Russia’s entire existence of late has been one of “in case of emergency, break glass.” Those little boxes of emergency breaks and window busters seen on buses and trains are, metaphorically at least, all over the place in Moscow. And now that Senator Lindsey Graham had his “sanctions bill from hell” passed in the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, the only thing Russia’s economy can do is brace for the worse.
On Thursday, Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development and Communications told telecom operators that they will run a test on December 23 on internet security.
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A law backing a Russian-controlled internet has been in place for some time. Russia is giving the idea another test drive in light of the fact that relations with the West are not improving.
“The tests will be carried out only on selected segments (of the internet) and ordinary users will not notice,” Ministry spokesman Yevgeny Novikov told Vedomosti on Thursday.
Making the switch to a “sovereign internet” is based on concerns that Western governments may one day move to block Russian access to cyberspace. The December test is not necessarily a test of a closed Russian system but seems to be more of a means to check vulnerabilities in Russian digital telecom systems should it need to protect itself from a clog in a central artery someday.
The testing will be conducted across government agencies. The Ministry of Communications, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Energy, the Federal Security Service, Rosguard and Rostelecom are all involved. Private telecom firms Vimpelcom, MTS and Megafon as well as cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab are participating.
One stated objective includes checking the possibility of bad actors intercepting Russian internet user data. The Ministry of Communications calls the exercise “research,” emphasizing that Russia is not closing itself off to the outside world just yet.
However, Russian government officials have said on occasion that it needed a more secure internet, one not beholden to U.S. tech.
There is still no government decree calling for the creation of a Russian Internet, as well as no by-laws specifying where the equipment to build it should come from.
A similar safety testing exercise was conducted in 2014.
An amended law on Russia’s internet security entered into force on November 1. It obliges telecom operators to only install equipment that the Russian version of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Roskomnadzor, has approved.
Roskomnadzor would be in charge of centrally managing the routing of traffic in the event of a threat to a RuNet system. They would also filter traffic and block access to resources included in the list of officially banned websites, making it more of a China-like internet in the future if the Kremlin feels its access is threatened by Washington.
The U.S. has two Senate bills targeting Russia for additional sanctions. The bills, sponsored by the likes of bipartisan Russia hawks Graham, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, do not target Russian digital communications systems.
There has been talk of removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system, but that is unlikely to pass muster with U.S. international banks.
On Thursday, the EU Council said it extended its sanctions against certain sectors of the Russian economy until July 31, 2020. The decision to extend the sanctions was taken at the EU summit on December 12.
The statement blamed the Russia-Ukraine disagreement on the year’s old Minsk Accord, an agreement that also requires action from Ukraine and not just Russia.
“Given that the Minsk agreements are not fully implemented, the European Council unanimously adopted a political decision to resume economic sanctions against Russia,” the statement said.
The sanctions target financial, energy and defense firms, as well as bans on Russian state-owned companies like Sberbak and Gazprom from accessing European capital markets.
Ironically, in a nod to Washington, Europe continues with its ban on selling certain oil and gas drilling equipment to Russia in order to punish the big state-run energy producers. Meanwhile, Germany is playing a lead role in Nord Stream II, a gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea that Ukraine says is a potential death blow to it ever returning to being an important transit route for Gazprom gas into Europe.
The duration of Europe’s sanctions extension remains linked “to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
Russia is right to believe these sanctions will never come off, simply because the Minsk deal is not something they control entirely. Even if they stopped supporting ethnic Russian separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, who is to say Brussels would believe them?
Russia is also interested in keeping Ukraine in a separatist imbroglio because it makes it impossible for the former Soviet sister nation to join NATO under such circumstances.
As far as further sanctions from the U.S., Rubio’s sanctions go into effect only if Russia is discovered to have meddled in the 2020 election. The Kremlin’s view is that Washington is making up the story about Russian involvement in the hacking of DNC email servers, and spreading pro-Trump political ads on social media for political purposes. Assuming they believe Washington is making things up for domestic and geopolitical gain, then they should also believe Washington can do it again in 2020.
Russia would be assumed guilty, no matter what its government said.
The risk of harsher sanctions remain because of this and that will keep Russia on emergency footing. With regards to its access to the internet, something no one in Washington has ever seriously discussed about restricting, Russia’s government could find it has a reason to protect Russian cyberspace by making it look more Chinese than European. Oddly enough, such restrictions on individual freedoms might even end up giving Washington another reason to roast Russia.