Tag Archives: sanctions against Russia

Living in the Russian Digital Bubble

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has portrayed his aggression on the Ukrainian border as pushing back against Western advances. For some time he has been doing much the same online. He has long referred to the internet as a “CIA project”. His deep belief that the enemy within and the enemy without are in effect one and the same… Faced with such “aggression”, Mr Putin wants a Russian internet that is secure against external threat and internal opposition. He is trying to bring that about on a variety of fronts: through companies, the courts and technology itself.

In December 2021, VK, one of Russia’s online conglomerates, was taken over by two subsidiaries of Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant. In the same month a court in Moscow fined Alphabet, which owns Google, a record $98m for its repeated failure to delete content the state deems illegal. And Mr Putin’s regime began using hardware it has required internet service providers (ISPS) to install to block Tor, a tool widely used in Russia to mask online activity. All three actions were part of the country’s effort to assure itself of online independence by building what some scholars of geopolitics, borrowing from Silicon Valley, have begun calling a “stack”.

In technology, the stack is the sum of all the technologies and services on which a particular application relies, from silicon to operating system to network. In politics it means much the same, at the level of the state. The national stack is a sovereign digital space made up not only of software and hardware (increasingly in the form of computing clouds) but also infrastructure for payments, establishing online identities and controlling the flow of information

China built its sovereign digital space with censorship in mind. The Great Firewall, a deep-rooted collection of sophisticated digital checkpoints, allows traffic to be filtered with comparative ease. The size of the Chinese market means that indigenous companies, which are open to various forms of control, can successfully fulfil all of their users’ needs. And the state has the resources for a lot of both censorship and surveillance. Mr Putin and other autocrats covet such power. But they cannot get it. It is not just that they lack China’s combination of rigid state control, economic size, technological savoir-faire and stability of regime. They also failed to start 25 years ago. So they need ways to achieve what goals they can piecemeal, by retrofitting new controls, incentives and structures to an internet that has matured unsupervised and open to its Western begetters.

Russia’s efforts, which began as purely reactive attempts to lessen perceived harm, are becoming more systematic. Three stand out: (1) creating domestic technology, (2) controlling the information that flows across it and, perhaps most important, (3) building the foundational services that underpin the entire edifice.

Russian Technology

The government has made moves to restart a chipmaking plant in Zelenograd near Moscow, the site of a failed Soviet attempt to create a Silicon Valley. But it will not operate at the cutting edge. So although an increasing number of chips are being designed in Russia, they are almost all made by Samsung and TSMC, a South Korean and a Taiwanese contract manufacturer. This could make the designs vulnerable to sanctions….

For crucial applications such as mobile-phone networks Russia remains highly reliant on Western suppliers, such as Cisco, Ericsson and Nokia. Because this is seen as leaving Russia open to attacks from abroad, the industry ministry, supported by Rostec, a state-owned arms-and-technology giant, is pushing for next-generation 5g networks to be built with Russian-made equipment only. The country’s telecoms industry does not seem up to the task. And there are internecine impediments. Russia’s security elites, the siloviki, do not want to give up the wavelength bands best suited for 5g. But the only firm that could deliver cheap gear that works on alternative frequencies is Huawei, an allegedly state-linked Chinese electronics group which the siloviki distrust just as much as security hawks in the West do.

It is at the hardware level that Russia’s stack is most vulnerable. Sanctions imposed may treat the country, as a whole,  like Huawei is now treated by America’s government. Any chipmaker around the world that uses technology developed in America to design or make chips for Huawei needs an export license from the Commerce Department in Washington—which is usually not forthcoming. If the same rules are applied to Russian firms, anyone selling to them without a license could themselves risk becoming the target of sanctions. That would see the flow of chips into Russia slow to a trickle.

When it comes to software the Russian state is using its procurement power to amp up demand. Government institutions, from schools to ministries, have been encouraged to dump their American software, including Microsoft’s Office package and Oracle’s databases. It is also encouraging the creation of alternatives to foreign services for consumers, including TikTok, Wikipedia and YouTube. Here the push for indigenization has a sturdier base on which to build. Yandex, a Russian firm which splits the country’s search market with Alphabet’s Google, and VK, a social-media giant, together earned $1.8bn from advertising last year, more than half of the overall market. VK’s vKontakte and Odnoklassniki trade places with American apps (Facebook, Instagram) and Chinese ones (Likee, TikTok) on the top-ten downloads list.

This diverse system is obviously less vulnerable to sanctions—which are nothing like as appealing a source of leverage here as they are elsewhere in the stack. Making Alphabet and Meta stop offering YouTube and WhatsApp, respectively, in Russia would make it much harder for America to launch its own sorties into Russian cyberspace. So would disabling Russia’s internet at the deeper level of protocols and connectivity. All this may push Russians to use domestic offerings more, which would suit Mr Putin well.

As in China, Russia is seeing the rise of “super-apps”, bundles of digital services where being local makes sense. Yandex is not just a search engine. It offers ride-hailing, food delivery, music-streaming, a digital assistant, cloud computing and, someday, self-driving cars. Sber, Russia’s biggest lender, is eyeing a similar “ecosystem” of services, trying to turn the bank into a tech conglomerate. In the first half of 2021 alone it invested $1bn in the effort, on the order of what biggish European banks spend on information technology (IT). Structural changes in the IT industry are making some of this Russification easier. Take the cloud. Its data centres use cheap servers made of off-the-shelf parts and other easily procured commodity kit. Much of its software is open-source. Six of the ten biggest cloud-service providers in Russia are now Russian…The most successful ones are “moving away from proprietary technology” sold by Western firms (with the exception of chips)…

Information Flow

If technology is the first part of Russia’s stack, the “sovereign internet” is the second. It is code for how a state controls the flow of information online. In 2019 the government amended several laws to gain more control of the domestic data flow. In particular, these require ISPS to install “technical equipment for counteracting threats to stability, security and functional integrity”. This allows Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, to have “middle boxes” slipped into the gap between the public internet and an ISPS’ customers. Using “deep packet inspection” (DPI), a technology used at some Western ISPS to clamp down on pornography, these devices are able to throttle or block traffic from specific sources (and have been deployed in the campaign against Tor). DPI kit sits in rooms with restricted access within the ISPS’ facilities and is controlled directly from a command center at Roskomnadzor. This is a cheap but imperfect version of China’s Great Firewall.

Complementing the firewall are rules that make life tougher for firms. In the past five years Google has fielded 20,000-30,000 content-removal requests annually from the government in Russia, more than in any other country. From this year 13 leading firms—including Apple, TikTok and Twitter—must employ at least some content moderators inside Russia. This gives the authorities bodies to bully should firms prove recalcitrant. The ultimate goal may be to push foreign social media out of Russia altogether, creating a web of local content… But this Chinese level of control would be technically tricky. And it would make life more difficult for Russian influence operations, such as those of the Internet Research Agency, to use Western sites to spread propaganda, both domestically and abroad.

Infrastructure

Russia’s homegrown stack would still be incomplete without a third tier: the services that form the operating system of a digital state and thus provide its power. In its provision of both e-government and payment systems, Russia puts some Western countries to shame. Gosuslugi (“state services”) is one of the most-visited websites and most-downloaded apps in Russia. It hosts a shockingly comprehensive list of offerings, from passport application to weapons registration. Even critics of the Kremlin are impressed, not least because Russia’s offline bureaucracy is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt. The desire for control also motivated Russia’s leap in payment systems. In the wake of its annexation of Crimea, sanctions required MasterCard and Visa, which used to process most payments in Russia, to ban several banks close to the regime. In response, Mr Putin decreed the creation of a “National Payment Card System”, which was subsequently made mandatory for many transactions. Today it is considered one of the world’s most advanced such schemes. Russian banks use it to exchange funds. The “Mir” card which piggybacks on it has a market share of more than 25%, says GlobalData, an analytics firm.

Other moves are less visible. A national version of the internet’s domain name system, currently under construction, allows Russia’s network to function if cut off from the rest of the world (and gives the authorities a new way to render some sites inaccessible). Some are still at early stages. A biometric identity system, much like India’s Aadhaar, aims to make it easier for the state to keep track of citizens and collect data about them while offering new services. (Muscovites can now pay to take the city’s metro just by showing their face.) A national data platform would collect all sorts of information, from tax to health records—and could boost Russia’s efforts to catch up in artificial intelligence (AI).

Excerpt from Digital geopolitics: Russia is trying to build its own great firewall, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

Strangling China with Hong Kong: the Politics of Fear

The U.S. determination  that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China, under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, will have significant implications for the city’s exporters and businesses.  Sensitive U.S. technologies could no longer be imported into Hong Kong, and the city’s exports might be hit with the same tariffs levied on Chinese trade.

But the act doesn’t cover the far more extensive role Hong Kong plays as China’s main point of access to global finance.  As of 2019, mainland Chinese banks held 8,816 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($1.137 trillion) in assets in the semiautonomous city, an amount that has risen 373% in the last decade…. China’s banks do much of their international business, mostly conducted in U.S. dollars, from Hong Kong. With Shanghai inside China’s walled garden of capital controls, there is no obvious replacement.

While the U.S. doesn’t directly control Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, Washington has demonstrated its extensive reach over the dollar system, with penalties against Korean, French and Lebanese financiers for dealing with sanctioned parties. The U.S. recently threatened Iraq’s access to the New York Federal Reserve, demonstrating a growing willingness to use financial infrastructure as a tool of foreign policy.  Even though the U.S. can’t legislate Hong Kong’s ability to support Chinese banks out of existence, the role of an international funding hub is greatly reduced if your counterparties are too fearful to do business with you.

Putting the ability of Chinese banks to conduct dollar-denominated activities at risk would be deleterious to China’s ability to operate financially overseas, posing a challenge for the largely dollar-denominated Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. It would also put the more financially fragile parts of the country, like its debt-laden property developers, under strain.  China’s hope to develop yuan into an influential currency also centers on Hong Kong’s remaining a viable global financial center—more than 70% of international trade in the yuan is done in the city.

Excerpts from Mike Bird, How the US Could Really Hurt China, WSJ, May 290, 2020

Who is Afraid of the United States?

In 2018 America imposed sanctions on about 1,500 people, firms, vessels and other entities, nearly triple the number in 2016. The past six months of 2019 have been particularly eventful. America began imposing sanctions on Iran in November, and in January on Venezuela, another big oil exporter. On May 9th 2019, for the first time, it seized a ship accused of transporting banned North Korean coal.

Second, blackballed countries and unscrupulous middlemen are getting better at evasion. In March 2019advisers to the un, relying in part on Windward data, and American Treasury officials published separate reports that described common ways of doing it. Boats turn off their transmissions systems to avoid detection. Oil is transferred from one ship to another in the middle of the ocean—ships trading on behalf of North Korea find each other in the East China Sea using WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service. Captains disguise a ship’s identity by manipulating transponder data to transmit false locations and identity numbers of different vessels.

Such methods have helped Iran and Russia transport oil to Syria, American officials say. In 2018 North Korea managed to import refined petroleum far in excess of the level allowed by multilateral sanctions. The situation in Venezuela is different—technically, America’s sanctions still allow foreigners to do business with the country. But fear that sanctions will expand mean that traditional trading partners are scarce. Nicolás Maduro’s regime this month found a shipowner to transport crude to India, according to a shipbroker familiar with the deal, but Venezuela had to pay twice the going rate.

Businesses keen to understand such shenanigans can be roughly divided into two categories. The first includes those who can profit from grasping sanctions’ impact on energy markets, such as hedge funds, analysts and traders. A squadron of firms is ready to assist them, combing through ship transmission data, commercial satellite imagery and other public and semi-public information. They do not specialise in sanctions, but sanctions are boosting demand for their tracking and data-crunching expertise.

A main determinant of Venezuela’s output, for instance, is access to the diluent it needs to blend with its heavy crude. A firm called Clipper Data has noted Russian ships delivering diluent to vessels near Malta, which then transport it to Venezuela. Kpler, a French rival, uses satellite images of shadows on lids of storage tanks to help estimate the volume of oil inside. Using transmissions data, images, port records and more, Kpler produces estimates of Iran’s exports for customers such as the International Energy Agency and Bernstein, a research firm—including a recent uptick in Iranian exports without a specific destination (see chart).

The second category of companies are wary of violating sanctions themselves. They need assistance of a different sort. Latham & Watkins, a firm that advised the chairman of EN+, which controls a Russian aluminium giant, as he successfully removed the company from America’s sanctions list this year, has seen a surge in sanctions-related business. Refinitiv, a data company, offers software which permits clients to screen partners and customers against lists of embargoed entities. Windward uses machine learning to pore over data such as ships’ travel patterns, transmissions gaps (some of which may be legitimate) and name changes to help firms identify suspicious activity. Kharon, founded last year by former United States Treasury officials, offers detailed analysis of anyone or anything on sanctions lists.

HIde and Seek: Sanctions Inc, Economist, May 18, 2019

Foreign-Funded NGOs as Foreign Agents

Since Russia annexed Crimea last year, it has become almost impossible for scientists in Russia to buy anything in the United States or Japan that has a dual purpose, said physicist Alexander Shilov, who works in the Institute of Laser Physics in Russia’s scientific hub of Akademgorodok, or Academy Town — part of Russia’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk…The U.S. and EU sanctions were designed to halt exports to the Russian defense sector. When announcing a new round of sanctions in July 2014, the European Union noted specifically that they “should not affect the exports of dual-use goods and technology” to Russia for “non-military use.” In reality, many Western companies were so spooked by the sanctions and the penalties they could face for violating them that the door was shut completely, the scientists say….

What’s more, foreign-made equipment is now less affordable for Russian scientists because of the depreciation in the Russian ruble, which lost nearly half of its value since the Crimean annexation.

The scientists’ plight has been compounded by the Kremlin’s own crackdown on Russian private funding of science, stemming from suspicions of Western influence. The government this year labeled the Dynasty foundation, Russia’s largest source of private funding for science, a “foreign agent” — which makes the group vulnerable to an array of surprise checks and audits. It is a Cold War term that carries connotations of spying. The foundation fell afoul of the officialdom because its Russian founder funds the organization from money transferred from his foreign bank accounts.  “If Dynasty was named a foreign agent, then everyone who had contracts with Dynasty is an accomplice of a foreign agent,” said Shilov. “We are all spies now.”

The government has become increasingly suspicious of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, seeing them as potential agents of a hostile West. Russia has brushed off the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, saying that Russia has plenty of resources to replace banned imports with its own production.

Excerpts from  NATALIYA VASILYEVA5, Russian scientists squeezed by sanctions, Kremlin policies, Associated Press, July 20, 2015

Fighting U.S. Sanctions: national payment systems

International payment operators Visa and MasterCard have started processing domestic payments inside Russia’s new national processing system, launched in response to U.S. sanctions against Moscow that saw cards from several Russian banks blocked in 2014. Observers see the creation of the National Card Payment System as the first step towards an autonomous financial system in Russia.

“The national system has already been introduced, quickly and at a little cost, and it has fully resolved the problem of payments inside the country,” says Sergei Khestanov, professor of finance and banking at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.  If Visa and Mastercard do not fulfill the requirements of the Central Bank, they will have to pay a security deposit, whose size will be linked directly to the turnover of the credit card systems. Morgan Stanley estimated the figure at $950 million for Visa and $500 million for MasterCard.

According to Khestanov, processing Visa transactions through the national system should be viewed as a compromise: The Russian government’s control of the transactions will strengthen, but the international systems will continue to operate in Russia.  “The potential of the development of the Russian cashless payment market is still enormous,” explains Anton Soroko, an analyst at Finam Investment Holding.,,,For the time being, experts are avoiding any clear-cut predictions of success, and say that Visa’s protocols are more complex than MasterCard’s. “We will see if this will be successful only after the infrastructure assumes the full burden,” says chief analyst at UFS IS Ilya Balakirev.

The next stage should be the Russian national payment system’s issuance of plastic cards, which is slated for December 2015.The picture is further complicated by the emergence of Asian operators as an alternative to western payment systems. Immediately after the introduction of sanctions against Russia by the U.S., the Chinese bank card system UnionPay entered the Russian market in April 2014, followed in March 2015 by Japan Credit Bureau (JCB). By 2017 Russia is planning to issue about two million UnionPay cards and three million JCB cards.

Excerpts from Alexei Lossan, Visa and MasterCard join Russia’s National Card Payment System, Russia Beyond the Headlines, Apr.  2, 2015

U.S. Sanctions: Abusing SWIFT

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) provides a network that enables financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a secure, standardized and reliable environment.  SWIFT is not an international organization.  It is instead a cooperative society under Belgian law and it is owned by its member financial institutions…

But the network’s very usefulness means it is increasingly being cast in a new role, as a tool of international sanctions. In 2012 it was obliged, under European law, to cut off access for Iranian banks that had been subjected to sanctions by the European Union. Now there are calls for Russian banks to be banned from SWIFT in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A group of American senators is arguing for the measure, which could be inserted into a broader bill on sanctions against Russia that has a good chance of being passed in the next session of Congress. The European Parliament passed a resolution in September calling on the EU to consider mandating a cut-off…European governments are divided, with Britain and Poland among the keenest.

The earlier SWIFT ban is widely seen as having helped persuade Iran’s government to negotiate over its nuclear programme. The ban was one of the first sanctions Tehran asked to be lifted, points out Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington-based think-tank. Though some of the banks blocked from SWIFT managed to keep moving money by leasing telephone and fax lines from peers in Dubai, Turkey and China, or (according to a Turkish prosecutor’s report) by using non-expelled Iranian banks as conduits, such workarounds are a slow and expensive pain. And the sanctions prompted Western banks to stop conducting other business with the targeted banks.

The impact of a reprise on Russia’s already fragile economy would be huge. Its banks are more connected to international trade and capital markets than Iran’s were. They are heavy users not only of SWIFT itself but also of other payment systems to which it connects them, such as America’s Fedwire and the European Central Bank’s Target2. Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, has reported that more than 90% of transactions involving Russian banks cross borders.

Foreign firms that do business in Russia would suffer, too. Countries that trade heavily with Russia, such as Germany and Italy, are therefore none too keen…

SWIFT’s own rules allow it to cut off banks involved in illegal activity, and it has occasionally done so. But if it ends up being used frequently for sanctions, it could come to be seen as an instrument of foreign policy…Already there are calls for it to be used in other conflicts: pro-Palestinian groups have recently sought for Israel’s banks to be shut out, for instance. And as China’s economic clout grows, might it want Taiwanese banks excluded?

Another risk is that using SWIFT in this way could lead to the creation of a rival. Russia’s central bank is pre-emptively working to develop an alternative network; China has also shown interest in shifting the world’s financial centre of gravity eastward. Earlier this year it co-founded a BRICS development bank with Russia, India, China and South Africa, and its UnionPay service, set up in 2002, has loosened the stranglehold of MasterCard and Visa on card payments. If China and other countries that feared being subjected to future Western sanctions joined the Russian venture, it might become an alternative to SWIFT—and one less concerned with preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism…

America’s current crop of senior Treasury officials are similarly cautious, despite being vocal proponents of sanctions in general. SWIFT is a “global utility”, says one, and using it for sanctions should be “an extraordinary step, to be used in only the most extraordinary situations”. Blocking access to SWIFT, he frets, could mean that traffic shifts to networks that are less secure and easier to disrupt—and thus make life easier for criminals and cyberterrorists, including those in rogue governments. Against those who threaten global security, a SWIFT ban is a powerful and proven weapon. But it is also a risky one.

Financial Sanctions: The Pros and Cons of a SWIFT Response, Economist,  Nov. 22, 2014