How ‘sovereign’ is Russia’s internet?

What Russia’s confrontations with US platforms tell us about the limits to digital sovereignty

Mariëlle Wijermars
Russia is an outspoken proponent of reaffirming state sovereignty over the Internet. Yet, the reality of Russia’s ‘sovereign internet’ is more complicated than headlines about a ‘digital Iron Curtain’ would suggest.

Russia’s ‘sovereign’ internet

Russia has long worried about the vulnerabilities that result from dependence on foreign, and especially American, digital technologies. In 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin famously referred to the internet as a “CIA project,” reflecting fears that the US may use its centrality to interfere with the functioning of the Russian internet. Russia has also frequently clashed with US platform companies, such as Meta and (then) Twitter, over their refusal to (fully) comply with Russian requests to censor accounts and content.

Many states are to a high degree dependent on foreign providers of hardware, software and services. The dominance of a limited number of technology companies is particularly evident when it comes to online platforms, such as social media, where American and (to a lesser extent) Chinese platforms and apps have managed to secure massive global audiences. In line with the current geopoliticization of digital technologies, such as 5G and AI, the global dominance of a select number of platform companies has come to be seen as a vulnerability, or even threat, that requires a strong policy response. For example, fears that states may seek to ‘weaponize’ these interdependencies are an important driving force behind the European Union’s Open Strategic Autonomy agenda.

In Russia, a set of amendments to Russian Federal laws adopted in 2019, and commonly referred to as the ‘Sovereign Internet Law,’ aimed to establish centralized governmental control and make it possible for the Russian internet to function independently from the global Internet in case of an external threat to its integrity. Among other measures, the law obligated internet service providers to install government-provided devices that enable sophisticated Internet filtering (so-called Deep Packet Inspection, or DPI). Reducing dependence on foreign suppliers of hardware and software through import substitution has also been a policy priority (though, in part, unsuccessful).

While it is often suggested that Russia aims to emulate the Chinese Internet, the comparison is misleading since it ignores important aspects of how Russia’s Internet and tech industry developed. The high degree of industry development, with domestic technology companies such Yandex and VK dominating various market segments, has led to an easy acceptance of the idea that Russia could, indeed, simply ‘disconnect’. However, Russia’s internet has always been closely intertwined with the global internet, in ways that now prove hard to disentangle.

Clashes between Russia and US platform companies

Increasing state control over online platforms in order to strengthen Russia’s capacity to censor online speech has been an important element of this broader digital sovereignty agenda. As the regime itself turned more repressive – most notably with the poisoning and subsequent arrest of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny in 2021 – Russia’s confrontations with Western social media over content moderation also began to escalate. During the parliamentary elections that year, Russia successfully pressured Apple and Google into removing a strategic voting app, created by Navalny’s associates, from their app stores after accusing the platforms of engaging in election interference.

The way Russia handled this case is instructive: the US ambassador was called in by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive complaints about the platforms’ failure to comply with Russian demands to have the voting app removed. Meanwhile, representatives of Google and Apple were summoned to appear before Russian senators of the Special Committee of the Federation Council devoted to Russian sovereignty. In short: from the Russian perspective, US private companies were acting on behalf of the US government with the aim of meddling in the elections.

The fact that Western platforms were still available in Russia, despite dragging their feet in terms of complying with Russia’s increasingly restrictive internet legislation, indeed, is a key difference between Russia and China. It was only after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, that Russia employed its enhanced censoring capacities to block Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as part of the imposition of far-reaching wartime censorship. At the same time, YouTube, Telegram and Whatsapp remain available to this day. The latter is particularly puzzling since Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, was designated an extremist organization and two out of three platforms were blocked precisely on this ground.

Why were some Western platforms blocked, but not others? If, indeed, the motivation behind the platform bans was to prevent Russians from accessing independent information about Russia’s war against Ukraine, the continued availability of YouTube and Telegram greatly undermines this effort. For example, Russian independent media, which now largely operate from exile, have reoriented towards these platforms to continue to reach Russian audiences after their websites were blocked in Russia.

Obstacles to Russia’s pursuit of a sovereign Internet

Russia’s confrontations with US online platforms and the pattern of blocking some, but not others, illustrates the obstacles to Russia’s pursuit of a ‘sovereign’ Internet. These result, on the one hand, from infrastructural interdependencies and, on the other hand, from the logics of the platform economy. For example, experts agree that an important component in Russia’s hesitance to block YouTube (despite numerous threats to do so) lies in the risks associated with other products and services of YouTube’s parent company, Google. For example, 70% of mobile phones in Russia continue to run on Google’s Android mobile operating system, while Apple’s iOS makes up for most of the remaining market share. Progress on the development of a fully fledged Russian operating system remains slow, despite the political recognition of its urgency.

Developing a Russian alternative to YouTube and enticing Russian users to migrate to it has proven equally challenging. For example, there has been political commitment to turning video-hosting platform Rutube, that was created in 2006 and since 2020 is controlled by state-owned Gazprom Media Holding, into a success. This included offering influencers sizeable sums for moving their content from YouTube to Rutube. YouTube’s suspension of advertising and monetization in Russia in March 2022, in response to the sanctions imposed on Russia over the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, was thought to incentivize popular channels to switch to Russian platforms: without monetization, their revenues would now dry up.

In an extended interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, the general director of RuTube, Aleksandr Moiseev, explained how the major challenge of competing with YouTube was, in fact, advertising and monetization – but in a rather paradoxical way. Moiseev explained: “Those who watch YouTube, suddenly got ‘premium’ accounts because if there is no monetization for creators, there are also no ads for viewers. The competition has become more difficult: we want to show advertising so that bloggers can earn money, but on YouTube there is no advertising. Of course, YouTube is convenient for the viewer at this moment. Struggling to compete with YouTube, RuTube even disabled ads before videos (though keeping them in the middle and the end) in early 2023.

These examples demonstrate how, notwithstanding Russia’s highly developed domestic tech industry and political sense of urgency, Russia is limited in how it can respond to (perceived) vulnerabilities in relation to foreign tech and platforms. Its possible courses of action are conditioned by the complexity of today’s digital infrastructures and the dynamics of platform economies.


The Russian case is instructive precisely because Russia has been at the forefront of advocating a strengthening of state sovereignty in the digital domain, also in international fora. While some dimensions are very particular to Russia – especially the complicated impact of the imposition of sanctions and the decision of a multitude of technology companies to leave the Russian market in 2022 – it demonstrates the complexity (and to some extent, impossibility) of becoming ‘sovereign’. The divestment of Yandex N.V.’s Russian assets, including the popular Yandex search engine that was announced in February 2024 further highlights how we should avoid thinking in simplistic terms about technology companies’ ‘origins’. Technology companies, including Yandex and its parent company registered in the Netherlands, need scale and access to capital to operate and maintain their innovative capacity. Russia’s tech industry, it turns out, was never really Russian to begin with. In that, Russia offers us a case study that is more insightful for understanding the ability of the (autocratic) states to reduce complex dependency relations, than does China. Similarly, it is an instructive case that should be studied in all its nuances if we seek to understand the potential for such interdependence to be leveraged for political ends.

Header photo: / Mila Larson

This work has been funded by the REMIT project, funded from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101094228.

Dr Mariëlle Wijermars is an Assistant Professor in Cyber-Security and Politics at Maastricht University.