West Seeks to Pierce Russia’s Digital Iron Curtain

Governments and media sites are finding creative ways to get the truth about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war to regular Russians.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
People in Moscow check their phones for information in the days after Russias's invasion of Ukraine.
People in Moscow check their phones for information in the days after Russias's invasion of Ukraine.
People in Moscow check their phones on March 3, 2022. Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As Russian forces lay siege to Ukrainian cities and Russian atrocities continue to mount—including a missile strike Friday targeting fleeing refugees in eastern Ukraine that killed at least 30 people—the Kremlin is waging an information war on the home front as it seeks to control the narrative about its invasion of neighboring Ukraine. 

Russia’s last remaining independent media outlets in the country were forced into closure or exile and much of the foreign press corps decamped abroad as a new law signed last month effectively criminalized reporting on the conflict, banning the use of the words “war” or “invasion.” 

As a digital iron curtain descends on Russia, Western governments and free press advocates are scrambling for ways to punch through it and reach average Russians with accurate reporting on the war—in methods that vary from the creative to the high tech to the antiquated.

As Russian forces lay siege to Ukrainian cities and Russian atrocities continue to mount—including a missile strike Friday targeting fleeing refugees in eastern Ukraine that killed at least 30 people—the Kremlin is waging an information war on the home front as it seeks to control the narrative about its invasion of neighboring Ukraine. 

Russia’s last remaining independent media outlets in the country were forced into closure or exile and much of the foreign press corps decamped abroad as a new law signed last month effectively criminalized reporting on the conflict, banning the use of the words “war” or “invasion.” 

As a digital iron curtain descends on Russia, Western governments and free press advocates are scrambling for ways to punch through it and reach average Russians with accurate reporting on the war—in methods that vary from the creative to the high tech to the antiquated.

Major Western media outlets are publishing their stories on Telegram, a popular messaging app in Russia that hasn’t been banned. The free media advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders set up a system allowing Russians to access independent news if they type Russia’s constantly changing national lottery numbers into Twitter’s search bar, a move that redirects them to mirrored news sites blocked by the Russian government.

There’s even a push among some U.S. broadcasting officials to revive Cold War-era radio infrastructure to beam U.S.-funded media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, into Russia for any Russians with shortwave radios.

We will, just as we always have, continue to share the truth with the people of Russia, using all tools at our disposal to help them understand the truth about what their government is doing, purportedly in their name,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing last week. 

That effort is made more urgent by the fact that Russian journalists are fleeing the country en masse amid the Russian government’s sweeping crackdown on dissent and protests. More than 150 Russian journalists have left the country, according to the independent news site Agentstvo, fearing that they could be targeted under new Russian laws that carry up to 15 years imprisonment for spreading “fake” news about the Russian military.

In practice, the laws would likely be applied to journalists who present factual coverage of the war, where the Russian advance in Ukraine’s north all but disintegrated in the face of poor military training and fierce resistance from outmanned and outgunned Ukrainians. With the country’s last remaining independent news sites blocked or forced to suspend their operations entirely, many are now trying to figure out how to continue their operations in exile from abroad. 

“As long as there’s social media available in Russia, whether independent journalists are inside Russia or outside Russia doesn’t make a big difference,” said Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, which supports independent Russian-language journalism throughout the region. “It might even be easier for them to operate because you have a more welcoming and stable environment,” she said. One of Russia’s most successful independent media sites, Meduza, has been based in Latvia since its launch in 2014. 

Although state television has long been the primary news source for most Russians, a handful of news sites and broadcasters continue to provide independent reporting and investigations despite routine threats and harassment from the authorities. Foreign media went about their work largely unencumbered. 

“When I left Russia, you still had a number of bastions of free press,” said Mikko Hautala, the Finnish ambassador to the United States, who previously served as ambassador to Russia until 2020. “They were not widely read, but they were of high quality. They were truly critical, but now these have basically been lost.”

Many Russians have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the internet blocks. Data shared with Foreign Policy by analytics firm Apptopia revealed that in January, daily downloads of the most popular VPN apps in Russia averaged around 15,000. That number surged to just over 400,000 after the war began. (Twelve of the top 20 apps downloaded in Russia last month were VPNs, according to Fast Company.)

Unlike in China, where government censorship watchdogs’ construction of the “Great Firewall” has largely kept pace with the development of the internet, the Russian authorities were slow to clamp down on the internet. Consequently, a thriving “digital rights and internet freedom community” has taken root, said Nat Kretchun, senior vice president for programs at the Open Technology Fund, a congressionally authorized and funded nonprofit organization that supports internet freedom worldwide. 

In recent years, the Kremlin has relied on legal harassment of a handful of social media users and activists, in the hopes of encouraging others to self-censor, as opposed to blocking websites en masse. All that changed after the war began. “In the wake of the invasion, there was a rapid ramp up to technical censorship,” Kretchun said. 

In the weeks after the invasion, Russia blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, along with several prominent independent Russian news sites, including Meduza and Mediazona. The BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) were also blocked by Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor, which claimed they were spreading false information about the war. 

However, after decades of uncensored access to the web, Russian internet users noticed the difference. “In China, you have to find a way to tell people that such content exists, and then they attempt to access it. In Russia, they suddenly can’t access content that was available to them yesterday,” Kretchun said. 

Despite Moscow’s efforts to block access to RFE/RL, the site reported a significant increase in traffic to their website, according to data shared with Foreign Policy. During the first four weeks of the war, views of RFE/RL’s YouTube videos more than tripled while the number of unique visitors to the broadcaster’s website increased by 40 percent. 

“Our numbers are still at much higher levels than they were before the war, even with the blocking, and it just shows that there is extreme interest in coverage of the war,” said Jamie Fly, president of RFE/RL. Similarly in Belarus, where RFE/RL has been branded an “extremist organization,” views on YouTube have quadrupled since the start of the war. 

To get around the digital blockage, RFE/RL, which is funded by Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, has set up “mirror” versions of all of its websites—complete copies of the sites hosted at different URLs—and offers a series of apps available to download with built-in VPNs. They are also providing audiences with instructions on where to go and how to reach their content using anti-censorship technologies. 

Despite banning other social media sites, YouTube and Telegram—two of the platforms most used by independent outlets to distribute their content—continue to operate. “The biggest question is how far can Russia go to control the internet, and it looks like for the moment that they don’t have a replacement for YouTube,” said Lanskoy with the National Endowment for Democracy. It’s unclear how long YouTube’s grace period in Russia will last. On Thursday, Russia’s media regulator accused the platform of spreading fake news and announced plans to ban advertising on the video-sharing site. 

A European diplomat said the question of how to get independent information into Russia amid the crackdown had been the subject of some discussion between the United States and its allies in Europe. In March, the U.K. government announced a 4.1 million pound (or $5.3 million) funding boost to the BBC World Service to support its Ukrainian- and Russian-language services as well as help counter Russian disinformation about the war. During World War II, the BBC famously continued broadcasting to Nazi-occupied Europe.

“In scenes reminiscent of 80 years ago, the BBC will ensure that audiences in the region can continue to access independent news reporting in the face of systemic propaganda from a dictator waging war on European soil,” said British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. “It’s vital we lift the veil on and expose the barbaric actions of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s forces.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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