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The Next Russian-Western Battleground Is Online

Russia is hardening the borders of its own internet.

By , a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin votes online.
Russian President Vladimir Putin votes online.
Russian President Vladimir Putin votes online on Sept. 17, 2021. Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

While global attention is focused on the risk of war in Ukraine, there is a more subtle and perhaps no less consequential battle underway between Moscow and the West. That battle has nothing to do with tanks and missiles, yet it may prove to be just as influential in shaping the future standoff between Russia and the West: the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in targeting each other’s information systems and communications platforms.

Of course, the battle between Moscow and the West in the information space is nothing new. The Cold War was the era of samizdat (photocopied texts) and dissident radio broadcasts. Now, there’s Twitter and Telegram. There are the well-known propaganda channels used by Russia to criticize and undermine the West and its partners, such as Ukraine, while Moscow also has hybrid tactics to target various U.S., European, and Ukrainian information systems in terms of cyberattacks, hacks, and the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms like Facebook. To be sure, the West and Ukraine have also made use of such techniques against Russia, whether through official or unofficial channels.

The Russian government thus feels vulnerable to the free flow of information on social media platforms like Facebook and Telegram and, as a result, has attempted to restrict the way they are used. Russia, along with China, has led the call for a state-led internet government system, as opposed to the multistakeholder approach sought by the United States and other democracies. In doing so, Russia, like other authoritarian states, has “acquired (and shared) impressive technical capabilities to filter and control the Internet, and to identify and punish dissenters,” writes sociologist Larry Diamond.

While global attention is focused on the risk of war in Ukraine, there is a more subtle and perhaps no less consequential battle underway between Moscow and the West. That battle has nothing to do with tanks and missiles, yet it may prove to be just as influential in shaping the future standoff between Russia and the West: the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in targeting each other’s information systems and communications platforms.

Of course, the battle between Moscow and the West in the information space is nothing new. The Cold War was the era of samizdat (photocopied texts) and dissident radio broadcasts. Now, there’s Twitter and Telegram. There are the well-known propaganda channels used by Russia to criticize and undermine the West and its partners, such as Ukraine, while Moscow also has hybrid tactics to target various U.S., European, and Ukrainian information systems in terms of cyberattacks, hacks, and the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms like Facebook. To be sure, the West and Ukraine have also made use of such techniques against Russia, whether through official or unofficial channels.

The Russian government thus feels vulnerable to the free flow of information on social media platforms like Facebook and Telegram and, as a result, has attempted to restrict the way they are used. Russia, along with China, has led the call for a state-led internet government system, as opposed to the multistakeholder approach sought by the United States and other democracies. In doing so, Russia, like other authoritarian states, has “acquired (and shared) impressive technical capabilities to filter and control the Internet, and to identify and punish dissenters,” writes sociologist Larry Diamond.

But it’s lagged a long way behind China, which has effectively cut off its own internet from the rest of the world. China’s Great Firewall is a lot higher than its patchy Russian equivalents. Traditionally, that was both a vulnerability and a strength for Russia; while it feared the organization of protests and the free flow of information at home, Russia’s online warriors were also far more used to the global internet environment than their Chinese counterparts and better able to take advantage of the West’s own sore points.

Yet the weaknesses at home were real too. Russia, as a semi-authoritarian system, does not hold free and fair elections and instead has a system in which it manages its results This system makes Russia vulnerable to opposition groups and their use of the internet to organize anti-government activities, such as protests and voting strategies that undermine the Kremlin and ruling United Russia party. There are various information systems that are used for such activities, but the most prominent and effective ones have been social media and communications platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram.

Such information systems can be used not only for Russian nationals living inside of Russia but also by opponents of the Russian government throughout the world. Given U.S. and European Union support for democracy and human rights promotion within Russia as well as geopolitical tensions between Moscow and the West over a variety of issues—from NATO support for Ukraine to Russia meddling in U.S. elections—the Kremlin sees the internet as a tool that can be manipulated by the West to undermine its political position. And the West has indeed used machine-learning techniques to spread anti-government material and help anti-government groups organize on social media platforms within Russia.

Increased Russian worries about Western methods—along with recent protests across Russia and the former Soviet space, the growing appeal of China’s model of technological isolation, and the general stiffening of late Putinism—make the Russian internet of 2022 a very different place from that of the 2010s.

Moscow is hardening its own online borders in return. The Russian government, via state communications regulator Roskomnadzor, has fined companies such as Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete banned content. This includes a variety of materials that are deemed by Russian authorities to be extremist, condoning drug use, or promoting children to take part in anti-government protests. Roskomnadzor has also fined such companies for not storing data of Russian users on local servers. The Russian government has also threatened to block the use of such platforms entirely, including recently raising the potential of blocking YouTube unless it restores channels managed by Russian media companies like RT that are accused of promoting deadly disinformation over issues like COVID-19.

One information monitoring system that could be increasingly important for Russia is MIR-1, which is being developed to automatically search for content that Russia has banned from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and VK. However, a lot of work is necessary to develop such systems, and it is far from guaranteed to succeed. Nevertheless, the MIR-1 system can be seen as one component of Russia’s plans to develop its own “sovereign internet,” or Runet. In 2019, Russia passed legislation, known as the sovereign internet law, in response to what Moscow asserts is the “aggressive nature” of U.S. national cybersecurity strategy. The legislation allows Russian web traffic and data to be routed through points controlled by Russian state authorities and calls for a national domain name system to enable the internet to continue to work in Russia even if the country is cut off from external servers in other countries, such as the United States.

Russia has conducted numerous tests to disconnect itself from the global internet, most recently in June and July 2021. Equipment installed by Roskomnadzor did not achieve a complete disconnect but did enable Russia to slow down the speed of social networks like Twitter, which could ostensibly be used in a scenario where demonstrators are using platforms to organize protests or other actions against the Russian government. Roskomnadzor has also blocked the Smart Voting website and app developed by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny by denying entry points into these systems. In addition, Russia pressured Apple, Google, and Telegram to remove Navalny’s Smart Voting app from their platforms’ app stores just before its parliamentary elections last year, to which they relented.

However, Russia has far less people involved in the censorship business than China does (thousands of people as opposed to millions). Indeed, in China, huge numbers of employees at private companies are involved in government-spurred content management, including a huge arsenal of online control from every level down to local police departments. Like with a lot of the internet, raw human power does a surprising amount of the work.

Looking ahead, Russia can be expected to add new tools to its information systems arsenal. Roskomnadzor has plans to develop two new systems in addition to MIR-1: Oculus, which will search for visual information, and Vepr, which will defend against information threats. These could be utilized by Russia to strengthen its own defenses while Russia could develop further tools to promote the spread of misinformation and disinformation against the West. Russia is thus trying to reengineer the physical infrastructure that underpins the internet, , including the location of hardware, such as routers, and how basic protocols are managed. Part of this is to allow more subtle actions rather than drastic and economically devastating steps like cutting off the internet as a whole, as Kazakhstan briefly did during its recent protests and China did for nearly a year in Xinjiang after violence in 2009.

As Russia and the West develop actions against each other on social media platforms, there are likely to be increasingly creative tactics that Western countries can use to enhance their position. For example, the West could use machine learning to undermine the MIR-1 system. Given that this system is being developed to automatically search for banned content on social media platforms, the West can utilize unsupervised machine learning to identify patterns of any MIR-1 errors or oversights that allow banned content to filter through as well as increase the output of this content.

In the meantime, activists and digital rights groups within Russia, such as Roskomsvoboda, have created initiatives like hackathons, which are designed “to find technical solutions aimed at protecting the rights and realizing the interests of citizens in the digital environment.” There are also tools that Roskomsvoboda are building, such as Censor Tracker, an extension for Google Chrome that can help users bypass Russia’s internet restrictions imposed by Runet. The West can support such tools both directly and indirectly in its efforts to get around the controls that are being implemented by Roskomnadzor. The West can also support the proliferation and use of virtual private networks to allow access to blocked websites and use machine learning to try to circumvent Russian efforts to block those restrictions.

At the same time, the West is likely to utilize creative machine-learning techniques to take the information fight against Russia beyond Russian borders and into the former Soviet space. Social media has been an effective tool that the United States has used against Russia, not only in terms of helping to facilitate opposition groups within Russia but also against pro-Russian governments in the former Soviet Union. This was most notably the case during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, which overthrew then-Ukrainian pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

However, Russia has pushed back against the use of these social media tools for political purposes, and Moscow is helping pro-Russian regimes in countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan fight back against this as well. Russia has tightened control of mobile internet connectivity, especially during sensitive opposition protests in Moscow like those in 2019 prior to regional and local elections. Such countries are implementing growing internet restrictions in a way that resembles Russia’s techniques. For example, Kazakhstan is considering laws to restrict social media companies similar to those in Russia “to protect children’s rights.” The same techniques used to aid the opposition in Russia could be useful in these countries too.

In such ways, competition over the information systems space is likely to increasingly shape the broader geopolitical contention underway between Moscow and the West, regardless of how current tensions shake out. While all eyes are on the military battlefield today, the battle for control of the internet could be no less important in impacting and transforming this standoff in the months and years to come.

Eugene Chausovsky is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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