Russia’s attempt to block independent news of its war in Ukraine has been met with a surge in digital circumvention tools.
Digital freedom groups report increasing use of VPNs and secure communication apps like Telegram as foreign media have evacuated their staff or suspended operations in Moscow and Russia’s media regulator has sought to block local sources of news.
With speculation that President Vladimir Putin may go further and cut Russia off from the global internet, some groups are investigating a return to shortwave radio — a medium more commonly associated with the Cold War era.
Even by Russia’s heavy-handed censorship standards, recent weeks have seen an unprecedented censorship campaign unleashed on the free press and on the free flow of information following the army’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The major challenge that the Kremlin is facing today is to protect the legitimacy of this war,” says Gregory Asmolov, a Russian-born lecturer at the Digital Humanities Department of King’s College London.
Asmolov has been studying the effects of propaganda in the digital age and expects the suppression of independent media only to increase in Russia in the immediate future.
“It is obvious that the Russian authorities have already lost the information battle outside of Russia. But internally, it is still a very sensitive matter. That’s why they need to control the narrative of the conflict,” he said.
Amid crackdown, a scramble to retain access to truthful news
Responding to the government’s draconian measures to curb their freedoms, many Russian citizens started searching for circumvention tools such as VPNs or “virtual private networks” that allow people to overcome some digital blocks so they can access their usual sources of information online.
According to the website Appfigures, in the period between February 24 and March 5, downloads for the “top 10 VPNs in Russia surged by 4,375 percent, from an average of 16,000 per day to more than 700,000 daily.”
Other tools that saw a spike in usage include the Tor Browser, Psiphon and NthLink apps, as well as secure messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.
Major international broadcasters, such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle and others work closely with companies providing software that allows users in Russia to reach websites blocked by the Russian government.
Russia’s media regulator blocked access to VOA’s Russian language service and ordered Russia’s largest social media platform to remove the network’s content over coverage of the war.
“This approach is similar to how we deal with censorship in countries like Iran and China,” says Matthew Baise, director of digital strategy at VOA. “Prior to the invasion there was very little use of circumvention in Russia. But in just the last week we have seen a significant spike, with as much as 40% of visits to golosameriki.com coming through these two vendors [Psiphon and NthLink].”
Emerging and well-established tech giants also work together to restore access to their content for users in Russia.
Earlier this week, Twitter became accessible in Russia again through the Tor network. Among other things, the Tor Project allows users in authoritarian countries to bypass government censorship and access blocked websites.
Telegram embraced in both Russia, Ukraine
Among the myriad circumvention and internet privacy instruments, the messenger Telegram has become especially popular in Eastern Europe since the start of the conflict, according to Gregory Asmolov.
“This tool has become central in proliferation of information. And it’s popular among both sides – the regular users and the Russian authorities, who have shifted on this matter. They tried to block it several years ago, but now they are using it to spread propaganda. Telegram is also actively used by the Ukrainian side, by their government,” Asmolov said.
In recent days, internet users in Russia have been discussing one official document that was leaked to the public. Authenticity of the file was later confirmed by one of Russia’s ministries.
The document calls for government agencies’ websites to be swiftly transferred from foreign servers to the Russian ones and re-registered under Russia’s country code domain .ru.
Some observers interpreted it as the government taking its first serious steps toward a long-planned isolation of the Russian internet from the World Wide Web in a case of crisis.
Others argued that it could simply mean that the authorities are trying to create an extra layer of defense against the increased number of cyber-attacks on government websites since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Well, technically speaking, they can pull the plug even today and cut the entire country off the internet,” says a system administrator in one of Moscow’s large firms, who chose not to be named for this story. “The question is: will they go that far because no one has ever done it in Russia, and it might be very costly. But I won’t make predictions anymore — I was so wrong several times in the last two weeks already.”
And what if the Kremlin indeed decides to “pull the plug” — despite the costs to the Russian economy and its people — and cuts the country off from the internet?
Technical experts say there are no VPNs, dark web browsers, or messaging apps that will be able to circumvent the blocks. Very few things will. But one of them is an old but proven method of reaching audiences in authoritarian states — the shortwave radio.
‘All new is well-forgotten old’ – Russian proverb
In recent days a grassroots effort has started in the United States to test the transmission of Voice of America programming into Eastern Europe through shortwave radio.
“The effort was born out of a few phone calls and emails swapped by former and current broadcasters,” says Kate Neiswender, a California-based lawyer who is spearheading a fundraising campaign for the group.
The organizers of the effort called “Shortwaves for Freedom” are working with a local shortwave radio station, Miami Radio International, that started playing VOA’s English language content — a radio program “Flashpoint Ukraine” — for East European listeners. The goal, organizers say, is to test the strength and the quality of the shortwave signal in that part of the world.
“Russia has quashed any news reporting that’s happening inside the country. They have criminalized journalism; in order to get around those kind of draconian measures, and I think it’s necessary to go back to a technology that is readily available to all who have a receiver. We are also investigating the medium range transmissions,” Neiswender says.
Critics of the effort say that there is no data on how many shortwave radio receivers there are in Russia and most importantly how willing the local population will be to use them should all other channels of unfiltered information be closed.
The “Shortwaves for Freedom” is not working either with VOA, RFE/RL or their parent company the United States Agency for Global Media as of now, but its founders say they would welcome such cooperation.
Terry Balazs, the director of USAGM’s Office of Technology, Services, and Innovation, says USAGM has shortwave radio transmission capabilities that could be used among other techniques to help its broadcasters provide information to listeners in Ukraine, Russia, and other troubled regions.
“Shortwave radio audiences have been very small in many of these areas. However, during a crisis, some determined listeners may still seek out shortwave radios to hear these broadcasts,” Balazs says.
Journalist mass exodus
In the meantime, journalists — non-affiliated with the state media — are leaving Russia in droves.
In the days following the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine, Russia’s independent media outlets — TV Rain, Echo of Moscow, Meduza and others — that had been the face of the country’s free press in recent decades were blocked by authorities. Some of their journalists had to flee Russia after receiving threats.
Many international media followed suit with The New York Times withdrawing all its reporters from Russia for the first time in more than 100 years.
In a note to his colleagues, the assistant managing editor of the paper, Michael Slackman, wrote: “Russian authorities are clamping down harder on news and free speech than at any time during President Vladimir V. Putin’s 22 years in power, pushing through a law that effectively criminalizes independent news reporting about the war against Ukraine.”
The legislation Slackman talks about was signed into law by President Putin on March 4 and is dubbed “The Law on the Fakes.” The measure punishes anyone “spreading false information about the actions of the Russian armed forces” with up to 15 years in jail.
Earlier, Roskomnadzor, the country’s telecom and mass media watchdog, said Russian media should cover the Ukraine military campaign “only on the basis of information from official Russian sources.”
The regulator demanded that the media remove articles that called Russia’s war on Ukraine a “war” or an “attack.” The only acceptable term for what is happening in Ukraine, according to Roskomnadzor, is a “special military operation.” The watchdog blocked several Russian media outlets that did not comply.
On March 4, the popular social networks Facebook and Twitter were also rendered inaccessible in Russia. As of this writing, Russia’s telecom watchdog is looking at blocking Instagram because of a decision by its parent company, Meta Platforms, to temporarily lift a ban on calls for violence against the Russian military and leadership.
Given the avalanche of recent digital bans in Russia, its citizens might have to completely readjust their information intake in the very immediate future.
“We left radio at the cemetery of ancient technologies,” says Asmolov. “And I assume many people don’t even know how this type of radio (shortwave) even looks like. If we see that the internet is completely under [Russian] control and cannot offer any viable alternatives, then there will be more motivation to look for solutions in older technologies.”