Exclusive: Ukraine Pushes to Unplug Russia From the Internet

·4 min read
runet - Credit: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS via Getty Images
runet - Credit: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS via Getty Images

Ukrainian officials are asking a key organization responsible for the operation of the internet to disconnect all Russian sites from the global computer network of networks, Rolling Stone has learned.

It’s the latest attempt to turn Russia into a pariah state in retaliation for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Experts call it a massive — and ill-advised — step.

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According to an email reviewed by Rolling Stone, Ukraine’s request to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) seeks to revoke domains issued in Russia and shut down primary Domain Name System (DNS) servers in the country — a move that would effectively bar access to Russian internet sites, with the potential of knocking the entire country offline.

“No one anywhere in the world would be able to reach any Russian website,” explains Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit that provides support and security to a collection of software and hardware systems known as critical internet infrastructure. “People inside Russia, unless they had good connectivity to the rest of the world, would be unable to reach any other part of the internet — just Russian parts.”

Representatives for ICANN — a California-based nonprofit responsible for protecting “the operational stability of the internet” via the management of the global DNS root zone — verified the email’s authenticity, but declined to comment further.

The DNS root zone is a crucial element of the overall functionality of the internet, responsible for handling queries to top-level domains — such as .com, and country-specific domains like Russia’s .ru. Removing Russia’s access to this cluster of servers would prevent Russian internet-service providers from communicating with the outside systems that actually connect internet users to websites.

The email from Andrii Nabok, the Ukrainian representative of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, states Russian cyber attacks are “impeding [Ukrainian] citizens’ and government’s ability to communicate.” Taking Russia offline, Nabok claims, “will help users seek for reliable information in alternative domain zones, preventing propaganda and disinformation.” But, according to industry experts, the unprecedented request has the potential to do more harm than good — and it could threaten other countries’ unrestricted access to the internet in the future.

“This is a huge request from Ukraine,” says Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. “It’s very likely ICANN will just say no. The Kremlin is spreading tons of propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine, but this is not the way to go about addressing it.”

Knocking Russia offline would be a major hit to the country, potentially adding to the series of extraordinary global sanctions imposed upon Russia in recent days — which has included restrictions on the Russian Central Bank, freezing certain Russian-owned assets, being removed from the global SWIFT payment system, and prohibiting interactions with the Russian oil and gas industries.

Nabok’s email also makes reference to revoking digital signatures that authenticate domain names, a move that Woodcock says could leave Russia vulnerable to “many kinds of abusive practices,” including attacks on personal banking. “I understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “But fundamentally, this is a bad idea.”

Russia is no stranger to the possibilities of disconnecting from the global internet infrastructure. Last summer, the Kremlin conducted a series of tests that, according to an anonymous source, sought to “determine the ability of the ‘Runet’ to work in case of external distortions, blocks, and other threats” by manually taking the country offline, Reuters reported. The experiment was prompted by Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law, which calls for the creation of a national DNS that would allow Russia to maintain internet connectivity in the event of interference from outside forces.

“Doing something to Russia that they just conducted a full-scale national test of defense against? It’s probably not the world’s most clever attack,” Woodcock says. “It steers the world in the direction of not having a globally interoperable internet.”

Both Woodcock and Sherman stress that maintaining free and open access to the internet within Russia is one of the strongest defense strategies against the country’s propaganda machine. “ICANN taking action against Russian domains would undermine the ability of everyday Russian internet users to get access to information about the Ukraine conflict,” Sherman says. “It’s vital for individuals to spread information within Russia about the Kremlin’s actions, for social media platforms to cut off Russian state propaganda themselves, and for organizations like ICANN to not set dangerous precedents like revoking entire domains for a country.”

“The best hope we have in reducing Russian domestic support for this conflict is by allowing people inside Russia to communicate freely about it,” says Woodcock. “We really don’t want ICANN to be playing arbiter over what should be the sovereign communications of other countries.”

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