Among Joe Biden’s options to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine are disruptive cyberattacks—the kind that Russia itself often unleashes on other countries. Even more broadly, sanctions experts have discussed the possibility of cutting countries off from the global internet entirely, the way governments do to stifle unrest in domestic regions.
But Russia has been preparing for precisely this kind of contingency for the last half-decade. In 2019, Vladimir Putin signed a Sovereign Internet Law, which gives the Russian government more control over internet content but also to counteract threats to the stability and security of the internet in the country. On three instances, most recently last summer, Russia disconnected itself from the internet so that it could perform tests on Runet, a locally based network designed to step in to serve web pages in the event of a cyberattack or a deliberate outage, said Karen Kazaryn, the director of the Internet Research Institute in Moscow.
The infrastructure of the internet is huge and complex, so cutting off a whole country’s internet isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Some countries, though, are easier to target than others. In 2012, a web monitoring firm named Renesys used the number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in a country as a proxy to determine how easy or difficult it would be to isolate its internet. Greenland, Mali, and Turkmenistan, for instance, were relatively vulnerable. Russia, like the US or Canada, were dubbed “resistant” to such deliberate outages.
“Still, there could be hidden centralizations,” said Jim Cowie, who co-founded Renesys and is now the chief data scientist at DeepMacro, a research firm. “For example, Russia could have 20 ISPs but their traffic could all be traveling on the same fiber optic cable, so targeting the cable would turn the whole thing off.” In the sanctions realm, such discussions happen, Cowie said, but they don’t lead anywhere. “Traditionally, there are some things left out of sanctions considerations on humanitarian grounds, so in the olden days, for instance, you never targeted the telegraph service or the post or telephone systems,” he said. He pointed to the US Treasury Department’s order on Feb. 21, which exempted telecommunications services from sanctions.
Still, if Russia’s internet capacities are themselves the problem—if its hackers continue using cyberattacks as a form of warfare—then counter-attacking its internet would be a logical strategy. Russia knows this too. After the Runet tests last year, Russian officials said that they had to be “ready for anything” given the “aggressive nature” of US cyber strategy.
The concept of a sovereign internet isn’t technically ludicrous, Cowie said, but in a country with a lot of internet diversity—lots of ISPs, users, and connectivity—it can take a long while to establish. And a government would have to be sure, he said, “that it didn’t have anything essential that was dependent on the global internet. Like, say, a government services web site that was hosted on a cloud server sitting in London.”
Russia conducted its first test of an isolated internet in 2017, Kazaryn said: a process that involved sequentially disconnecting major telecom firms and ISPs from the global internet. Kazaryn described both the contingencies and the aims that these exercises are designed for. If major internet servers are instructed to stop serving web pages with the Russian .ru domain, he said, Russian companies have to be ready to pick up and serve, with minimal delays, cached copies of those pages. “Russia wants to store not web pages themselves, but information about where the web pages are located,” he said. It is like recreating the infrastructure of the internet via back-ups, using local servers, he said.
To Cowie’s knowledge, Russia has only ever disconnected its internet in stages, rather than in its entirety. “There are a lot of people who are interested in internet measurement, who were waiting to see if that happened, but it didn’t,” he said. “They must have just had their fingers on hundreds of switches, as a way of convincing regulators that it’s possible if it’s needed.”