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This Week in Info War

The Kremlin’s Telegram Fiasco

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Some 10,000 people rallied in Moscow on 30 April to protest against restrictions on internet freedom in Russia. The demonstration took place two weeks after the authorities, pursuant to a court order, began blocking the popular messaging app Telegram for its refusal to hand over the keys to its data encryption. Telegram, which was developed by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, has long refused to share data, citing privacy concerns, and has promised to keep the app running. The Federal Security Service (FSB) has demanded unencrypted access to users’ messages under the authority of sweeping 2016 antiterrorism legislation. 

President Putin, often said to be unfamiliar with internet technology, reportedly was promised a quick fix to the Telegram “problem.” Its suppression, however, was easier announced than implemented. As the crackdown began on 16 April, various local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) started restricting Telegram under government pressure by the clumsy method of blocking 15.8 million IP addresses on Amazon and Google’s cloud platforms which Telegram routed traffic through to circumvent Russian state interference. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, so do many other Russian businesses. Since this blanket IP ban could not isolate Telegram, it led to malfunctions for online banking, retail services, and Russia’s critical infrastructure. Even RT’s video news agency went down. This “collateral damage” was also a consequence of the internet’s growing concentration into fewer and fewer hosting services, which meant the Kremlin had little choice but to take hostage most of the Russian internet in its attempt to shut down one messaging app. Faced with the catastrophic consequences of its decision for the internet community, however, the government unblocked three million IP addresses on 28 April.

Russian officials and government agencies, including Putin’s own press office, have long depended on the app for their own use. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters his office would switch to the messenger app Viber once the Telegram ban went into effect. He warned Telegram to follow the law. 

Few members of the Russian elite openly opposed the court’s decision blocking Telegram, but as the controversy unfolded circumstantial evidence suggested divisions within the security services, presidential administration, Duma, and government over how to handle the problem.

Some main players: 
  • Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev reportedly briefed Putin on the need to block Telegram at the Security Council meetings. Patrushev supported the complete blocking of the service. His protégé, Deputy Communication Minister Alexei Sokolov, worked on the technical aspects of the shutdown.
  • Presidential aide Igor Shchegolev; his protégé, Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov; and Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin reportedly also lobbied to block Telegram. They sought a greater role in the communications sector and to keep their positions as Putin was reshuffling the government. Shchegolev also may have been trying to get Volin appointed head of the Communications Ministry.
  • The FSB Information Security Center (ISC), responsible for monitoring the Russian internet and a part of the FSB Counterintelligence Service, tried to force Durov to hand over the messenger encryption keys to the FSB. Unlike the Shchegolev group, the ISC only wanted Durov to surrender the encryption keys because it believed that completely blocking the messenger service would make monitoring and analysis of Telegram messages more difficult.
  • The Information and Special Communications Protection Center (IPC), under Andrei Ivashko and part of the FSB Science and Technology Service, is the ISC’s competitor. The IPC has long lobbied for disbanding the ISC and acquiring its functions. But the ISC lost much of its strength after its operatives were accused of treason in connection with the Shaltai Boltai hacking scandal. Failure to quickly block Telegram dealt a blow to the ISC and became a possible pretext for renewed IPC lobbying efforts to eliminate the ISC and assume its functions. 
  • Sergey Kiriyenko, responsible for domestic policy in the presidential administration, officially took a neutral position on blocking Telegram, but may have been playing his own game against Roskomnadzor behind the scenes. While he reportedly supported the court’s decision to block Telegram, he also is seeking to acquire more influence over the Russian internet. One of the ways to expand this influence would be transferring Roskomnadzor’s functions from the cabinet of ministers to the Kremlin. 
Meanwhile, some influential officials said openly they would continue to use Telegram. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov claimed the messenger works perfectly well in his republic. (Kadyrov is an old adversary of the FSB and may see the Telegram controversy as another chance to get back at federal security services.) Former Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich acknowledged that he continued to freely use Telegram. 

According to Alexey Kovalev, editor of the news site Codaru, Russians on social media have been asking, “How is it possible that a country accused of waging sophisticated cyberwarfare campaigns around the world is so utterly incompetent in domestic tech affairs?” One conspiracy theory bandied about in recent days suggested that the attempt to block Telegram was deliberately botched to create plausible deniability for accusations of disinformation and interference abroad. 

As is often the case, even in Russia, the reality is more mundane and is rooted in the messy give and take of daily politics. First, the authorities’ refusal to engage competent expert advice likely prevented an adequate assessment of whether the government actually had the technical capability to block Telegram. Although Putin was promised a quick fix of the Telegram problem, the inability to deliver on the promise led to panic and the blocking of millions of IP addresses. Second, Putin himself acted rather passively: apparently he only vaguely understood the problem and hence agreed with Patrushev and the FSB that Telegram should either hand over the encryption keys or be closed. But because of officials’ reluctance to discuss problematic issues with him, apparently no one told Putin how it would actually be done. He thus may never have understood the difficulties presented by the attempt to block Telegram. This likely eventually led to the elite’s conflicting feelings toward Roskomnadzor’s actions, which a part of the establishment directly or indirectly opposed.