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How Isolated is the Russian Internet? Consequences of the war in Ukraine.

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Internet Resilience Insights, Internet Society
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June 7, 2024

Digital sovereignty is used widely in varying contexts worldwide. It can include policy interventions to give individuals and groups more control over information and measures that give authorities direct control over Internet infrastructure and day-to-day Internet traffic.

In the last two decades, Russia has been one of many countries that have amended and enacted legislation to meet this objective. Although there have been reports that it has attempted to disconnect itself from the global Internet, there is little evidence to confirm or explain the causes of these incidents, only that they have led to significant outages in Russia and worldwide.

As the Internet Society’s CEO, Andrew Sullivan, pointed out in a recent article, Russia’s Internet, as opposed to China’s Internet, was never built as a self-contained system. With more than 5,000 Autonomous Systems (ASes), 41 Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), multiple international gateways, and a completely decentralized ISP market, it is nearly impossible to isolate Russia’s Internet completely.

Screenshot of Pulse Country report networks assigned (n=5789), IXPs (n=41) and Retail ISP Diversity (n=excellent) metrics for Russia
Figure 1 — Pulse Country Report, Russia. Source: Pulse.

However, the growing number of incidents that suggest it is trying to, combined with international sanctions imposed by the West (and internal censorship) since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, is taking a toll on Russia’s overall reputation and resilience.

Tech Companies and Network Operators Fleeing Russia

The website tracks companies that have stopped operations in Russia to abide by international sanctions or protest the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Top network equipment vendors, chip providers, security companies, and cloud service providers are among those leaving.

The net effect of these international boycotts is challenging to estimate. Still, it has a toll on the overall resilience of the Internet in Russia (currently 55% per the Pulse Internet Resilience Index), as companies are forced to rely on home-grown and sometimes less reliable services.

Screenshot of the Pulse Internet Resilience Index profile for Russia
Figure 2 — Pulse Internet Resilience Index profile for Russia. Source: Pulse.

Looking at the evolution of the peering and interconnection landscape in Russia pre and post-war, the authors of a recent paper published at TMA’24 observed a significant departure of 133 ASes from the Russian ecosystem from October 2021 to January 2022, which is 18 times the average attrition rate.

By July 2022, the number of foreign peers connecting to Russian peers decreased from 3,333 to 2,329, and the number of foreign providers serving Russian clients decreased steadily after April 2022, from 157 to 117, further confirming the isolation trends.

Censorship Inside and Outside Russia

Russia has a long history of censorship and is currently considered as “Not free” in the 2023 Freedom of the Net report.

Many mainstream social media and news websites (BBC, Facebook, LinkedIn, X) are currently blocked, and there is a strong push to move away from Western tech giants and towards Russian alternatives such as Yandex.

Screenshot of a table showing the top 11 domains currently censored in Russia
Figure 3 — Top 11 domains currently censored in Russia as of June 2024. Source: CensoredPlanet.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently reported that VPNs and websites providing information about VPN services are now banned and criminalized.

Russia also imposes restrictions on international hosting companies, which must comply with strict regulations, such as operating a subsidiary in the country. As a result, several hosting companies have stopped operations, including the German host Hetzner Online, which terminated all contracts with their clients in Russia in January 2024.

Isolation is happening both ways. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) instated sanctions against “media outlets under the permanent direct or indirect control of the leadership of the Russian Federation” such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputniknews. The EU sanctions also require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in member states to block access to websites associated with the sanctioned entities, and some form of DNS blocking was observed in all EU countries.

Additionally, Russian users are being blocked from accessing some Western media websites that have employed DNS-based, TCP-based, or HTTP-based geoblocking techniques (Figure 4).

Bar graph showing number of russian domains being blocked in various countries.
Figure 4 — Geoblocking by RU government domains: TCP, TLS, and HTTP geoblocking observed on May 2022. Source: CensoredPlanet.

Similarly, Russia is preventing foreign users from accessing some government domains. Recently, CensoredPlanet found that more than 130 Russian domains could not be accessed outside Russia and Kazakhstan. By combining datasets from OONI, RouteViews, and IODA, they also found evidence of Russian networks attempting to geoblock and censor websites using Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), either by adding or removing routes or even hijacking a Twitter/X prefix.

We Need Everyone to Defend the Internet from Splintering

Digital sovereignty policies can adversely affect how the Internet works and our ability to make use of the Internet.

Censorship and other sorts of information access restrictions go against the principles of an open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet, and ultimately weaken the Internet fabric and can have a long-lasting impact on the resilience of the Internet, locally or globally.

We urgently need to protect and defend the Internet from splintering into isolated networks that may not be able to connect or interoperate with one another efficiently.

Help Protect the Internet from Fragmentation