Digital sanctions against Russia and geopolitization of the Internet
SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 63 by Ewa Dąbrowska
№ 63/2022 from Dec 19, 2022
As a reaction to the Russian assault on Ukraine, digital sanctions leading to a partial or complete disconnection of Russia from the Internet were a discussed option. Although such sanctions did not materialize, Dr. Ewa Dąbrowska argues, the situation provoked multiple Internet actors to assume positions in favor of or against geopolitization and fragmentation of the Internet.
Before the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Russia was an illiberal regime that was integrated in the liberal world economy and was connected to the Internet, benefitting from its efficiencies. At the same time, Russia has been working towards a nationally governable Internet for several years, one that could be turned off during crises, in its perception that the “borderless” character of the Internet serves as a threat to its sovereignty and regime survival. Despite these efforts, Russia would not want that its Internet is turned off from outside, which was an idea discussed at the beginning of the war to punish Russia for attacking Ukraine.
On February 28th, the Ukrainian government requested the US-based organization that regulates Internet addresses, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to forbid Russia to use its domain names, which would turn off .ru-, .рф- and .su-pages from the Internet.  In addition, it pleaded to revoke SSL certificates and disable DNS root servers in St Petersburg and Moscow.  The same request was sent to the Réseaux IP Européen Network Coordination Center (RIPE NCC) in Amsterdam that is responsible to allocation of IP and Autonomous System numbers in Europe and its neighborhood. 
At the same time, global platforms, such as Alphabet (Google) or Meta (Facebook), restricted access to their services for Russian citizens, following the spirit of Western sanctions. Apart from that, Apple and Google banned their digital payment apps for Russians, hampering their access to many Internet services. 
Other private companies were drivers of partial decoupling of Russia from the global Internet, too. Cogent and Lumen, two out of three Internet backbone services companies that had served the Russian market, stopped their business activities there. Lumen simply cited security reasons behind such a decision, but its (geo-)political dimension was latently present, too, just as in the case of Cogent. Software companies, such as Microsoft and SAP, stopped selling their products in Russia.
This host of actions in response to Russia’s aggression, from Ukraine’s requests to the ICANN and RIPE NCC, to Western companies departures from the Russian market, from sanctions on imports of technology by Russia, bans on Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik in the US and Europe, to the exclusion of Russia from the Council of Europe and the European Broadcasting Union, has provoked debates about a potential emergence of a so-called “Splinternet”. As the term suggests, the Internet could “splinter” into a number of national or regional Internets using incompatible technological standards, including protocols, and being governed by different bodies. The discussion about “Splinternet” started years before the full-fledged war in Ukraine. China, Iran, Russia, Egypt and other countries have been installing regulations that would enable these countries to decouple from the global internet and to have national “internets” in place should their security situation necessitate that. The dynamics of sanctions against Russia have only increased the likelihood of such separate internet systems.
In the effort to prevent such development, Internet governance organizations, ICANN and RIPE NCC in particular, refused to undertake any sanctions against Russia. The Internet being regulated not just by governments, but by multi-stakeholder governance including non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental institutions, private companies and academic bodies, ICANN and RIPE NCC made sure to remain trustworthy as neutral organizations and chose not to risk disrupting the global internet. That decision stemmed in part from the fact that Ukraine’s request exceeded the competences of both organizations and thus they could not take such decisions unilaterally. Though perceived by Russia and other countries as still affiliated with the United States, the ICANN attempts to preserve neutrality. Moreover, it upholds the principle of open Internet, whereby the Internet should be accessible to all actors and organizations in all countries without barriers to entry, censorship, incompatible technological standards and with all traffic treated equally. RIPE NCC is not associated with any national government, nor is it perceived as such, and adheres likewise to the principles of Internet neutrality and openness.
Despite reactions of ICANN and RIPE NCC a number of civil society and internet governance organizations feared that disconnection of Russia from the Internet is still on the table and undertook action to prevent such measures. Organizations, such as Access Now, Freedom House, Human Rights Foundation, Human Rights Watch, PEN America, Reporters without Borders, Wikimedia Foundation, and others, have signed a letter to US President Joe Biden, asking him to forego restrictions on Russians’ access to the Internet. A number of experts working for ICANN, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Institute for Security and Technology, and other organizations have written a statement in which they condemned broad digital sanctions against Russia and spoke in favor of carefully designed sanctions against Russia’s military and propaganda agencies. The Internet Society criticized even the behavior of network providers Cogent and Luman, showing numerous ways how their exit might exacerbate Russia’s digital isolation. In sum, these organizations have refused to abandon ideas of internet neutrality and in some cases the perception of the internet as a force for good.
In this context it is surprising that private companies of all actors were so eager to breach this neutrality principle. In fact, the American-Chinese rivalry over technological superiority paved the way for this development. Meta (Facebook) claimed to represent and promote American values and American national interest in the world at the time as the US-government was forbidding Chinese apps on the US-market.
Apart from platforms behavior, however, global voices encouraging to decouple Russia digitally have become rare. On the official level, the United States, the EU, and 33 other countries issued a statement on April 28 about the “Future of the Internet” in which they advocate a free and open Internet that is devoted to the promotion of human rights, democracy and competition. Russia’s assault on Ukraine, including its infrastructure, is mentioned as increasing the risk of Internet fragmentation, and the signatories vaguely commit to action to decrease this risk. This could be read as a wish to abstain from further sanctions in the digital domain.
But the geopolitical logic remains connected to technology. As suggested by the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, Western governments are likely to treat the continuing presence of Western technologies in Russia as a chance to obtain sensitive information from the Russian government or to influence its behavior. Furthermore, promotion of the Internet as a force for good – human rights, democracy, and competition – is geopolitical in itself, since many powers, including Russia, do not approve such an agenda. They will further struggle to ensure political sovereignty and regime survival while remaining connected to the, increasingly regulated, Internet.
Mueller, Milton (2017), Will the Internet Fragment?: Sovereignty, Globalization and Cyberspace. Cambridge: Polity.
Soldatov, Andrei; Borogan, Irina (2017), The Red Web. The Kremlin’s Wars on the Internet. New York City: Public Affairs.
 ICANN is a California-based non-profit organization regulating Internet Protocol numbers and the global Domain Name System (DNS), which took over Internet regulation functions from the US-government in 1998.
 SSL certificates enable Internet sites to move from http to https, a more secure protocol. DNS root servers convert domain names into IP addresses.
 Autonomous System is a set of IP prefixes with a clear routing policy that is managed by one or many network operators. Each Autonomous System has a number. Currently, there are more than 100.000 Autonomous System numbers.
 According to the recently convened Internet Governance Forum, the user experience is an important dimension of Internet fragmentation.
Dr. Ewa Dąbrowska is a post-doctoral researcher at the SCRIPTS Excellence Cluster in the project “War in Ukraine, Russia’s potential decoupling from the global internet and thechanging perspective of emerging powers on internet and data governance”. She wrote her PhD on ideational change in Russian economic policy.