Doors wide shut. Has Vladimir Putin managed to build a sovereign RuNet?
January 9, 2023
  • Daria Dergacheva

    Postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Media and Communication Research (ZeMKI), University of Bremen, Germany. 

Daria Dergacheva discusses how the Russian government is seeking to ensure technological independence in the IT sphere. Even if it is trying to isolate Russians from the global Internet, it is not likely to succeed.
The two most important prerequisites for a country to build its own Internet, like China, are linguistic isolation and domestic digital tools. At one point in time, it seemed that Russia had both.

The announcement of Alexei Kudrin’s “solution” to split the tech giant Yandex into separate Russian and international companies in exchange for a stock option, which looked a lot like a bribe, did not trigger any questions, much less outrage. The year 2022 saw Russia bombing Kyiv, so it is not surprising that that did not come as a shock. However, had Yandex been a company from some other country, the bribe it gave to a government official to finally exit the shaky political media business of Putin’s Russia would have at least caused a few objections. As would have the de-facto “nationalization” of the biggest IT company in the country.

Around 10 years ago, the Russian authorities started to seriously pursue two technological goals that in their minds would ensure the independence of the Russian tech sector and the Internet from the “collective West” and China. Apart from calling the tech sector a “priority” for Russia’s development, the government also proclaimed that the country needed to develop its own digital solutions, focusing on hardware and locally made software. The other goal, of course, was full control over information flows, including the once-free and decentralized Russian segment of the Internet, Runet. Fortunately for the siloviki and unfortunately for aspirational tech startups and state institutions created to foster them (e.g. Skolkovo School of Management), the second goal prevailed.

Thus, most attention was paid to making life impossible for opposition media and websites, while money was poured into algorithmic control by news aggregators and a home-made search engine (Yandex), as well as the domestication of social media (VKontakte and its sister-network Odnoklassniki). Another important segment where Russia made quite an achievement of sorts is cyber security and surveillance.
Still, the government continued to pursue technological independence and to this end it supported several local developers who aspired to design a Russian operating system; both for desktop and mobile. However, as often happens in Russia, the developers were less concerned about tech innovation than creating an effective scheme to spend state funds on ineffective products.

The power of the budget

In the 2010s, the operating system developer, Russian software company RusBiTech, indeed launched a functioning desktop operation system Astra Linux, a Debian-based Linux operating system.

In 2017, 51% of RusBiTech was bought by a former top manager of the Russian company Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods. According to RBC, the deal was done in the name of Rosatom. Apparently, Sergei Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, and Rosatom head from 2006 until 2016 who never fully gave up control over Rosatom, was interested in integrating the IT company into the state holding at that time.

All of the IT products (versions of operating systems) that RusBiTech developed were included into the “register of domestic software” that had to be purchased by government agencies as a matter of priority. In the reports of RusBiTech for 2014 (later data was not disclosed), the Ministry of Defense, FSB, Foreign Intelligence Service, Federal Customs Service and the Ministry of Health are indicated among the company’s main clients. The total value of contracts concluded by the company in 2014 amounted to RUB 1.7 billion. In June 2017, the Ministry of Defense announced four tenders for computers and servers with pre-installed Astra Linux OS for more than RUB 1.2 billion (part of this amount was used to pay for licenses for RusBiTech).

In 2021, RusBiTech’s profit was RUB 2.37 billion, and the company hopes that due to sanctions its market share would grow even more in 2023. However, the system, despite being a lucrative asset assured of state funding, is not popular with ordinary users. As the German Council on Foreign Relations suggests, the dominant position for OS on computers in Russia is still occupied by US-based companies. According to market share data, Windows is the outright leader, holding more than 53% of the market, followed by Android (28%), iOS (11%) and OS X (5%).
"Linux only has a market share of 1%, hence the Russian population currently relies on foreign technology, and any change remains unlikely."
To get people to switch from their operating systems, those old systems would have to be banned, which could bring the Russian economy to collapse. On December 6, Rosneft announced it was going to switch to the OS Astro Linux (as of this writing, they haven’t switched and continued to use Windows). Rosatom had been switching to Russian IT solutions starting in 2021, but as CNews reported, it had to “take a break” from the switch to continue working with the German-based company management system SAR

The same goes for mobile operating systems. Although state corporation Rostelecom claims it has developed its own OS mobile technology with the promising name Aurora, it is in fact a copy of the Linux-based Sailfish OS by the Finnish company Jolla. Currently, the Russian market for mobile phones is dominated by US-based Google (Android) and Apple (iOS). In December 2021, Android OS held 72% of the mobile market in Russia, while iOS held around 27.5%.

What does “digital sovereignty” imply? 

Both operating systems Astra Linux and Aurora, as Russian and foreign experts explain, are based on open-source codes and repositories, such as GitHub (belongs to Microsoft) and Debian in the case of Astra Linux. When Russian-based coders lose access to these (which might happen because of sanctions), it would hinder any development and updates of these products. 

In any case, Aurora cannot replace Androids for many reasons. To begin with, Aurora does not have the appropriate software to use. It is also impossible to install it on devices other than phones made specifically to use that OS. For example, some of the smartphones used for Aurora include the not-so-very-well-known, to put it mildly, Qtech QMP-M1-N, QMP-M1-N IP68, F+ R570 and Aquarius NS 220. According to Kommersant, by 2020 Rostelecom had full rights to the OS . 

Rostelecom has already announced a plan to produce over 70 million smartphones with Aurora OS by 2030 and create its own “ecosystem” (independent of the Google and Apple stores, supposedly). For that, it secured RUB 480 billion of state funding. This is not impossible for some dictatorships: North Korea has its own smartphones (the only ones available) based on the Fedora Linux OS, named “The Red Star.”
"How Russians, used to an open market of high-tech solutions by both iOS and Android-based smartphones, would be coerced into switching to North Korean-style technology by 2030 remains an open question."
Natalya Kaspersky, a Russian IT entrepreneur, says that a lot of what is made as “Russian” software is, in fact, clones of Western technologies. Source: Wiki Commons
At the end of December, the remaining IT giants, such as the state-controlled part of Yandex, state-owned Sberbank and state-owned VKontakte announced that they would develop a “new” mobile OS based on Android. While this is possible to do, it does not really make Russia’s ultimate goal any more realistic.

While designing a new mobile OS is not a problem since Android is open-code as well, this “system,” in order to restrict access to the global Internet, would be closed to every foreign innovation and used only on specific phones where it would need to be pre-installed.

It surely can generate some more state funding, however, and become a lucrative goal for the IT sector, which is relying on budget funds more and more, producing replicas that are never going to be up to global and open IT market innovations.

So when the Minister of Digital Development Maksut Shadaev states that Russia has achieved “digital sovereignty,” what he means is that the country managed to have all the major Western tech companies leave because of sanctions, and what is left are local replicas. Natalya Kaspersky, President of the InfoWatch Group of companies, herself a direct beneficiary of state budget support for the local IT sector, says that a lot of what is made as “Russian” software is clones of Western technologies.

What about hardware?

The situation with Russian-based hardware is even worse. Attempts at Russian production of processors have been made, but their manufacturing is based on microchips made in Taiwan, which stopped shipping them in 2022 because of sanctions. In December, Chinese authorities also refused to sell Loongson processors to Russia, which, as some IT producers hoped, could replace Intel and AMD in case grey imports are blocked.

“Affordable laptop based on Astra Linux system from the Russian company Unchartevice appears on the market,” was a news headline on December 7. The laptop, the report said, has a 256 GB Samsung Electronics SSD (South Korea) and one 16 GB DDR4 memory stick (South Korea). It is based on an AMD Ryzen 3 3250U processor (USA)).

Another “Russian” company announced it would make an IRBIS laptop based on Intel and AMD processors, assembled in China. The company is part of Lanit Group, which Novaya Gazeta investigated for money laundering in 2017. At that time, the company had received at least RUB 51 billion via state contracts, and its founder Philip Gens (later on his son) has for a long time been on the Forbes Russian billionaires list.

This about summarizes the ability of Russian hardware producers to be technologically independent.

Possibilities for grey imports

In April 2021, the state managed to require that all the smartphone producers have pre-installed Russian applications from a government-approved list – among them, a social media platform, search engine, email service, payment system and maps. Benefiting from this protectionist measure were Yandex, VK, MyOffice (a Russian analogue of Microsoft Office) and Kaspersky (a provider of cybersecurity services). In addition, under the same regulation, desktops and laptops sold in Russia had to be equipped with the Yandex browser, the MyOffice suite and the Kaspersky antivirus program as their standard software.

The regulation provided an additional layer of information control for the state. The Yandex news aggregator was coerced into shaping the desired news agenda, and VK has been under indirect state control since its founder Pavel Durov sold it to Group in 2014, while in 2021 a deal was sealed with Sberbank.

For a short while, every smartphone producer complied (even Apple), which meant there were special “Russian” smartphones shipped into the country. Then, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sanctions were introduced that put an end to this practice.

At the moment, all grey-import of Android phones, apart from some Chinese-made models, do not have pre-installed apps, and neither do Apple smartphones. This goes for desktops and laptops as well. Thus, Russian users have pre-installed default access to Google and its recommendation system, Google Discover, as well as YouTube, maps and other apps. Google Chrome, in addition, has a built-in DNS protocol, which provides anonymized access to information otherwise blocked and monitored by the DPI – deep packet inspection technology – installed by the state at hubs of all internet service providers in the country.
"The large-scale grey-import enables Russia to overcome the restrictions imposed by western sanction. Yet, as long as Russia does not have control over software, 'sovereign Internet' remains an unattainable goal."
Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society is skeptical about the possibility of closing up the Russian internet space. Source: Youtube
Building a splinternet

Up until 2019, Roskomnadzor was blocking content in an unsophisticated manner. It had a list of blocked URLs, which hosts were obliged to remove – if they did not comply, they got blocked by internet service providers (ISPs). It was not a well-functioning or effective scheme. However, as Alyona Epifanova and Philipp Dietrich from the German Council on Foreign Relations describe, things changed in 2019 after the enactment of the so-called Sovereign Internet Law. The law stipulated that ISPs must install DPI at the hubs of internet providers to analyze both data packets and the content of communications. 

The DPI allowed requests of internet users to certain websites to be monitored and certain content to be blocked. Since then, the efficiency of Roskomnadzor’s control has significantly increased: now it can independently limit the speed of access to certain websites and block targeted information without risking major disruption across the RuNet.

For years, Western companies have been enabling Russian government surveillance and information control operations. Just as Nokia provided equipment for the FSB’s monitoring of mobile phone calls, according to a New York Times investigation, US/Canadian company Sandvine sold Russia DPI solutions, according to Bloomberg. While Sandvine has since announced it stopped operating in Russia, it is unclear how long existing technology will last or whether Russia will be able to find a local replacement. 

Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society (and who was declared a “foreign agent” and a fugitive in Russia), however, is skeptical about the possibility of closing up the Russian internet space. “In China, they have been building their multi-layered firewall for years, starting in 2000. Internet penetration in China was no more than 10% until 2007 and there were many legal restrictions. People there wrote official applications for permission to access the Internet in which they pledged not to look at certain sites. And today there are three main telecom operators in China, while in Russia there are 3,500 of them, and everyone has the opportunity to contact a foreign telecom operator, because the entire system in Russia was ‘built’ in the years of relative freedom,” Klimarev explained in an interview with Voice of America

“The economy of Russia is not ‘North Korean,’ but very ‘diversified’ and, one way or another, is tied to the global Internet. Even the fact that Russia is going to circumvent sanctions by buying microcircuits through ‘parallel imports’ will not work without access to the Internet,” he added. 

While experts agree that in the current Yandex deal Arkady Volozh was a loser, being sanctioned by the West and de facto giving up the profitable Yandex operations in Russia, splitting the company might have been the only step he could take. 

"When the whole world is talking about developing information technology which is needed for the future, Russia's leadership does completely the opposite. It damaged everything that was already there, and it made the conditions for working in Russia absolutely impossible," said Alyona Epifanova in an interview with Euronews
"The Russian government is not capable of creating anything truly innovative in the IT sphere without relying on Western parts and technologies."
On the upside, one can only hope that the shortage of imported parts and technologies will undermine the Russian government’s surveillance and censorship.

Besides, Russian government officials are mostly concerned about enriching themselves. Thus, once they have received their slice of the state budget, state-owned companies do not care very much if the products they make using state funding will be viable or effective.

This means that hopefully, no matter how anxious the government is to isolate Russians from the global Internet, it is not likely to succeed.
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