For decades during the Cold War, the Soviet Union erected what British leader Winston Churchill called the “Iron Curtain” around communist Russia and its eastern and central European allies. The Berlin Wall was only its most visible physical manifestation. The most important element was control over information. Russia destroyed a free press, tightly managed speech, and clamped down on unauthorized protests, effectively sealing off Soviet states from Western influence that might undermine its rule.
This worked, for a time. But the Soviet empire finally crumbled in the 1990s, what Russian President Vladimir Putin later called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Today, three decades later, the Russian government is once again cutting its citizens off from the rest of the world. Decades of rising repression in Russia have culminated in its most draconian controls on information since the fall of the USSR.
Almost every independent media outlet in Russia has been shuttered. Russian television, where most people get their news, is now exclusively state propaganda. The country’s internet regulators have banned access to news websites and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Russians now rely on virtual private networks, or VPNs, to reach much of the outside world.
Laws are changing too. A new bill, passed in March, criminalizes spreading “knowingly false information,” about the Russian military such as calling the invasion of Ukraine anything but a “special military operation” as well as anything the government deems misinformation. The law has caused web-based services like Netflix and TikTok, and news organizations including The New York Times, to shutter operations in Russia. On March 11, Russia arrested the first foreigner, a Colombian citizen, under the fake news law.
If Russia succeeds in building what some call a “digital iron curtain,” the country can only hope to emulate China’s Great Firewall, a largely impermeable, censored, and monitored internet that operates at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.
But experts say Russia’s digital blockade is far less effective than what Putin and the Kremlin would like. While China has spent decades and enormous resources on its firewall, Russia’s attempt to build an internet of its own, cut off from the rest of the world, has been haphazard and relatively ineffective. As Russia attempts to impose even greater restrictions on its citizens, it is unlikely to replicate China’s success.
Putin has repeatedly criticized the global internet, famously calling it a “CIA project” in 2014. Since then, Russia has been preparing for foreign sanctions and even cyberattacks on its domestic internet, while tightening its control over the digital sphere. In 2019, Putin signed the Sovereign Internet Law, which gave the Russian government greater powers to restrict the Russian web. The government even “unplugged” itself from the global internet on three different occasions in recent years to test its local network resilience.
But the Russian government has also shown it isn’t yet technologically capable of blocking citizens’ access to some of the most popular online apps. It repeatedly failed to block Telegram, the popular messaging app, because its management repeatedly disguised web traffic to evade Russian censors. Russia gave up and lifted its ban in 2020. In 2021, the Russian government tried to slow down traffic to Twitter and in doing so accidentally disrupted any site with t.co in the web address, including reddit.com and microsoft.com.
The Russian government struggles with the technical challenges of limiting internet access. Primarily, it lacks the infrastructure that China uses to exert control over almost everything its 1.4 billion citizens can see online in the country. In China, the government dictated the deployment of digital infrastructure nearly from the outset. By the early 2000s, the regime had developed technology that allowed it to inspect data sent at every layer of the internet, blocking IP addresses, and restricting domain names. And the state owned every major internet service provider.
“When the internet first came to China, there were four—maybe five—core internet backbones all owned by the state,” said Justin Sherman, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s cyber statecraft initiative. “In Russia right now, you have hundreds if not thousands of different internet providers and, topologically, it’s an extremely diffuse internet network in Russia.” This decentralized landscape makes it difficult for Russia to filter traffic in and out of the country.
Bureaucratic failures have also hindered Russian attempts at internet control, Sherman added. Laws governing what information can enter and exit Russia’s virtual borders are often ignored. A 2014 data localization law has been largely ignored by foreign companies who would rather pay small fines than comply. Additionally, a provision of the 2019 internet law, which compels service providers to install deep packet inspection (DPI) software, a traffic monitoring tool, has been largely unsuccessful.
China imposes extreme penalties on companies—though many are state-run—if they don’t comply with internet laws, and uses its immense market power as leverage against foreign companies who wish to operate inside of its digital borders. In order to operate in China, the US tech giant Apple routinely complies with Chinese requests to store data locally and remove software from App Store its at the government’s request. While Russia has comprehensive laws set up to restrict the internet, the Kremlin has not made it a priority to enforce them.
Although Russia lacks China’s economic clout, it may soon emulate its crackdown on dissent against companies and citizens. The laws to do so are already in place. “In the coming weeks and months and years, to some extent, all that needs to change is the Russian government deciding this is now a priority,” Sherman said.
If it does, Russia will struggle to wield the technical expertise China has mastered as the world’s largest surveillance state, home to some of the world’s largest tech giants like Baidu (China’s Google) to Alibaba (China’s Amazon).
Many of Russia’s top tech talent has already emigrated from the country, and its digital service providers, especially social media, have not been very successful compared to western companies, says Adam Segal, the digital of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Of the top 15 social media and messaging services operating in Russia, only two are homegrown, according to one count in 2021 published by Statista (V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki and are Russian-based; Telegram is popular but now operates from the United Arab Emirates).
“The Russians are trying to get more people to use Russian social media,” Segal said, “but they’re just nowhere as technologically competitive as the Chinese [platforms] are.”
Russia’s internet limits have more to do with Putin’s bid for power than an ideological war. By controlling domestic information, especially about the costly war in Ukraine, Putin likely believes he can insulate himself from dissent and threats to his power. Since Russians still largely rely on television for their news, which is almost entirely state-run or controlled by Kremlin allies, that seems to be working. A recent survey from the Levada Center, the independent Russian polling organization, shows that 83% of Russians support Putin as of March, a 12-point bump since before the invasion started in February.
But outside news will seep across Russia’s border no matter how hard it tries to stop it. While China has cracked down on VPN use, they are extremely popular in Russia and, as of March, comprised 8 of the top 10 most-downloaded apps on Russian app stores. Segal says the Russian internet has always been much “more porous” than the original Iron Curtain. Sherman thinks that Putin’s motivation today is mainly maintaining his grip on power within Russia, not the previous generation’s ideological struggle between communism and capitalism.
“Vladimir Putin has a Cold War mindset, but he does not want to return to the Cold War,” says Sherman. “He wants to return Russia to global superpower status, but the Kremlin does not see the modern balance of power as an ideological struggle à la an Iron Curtain. It’s more realpolitik—competition for power, and survival”