There was a time when we Russians thought of our country as one of those burgeoning, dynamic places, a land of diamonds in the rough. But today Russia is no longer an emerging nation. Instead, it’s hiding its face from the world.
As a result of the Kremlin’s own actions, and Western countermeasures, Russia may gradually find itself cut off from many of its international links, “unplugged” from capital markets, global news media, foreign expertise, and even the World Wide Web. To stay on top of Russia’s power pyramid, President Vladimir V. Putin and his minions feel they must corral and tame the Internet.
Russian news anchors and official commentators are constantly telling us the outside world is a dangerous place, and the global Internet is increasingly presented as a vehicle for hostile foreign influence. The Russian Interior Ministry calls the web “the main channel for the dissemination of destructive and extremist ideologies.”
President Putin, speaking at a forum organized last spring by his All-Russia People’s Front, asserted that the Internet initially “emerged as a special project of the C.I.A.” He also declared that when the Russian Internet company Yandex was being developed back in the 1990s, it “came under pressure to hire a certain number of Americans and a certain number of Europeans to its executive board.” Following those comments, shares in Yandex, the world’s fourth-largest search engine, lost 16 percent of their value.
Then, last summer, the Parliament passed a law that requires Internet companies to keep personal data on Russian citizens stored within the country. The liaison between the government and Internet companies, Dmitry Marinichev, who was appointed to the newly created post of Internet ombudsman in July, says the definition of what constitutes “personal data” is unclear.
It is also unclear when the law is to actually take effect. The Kremlin hasn’t decided, perhaps because the consequences are so uncertain. (Will Russians be able to use their accounts with Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other foreign companies, which store their customer information on servers outside the country? Or even apply for a visa, which also involves keeping one’s personal data on other countries’ servers?)
Another law, already in effect, is much more straightforward. It requires bloggers whose writing is accessed by more than 3,000 users a day to register with Internet regulators and comply with the rules and restrictions that apply to all media. So far, most popular bloggers have been reluctant to register, and the authorities do not seem to have pressured anyone to do so.
In September, the Russian Security Council discussed the technical feasibility and economic consequences of cutting Russia off from the global Internet in times of crisis. The president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said at the time that the authorities’ intention would be to protect Russia. “Lately our partners in the U.S. and Europe have demonstrated some significant share of unpredictable behavior,” he said. “That is why we have to be ready for anything.”
In any case, the Russian authorities have been late in the game of curtailing Internet access. Before a surge in street protests three years ago caused Mr. Putin to recognize the importance of the web, he used to dismiss it as “half pornography.” In China, by contrast, the Communist government recognized the Internet’s potential power right away. “If you open the window for fresh air,” Deng Xiaoping used to say, “you have to expect some flies to blow in.” Guided by these words, the authorities developed the so-called Great Firewall of China and other measures to control the flow of information.
But the information revolution came to Russia during the laissez-faire atmosphere of the 1990s, when fortune-making seemed more important than controlling public opinion. Though Russia is still integrated in the global markets, still hosts a lot of international organizations, and still has a mostly free and full connection to the global web, its ties with the outside world are fraying badly.
This was clearly illustrated in news reports of Mr. Putin cutting an awkward figure at the recent Group of 20 summit meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Angered by criticism over Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine, Mr. Putin left in a tiff, saying he had to get some sleep before attending to urgent affairs at home.
It seems as if Russia, which was suspended from the Group of 8 after the Kremlin annexed Crimea, is no longer a member in good standing in the Group of 20 either. Getting the cold shoulder doesn’t seem to bother our president that much, though. Speaking in July at a meeting of the Russian Security Council (and apparently forgetting that Russia is still a member of several international organizations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), he declared: “Thank God Russia is not part of any alliances,” adding, “This, in no small measure, is the guarantee of our sovereignty.”
Nevertheless, the collective Western browbeating in Brisbane did not produce any immediate results, apart from further isolating the Russian leader abroad and giving him some additional clout at home. But the Group of 20 meeting may prove to be a symbolic milestone on the path to unplugging Russia from world networks.
Mr. Putin will be seeing less of Western leaders. Russian companies will be getting less foreign investment. State-owned banks are increasingly cut off from the Western capital markets. Many ordinary Russians are no longer able to go abroad because the sharp decline in the value of the ruble has made foreign travel prohibitively expensive.
Backed by a considerable segment of Russian society, Moscow’s leaders are slamming the door on the world. This anger is puerile and misplaced. The West has played its role in antagonizing Russia, too, but my country bears the larger part of the blame. A new, vengeful isolationism has prevailed in Moscow.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia.