the war with Ukraine. As the Sun’s James Brooke reports, Mr. Putin now faces “a new foe at home.”

These women will be what Mr. Brooke calls “Russia’s political untouchables” until the presidential election that runs March 15-17. On Telegram, they are asking: “Why do we need a president that pretends we don’t exist?” A jailed Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is also using Telegram to urge Russians to vote against Mr. Putin next month in “a powerful demonstration of the country’s mood.” 

The best way to squash this public outcry and secure Mr. Putin’s leadership, Russian authorities must be reasoning, is to stop the seeds of discontent from sprouting in the first place — by silencing negative discourse online. 

Russia is seeking “internet sovereignty,” a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ivana Stradner, tells the Sun. “Putin is extremely paranoid and he really wants to make sure that Russians are completely divorced from the free internet.”

Beijing appears to be assisting Moscow with its efforts to control the information space. The two countries have been spearheading a United Nations treaty to “prevent and combat cybercrime,” which human rights advocates warn could strengthen the digital rule of the authoritarian regimes.

Within Russian military strategy, though, the word “cybersecurity” does not exist, Ms. Stradner says. Instead, officials invoke the term “information security” to defend what America sees as an information warfare launched by Russia and Communist China against Western interests. Russian officials, Ms. Stradner says, “fear the free flow of information more than anything else.”

The Kremlin has attempted over the years to tighten its iron grip on the internet, which Mr. Putin in 2014 called a “CIA project.” A 2017 Russian law obliged providers of VPN technology to restrict access to content banned by Russia or be banned themselves. Last year, authorities launched a campaign to discourage VPN usage through videos, appearing like advertisements, that warn users they can be hacked for using VPN services. 

In October, a Russian senator, Artem Sheikin, said that the telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, had been ordered to block VPNs that grant access to content blacklisted in Russia, according to Russian newspapers.

Authorities have looked to arrest those who engage with Western media. A Russian fashion influencer, Veronika Loginova, faced up to six years in jail for using Instagram after it was banned in Russia and declared an “extremist organization,” alongside its sister platform, Facebook, in March 2022.

Yet a quarter of Russians use a VPN regularly or sometimes, with the most frequent users being young people between 18 and 24 years old, a March 2023 survey by Statista discloses. Downloads spiked in 2022 after Moscow tightened restrictions on content that challenged its narrative supporting the invasion of Ukraine.  

Blocking VPNs is a technical challenge and far from straightforward. When Moscow sought to slow down the speed of Twitter in 2021 — due to the platform’s alleged failure to remove banned content — it accidentally shut down several government websites, including that of the Kremlin. President Xi’s digital fortress, dubbed “The Great Firewall of China,” has struggled to fully limit access to foreign media content.

“Putin’s regime is weak inside Russia,” Ms. Stradner says. “His digital iron curtain displays that he fears his people. The latest protests inside Russia are his nightmare.”

The New York Sun

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