March 7, 2019:
In early 2019 members of the Russian parliament were seeking to pass a law that would create a new Internet infrastructure that would restrict Internet use within Russia by confining most Internet users within Russia to web sites within Russia and also funnel all Internet traffic from Russian users through Russian censors who would screen traffic for forbidden activity, particularly soldiers of civilians posting pictures and video of military operations to social media. Parliament backers of this plan were told that such a plan was technically impossible and would reduce Russian internet users to the sort of local “intranet” found in North Korea. The North Korean approach ensures that only a select few users have access to the worldwide Internet. But even in North Korea civilians found ways around that. Moreover, North Korea has a primitive and much less productive economy that can function without free access to the global Internet. The Russian economy could not function with such restricted Internet access, something China has discovered and is still trying to overcome.
The Russian legislators are outraged at the inability of the military to halt these often embarrassing leaks of military information via the Internet despite numerous efforts to deal with the problem. As a solution legislators proposed simply making it illegal to post military information on the Internet and prosecute those who violate these rules. Military experts responded by pointing out that this would be ignored or evaded by many military personnel and would make it even more difficult to recruit Russians for the military. Russian Internet officials point out that the technical aspects of this proposed law would be impossible to implement and passing a law would not change that. The “Russia only Intranet” law is still awaiting a vote and even then it could be vetoed by president Putin, is more knowledgeable when it comes to tech issues. But Putin is willing to sign other new laws that would make it possible to prosecute any Russian who posted material on the Internet that Russian censors (or prosecutors) deemed offensive or disrespectful of Russia or current Russian officials. That is a broad mandate and simply legalizes persecution that is currently carried out illegally by the government and its bureaucracy.
The main trigger for all this censorship mania is how easily Russians found out about what the military was really doing in Ukraine and Syria. The Russian military was breaking a lot of Russian laws, and promises to the Russian people, in order to keep operating in Ukraine and Syria. Earlier efforts to impose rules to plug these leaks failed.
For example in mid-2018 Russia ordered bases where Russian forces operate in Syria, including major ones like Hmeimim airbase and the naval facilities at the port of Tartus, to jam signals used by cellphones capable of handling 2G and 3G speeds. All Russia personnel have been ordered to only use older cell phones without cameras and GPS. These orders were issued in February 2018 after several ISIL attacks using fixed wing and quadcopter UAVs. These mass attacks were made possible by using the features and capabilities of modern cell phones. This ban also solves another problem that has long caused headaches for Russian propagandists as well as military commanders. As a bonus, this ban makes it much more difficult for Russian personnel to post military information on the Internet.
The 2018 ban did not work and only slowed down the battlefield information leaks because the Russian soldiers and civilian contractors still had their smartphones for taking pictures and writing email to the folks back home. Whenever they got into a jamming free zone they could and did, send that stuff or post it to social media sites (where more of these “leaks” tend to appear.) But the jamming made improvised mass attacks by cheap commercial UAVs (carrying explosives) more difficult to carry out against Hmeimim. Several such attacks occurred between the end of 2017 and early 2018, causing two deaths and a lot of property and equipment damage. Improved air defenses and airstrikes against the Islamic terror groups responsible seemed to play a larger role in halting the attacks but intel sources and interrogations indicated the jamming helped.
What happened in Syria was unusual because normally it was the Russians who are exploiting cell phone technology on the battlefield although the information leaks because of Russian troops with cell phones has long been a problem, but not as serious as enabling aerial attacks on major bases.
The cell phones have become a major intelligence problem in Russian occupied areas of Ukraine as well. For example, in late 2017 the Russian backed rebel government in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) sentenced a local man to ten years in jail for distributing a cell phone photo via Twitter that showed Russian Army vehicles and other equipment in the rebel-controlled half of Donbas. Russia denies they have troops there but it has been an open secret because of cell phones, Internet access and most Ukrainians there want the Russians gone. Sending this guy to prison and publicizing it is expected to make the population less ready to do this sort of thing.
While the Russians have been in Donbas since 2014 since mid-2015 Ukraine has become a secondary operation for Russia with Syria, the rest of the Middle East plus North Korea demanding more attention. This has made it easier for Ukrainians to document the presence of Russian troops inside Donbas. This is possible because Donbas has cell phone service and a lot of people in Donbas take pictures and share them. Although the Russian soldiers in Donbas are supposed to remove all identifying items from their uniforms, not all the troops do that completely. The Russian troops are not supposed to spend too much time socializing with the locals but they do and often share those experiences on Internet-based social networks. Russia denies everything and since Russia has state-controlled mass media most Russians see the official version of who is in Donbas, not the reality. The Russian veto in the UN limits international blowback because of Donbas and the fact that Russia has ignored nearly all the things it agreed to in several recent Donbas ceasefire agreements.
While Russia decreased military support for their forces in Donbas Russia continued using Ukraine as a test site for new Cyber War tactics and techniques. Thus by the end of 2016 Ukraine accused Russia of employing hackers to insert trackers into cell phones used by Ukrainian military personnel fighting in Donbas. Ukraine has also found evidence of the same or similar hackers (usually civilian groups working as contractors for the Russian government) going after numerous government and commercial networks in Ukraine. Some of these hackers were also identified as going after targets in the United States. The hacking of military personnel cell phones is believed to be the cause of several recent accurate and fatal attacks on Ukrainian troops in Donbas. The hackers made it possible to track the location of the phone owners and accurately fire shells at them.
These capabilities had already attracted the attention of the U.S., which was supplying Ukraine with military equipment and technical assistance. American and NATO electronic warfare experts paid close attention to what the Russians were up to in Donbas and the cell phone hack was not unexpected. When it did arrive it was scrutinized and dissected.
Russia considers all these revelations as harmful to Russian military capabilities. There is some truth to that but worldwide it should be noted that even the most oppressive and proficient police states (like China, North Korea and Cuba) have found that need the Internet operational more than you need it crippled. Moreover, as long as there is any freely available wireless communications in a country some of your citizens will risk the most severe penalties to get access to the world wide web and share what they found. Russia legislators are doing what legislators often do; pass a law, declare a problem solved and then try to ignore contrary evidence for as long as they can.