In Depth

Why Russia wants to disconnect from the internet

Kremlin planning to unplug in preparation for potential cyberwar

Russia is preparing to temporarily unplug from the internet in a test of the country’s cyberdefence capabilities, according to reports.

The disconnection is expected to take place sometime before April as part of the preparations for a draft law aimed at making Russia more digitally independent.

The legislation, known as the Digital Economy National Programme (DENP), was submitted to parliament last year and would “require internet providers to make sure they can operate” if foreign countries attempt to isolate the the Runet, or Russian Internet, according to US news site NPR.

State communications oversight agency Roskomnadzor is reportedly aiming to find out whether data transmitted between Russia’s internet users can remain within the country without being rerouted to servers abroad, where it could be intercepted.

But some experts question the logic behind the move, says The Guardian

“The disconnection of Russia from the global web would mean that we are already at war with everyone,” Russian internet expert Filipp Kulin told the BBC’s Russian language service. “In this situation we should be thinking how to grow potatoes in a nuclear winter, and not about the internet.”

What is the DENP?

Under the plan, Russian ISPs would “redirect web traffic to routing points within the country and rely on its own copy of the Domain Name System (DNS), the directory of domains and addresses that underpins the global internet”, reports science news site TechCrunch.

The BBC says these routing points, which are “essentially a series of thousands of digital networks along which information travels”, are “notoriously the weakest link in the chain” of cybersecurity. Russia wants to “bring those router points that handle data entering or exiting the country within its borders and under its control”, so that it can then “pull up the drawbridge” to external traffic if needed, the broadcaster continues.

City A.M. says Russian providers are “largely in favour of the legislation, as the state has promised cash in exchange for proof that such a system could be created”.

What do experts say?

The move is believed to be a direct response to the White House’s 2018 National Security Strategy, which attributed recent cyberattacks on the US to Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

In the wake of that report, senior Russian officials have expressed “increasing alarm” that some form of disconnection may be “forced upon them”, says The Guardian. Putin’s internet adviser, German Klimenko, claimed last year that Western nations could simply “push a button” to disconnect Russia from the global internet.

The Russian president has previously gone so far as to call the internet a “CIA project”.

Are there any other ramifications of the DENP?

Moscow admits that the aim of DENP is to eventually route all domestic Russian traffic through internal router points. 

However, the broader ramifications are ominous, according to Time magazine, which says the move would “allow the government more control over online activity and could enable mass surveillance similar to that in China”.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the system is to be monitored by Roskomnadzor, which has “become known for banning both extremist speech and criticism of the Kremlin” and which “will be able to filter out foreign content it doesn’t like”.

But experts have also expressed doubts about whether DENP is a realistic plan. Leonid Volkov, an IT expert and aid to prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, told The Guardian that Russia had already tried and failed to unplug from the internet once before, in 2014.

“Nothing has changed since then from a technical point of view,” Volkov said, adding that it would take “at least another five years” before Russia had “even a hypothetical chance of isolating its segment of the internet from the rest of the world”.

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