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Putin’s Iron Firewall Is Porous

Russians can see more of the Ukraine war after three months than we saw during the entire Vietnam war.

In 1946 Winston Churchill declared that Russia had lowered an iron curtain across Europe, and in 2022 Vladimir Putin created an iron firewall between the Russian Internet and media and the rest of the world, but, like its precursor, it is porous. Information wants to be free.

As of May 26, Russia had blocked access to 1,548 domains, including 1,142 news sites and 287 digital-resistance sites. The distribution of domain locales is also skewed—Ukraine 647, the US 523, and Russia 218 are the top three. Given this blocking, it is not surprising that Russians turned to virtual private networks (VPNs).

As shown here, Russian interest in VPNs as measured by Google searches for the term “VPN” has spiked twice. The baseline level is roughly 5% of the peak period after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The earlier spike—26% of the peak—occurred when the US sanctioned Russia for interference in our 2016 election.

Daily downloads of the ten most popular VPNs

Daily downloads of the 10 most popular VPNs also spiked in the days after Russia invaded and Russians are using those VPNs. Psiphon, a popular VPN, averaged 867,400 unique daily users during the twenty days beginning May 2 and it has risen slowly, but steadily since the invasion to 929,000 on May 27 and the users on May 28 made 4,755,000 connections.

Several messaging services are currently unblocked in Russia. The most surprising to me is Telegram which has around 38 million Russian users visiting it at least once a month. If they have the same level of access as I do, they can see Washington Post coverage of the war, President Zelensky’s standing-ovation addresses to parliaments and other important audiences, news and graphic photos, and videos of Russian war crimes. and follow the activities of The Ukrainian IT Army.

When Russia celebrated Victory in Europe Day, an audacious hack occurred. Hackers placed fake stories on Lenta.ru, a popular Russian news site. The hack was quickly discovered and corrected, but not before the Internet Archive backed it up. Below is a Google Translation of a portion of the hacked front page. Note that the hack went beyond the front page—each front-page headline linked to a complete article.

Many Ukrainians speak Russian and have friends and family members in Russia. They can use the Internet to tell their friends and families what they have witnessed, and you can do the same using a messaging service created by Squad 103 a group of Polish programmers.

The service, which sent over 100 million messages in less than two months, allows anyone anywhere in the world to message cellphones and email addresses of random Russian individuals and companies. To send a message, you select a messaging application—SMS, WhatsApp, email, Viber, Telegram, or phone call and write or select an appropriate message.

(I’m not sure how or if it is possible to distinguish between the activity of Squad 103, the Ukrainian IT Army, and Anonymous in Ukraine).

Ukraine is also using facial recognition to identify Russian soldiers who have been captured, killed, or are caught in the act of looting or other war crimes. They follow up by investigating the war crimes and informing the families of dead soldiers. They defend the latter by saying they offer the soldier’s families the possibility of claiming the bodies and fighting Russian propaganda, but they say that is effective in only about 20% of the cases.

I’ve focused on the Internet, but mass media is also vulnerable. The Economist reports that the state controls the country’s television channels, newspapers, and radio stations, giving “guidance” as to what and how to cover. But, despite Putin’s efforts, the truth sometimes appears in mass media.

The sign reads “NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.”

The most theatrical example was when Marina Ovsyannikova, an employee of Russia’s state TV Channel One, interrupted a live newscast with a handwritten No-War poster. She was arrested, but surprisingly, fined $280 and freed. She is now working as a correspondent for the German Die Welt newspaper, reporting from Ukraine and Russia.

Military analyst & retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok surprised fellow panelists by arguing with Olga Skabeyeva, the anchor of Russia’s “60 Minutes” talk-show program. He said the war was going poorly and would get worse, arguing that a million patriotic Ukrainian soldiers were ready to fight to defend their nation while Russian army morale was low, and Russia is geopolitically isolated and Ukraine was well supplied by the west. My favorite moment in the argument is when Khodaryonok invoked the “classics” of Marxism-Leninism in refuting Skabeyeva when she challenged the professionalism of the Ukraine fighters. Two days later, on the same program, Khodaryonok predicted an ultimate Russian victory.

The most innovative mass-media hack occurred on Victory in Europe Day when every program listing in the online TV guide service was changed to read (in translation) “On your hands is the blood of thousands of Ukrainians and their hundreds of murdered children. TV and the authorities are lying. No to war”.

Writing this, I am reminded of the Vietnam war. Criticism of the war was freely available in print and electronic media in the US, and public protests were common. It was nothing like Russia today. But the rate and quality of anti-war information reaching Russia today far exceed those of the Vietnam war.

We saw iconic photographs—a terrified nine-year-old girl running screaming and naked after she was napalmed or the Major General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan calmly shooting a bound prisoner in the head at point-blank range. Equally disturbing photos from Ukraine are posted to Telegram every day. We eventually learned of the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam, but Russians can see Mariupol and Bucha today. (Do a Google Image search for Bucha atrocity or go to President Zelensky’s Telegram channel and search for Bucha).

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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