Will Putin’s War Split the Internet?

The sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cover many sectors, including online businesses. Either on order from the authorities or from their own initiative, many have ceased or decreased operations in Russia (and Belarus to some extent). Twitter has “shadow-banned” Russian propaganda accounts.

In response, the Russian government has banned Facebook and Twitter, now “moves to ban” Instagram and Whatsapp. It says Western “IT Giants” not only provide the environment for disinformation but are actively involved.

Not limited to social media, the information battles are fought in parallel with the actual combat: memes, videos, maps, infographics and so on. Denial of service-cyber attacks on websites, such as Ukranian embassies and government functions.

European internet service providers have stopped access to six Russian media sites following an EU ban, which also applies to social media and search.

The Kremlin has directed Russian businesses use the .ru-domain rather than .com or other foreign top domains and to move to domestic servers and service-providers. While the domain-changes may be symbolic, some experts say the Russian regime performed a “dress rehearsal” of disconnecting from the global internet in 2019.

The domain name servers that direct internet traffic to the intended pages are overseen ICANN, which now warns that Russia might cut ties with the global internet. Either by exiting the ICANN domain-system and setting up it’s own. The domain name servers are often described as the “internet’s phonebook”. Without them, internet resources can still be accessed directly to the IP-address (a sequence of numbers that look like The second option would be more brutal, to actually pull the cables connecting Russia from the rest of the world. This is highly unlikely according to experts, as it would create all sorts of problems: logging into office software, all sorts of background functions and antivirus updates or data stored on cloud services. Many Russian users would not be able to log onto accounts they use every day.

However, there is nothing in the technology that prevents Russia from setting up a national network using the internet protocols and software, much like a corporate intranet except on the scale of a nation. The same hardware and software already in place could be used, it is simply a question of directing the data traffic. This would create a national internet, similar to North Korea’s, with little or no interaction with the outside world.

There was a time when the Internet was expected to bring democracy and freedom of information. Then it turned it could just as well be a tool for repression and control. Now it may be that we can’t talk about the internet as some unified entity. Maybe it never was, but there is a realistic scenario that Putin’s war will split the internet.