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Following Russia’s unjustified and tragic invasion of Ukraine in late February, the world has watched closely as Russian troops attempted to advance across Ukraine, only to be resisted and repelled by the Ukrainian people. Similarly, we’ve seen a significant amount of cyber attack activity in the region. We continue to work to protect an increasing number of Ukrainian government, media, financial, and nonprofit websites, and we protected the Ukrainian top level domain (.ua) to help keep Ukraine’s presence on the Internet operational.
At the same time, we’ve closely watched significant and unprecedented activity on the Internet in Russia. The Russian government has taken steps to tighten its control over both the technical components and the content of the Russian Internet. For their part, the people in Russia are doing something very different. They have been adopting tools to maintain access to the global Internet, and they have been seeking out non-Russian media sources. This blog post outlines what we’ve observed.
The Russian Government asserts control over the Internet
Over the last five years, the Russian government has taken steps to tighten its control of a sovereign Internet within Russia’s borders, including laws requiring Russian ISPs to install equipment allowing the government to monitor and block Internet activity, and requiring the establishment of an exclusively Russian DNS (outside ICANN). And it created mechanisms for the Russian government to control how Russia was connected to the global Internet, so they could pull the plug if they wanted.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has made a series of announcements related to implementation of its sovereign Internet laws. Russian government agencies were instructed to switch to Russian DNS servers, move public resources to Russian hosting services, and take a number of other steps designed to reduce reliance on non-Russian providers. Although some took these initiatives as an announcement that Russia intended to disconnect from the global Internet, so far Russia does not appear to have leveraged the tools it has to disconnect itself entirely from the global Internet. We continue to see connections processing successfully in Russia through non-Russia infrastructure.
In the meantime, authorities in Russia have implemented a series of targeted blocking actions against websites and operators that they find objectionable. Initially, officials targeted popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as Russian language outlets based outside the country.
We can see the effect of some of those blocks on traffic from Russian users to different news websites in Russia and Ukraine before and after blocks were implemented.
In each case, these news sites saw exponential growth in their traffic in the days around the February 24th invasion of Ukraine. But that increase was met within a matter of days by actions to block traffic to those sites. The blocks had varying degrees of success over the first few weeks, though each of them seem to have been eventually successful in denying access to those sources of news through traditional Internet channels.
But that is only half the story. As the Russian government took steps to control traditional channels for Internet access, there were shifts in the ways many Russians used the Internet.
Russian citizens turning to tools to gain access to the open Internet
Russians have been adopting applications and tools that allow them to engage with the Internet privately and avoid some of the mechanisms that the Russian government is using to control and monitor access to the Internet. Whereas the most popular applications in the Apple App Store in most of the world in March continue to relate to social media and games, the leaderboard in Russia looked very different:
All of the top apps in Russia in March were for private and secure Internet access or encrypted messaging apps, including the most downloaded app – Cloudflare’s own WARP / 126.96.36.199 (a privacy-based recursive DNS resolver). This list of popular apps is a stunning contrast with every other country in the world.
Because of the significant and important popularity of WARP (188.8.131.52), we’ve had some detailed insight into exactly how this has played out. If we look back to the beginning of February we see that Cloudflare’s WARP tool was little used in Russia. Its use took off from the first weekend of the war, and peaked two weeks ago. Later, after this virtual migration to such secure tools became apparent, we saw attempts to block access to the tools used to access the Internet securely.
While levels have receded from their peak, a large number of Russians continue to use Cloudflare WARP in Russia at massively higher levels than pre-war.
In addition to the ways Russians are using the Internet increasingly relying on private and encrypted communications, we’ve also seen a shift in what they are trying to access. Here’s a chart of DNS requests from Russian users for a well known US newspaper. Recent DNS traffic for the site has quintupled compared to pre-war levels, indicating Russians are trying to access that news source.
And here’s DNS traffic for a large French news source. Again, DNS lookups have grown enormously as Russians try to access it.
And here’s a British newspaper.
The picture is clear from these three charts. Russians want access to non-Russian news sources and based on the popularity of private Internet access tools and VPNs, they are willing to work to get it.
A front line against cyberattack
In addition to the services we’ve been able to provide average citizens in Russia, our servers at the edge of the Internet in-country have also permitted us to detect and block attacks originating there. When attacks are mitigated inside Russia, they never travel outside Russian borders. That’s always been part of the proposition of Cloudflare’s distributed network – to identify and block cyber attacks (especially DDoS attacks) locally, and before they can ever get off the ground.
Here’s what DDoS activity originating inside Russia and blocked there by Cloudflare has looked like since the beginning of February. Normal DDoS activity originating from Russian networks and blocked by Cloudflare’s servers there is relatively low throughout February but then grows massively in the middle of March.
To be clear, being able to identify where cyber attack traffic originates is not the same as being able to attribute where the attacker is located. Attributing cyber attacks is difficult, and now is a time to be particularly careful with attribution. It is relatively common for cyber attackers to launch attacks from remote locations around the world. This often happens when they are able to hijack devices in other countries through things like IoT (Internet of Things) corruptions.
But even with such subterfuge, we’ve still seen a significant increase in the number of blocked attacks that are hitting our servers inside Russia.
A few weeks ago, as the invasion of Ukraine was in its early stages, I noted that “Russia needs more Internet, not less.” At a time of unprecedented economic sanctions by the United States and Europe, there have been calls for all foreign companies to go further and exit Russia completely, including calls for Internet providers to disconnect Russia. To be clear, Cloudflare has minimal sales and commercial activity in Russia – we’ve never had a corporate entity, an office, or employees there – and we’ve taken steps to ensure that we’re not paying taxes or fees to the Russian government. But given the significant impact of our services on the availability and security of the Internet, we believe removing our services from Russia altogether would do more harm than good.
While we deeply appreciate the motivation of the calls for companies to exit Russia, this withdrawal by Internet companies can have the unintended effect of advancing and entrenching the interests of the Russian government to control the Internet in Russia. Efforts to have Russia cut off from the global Internet through ICANN and RIPE will only cut off the Russian people from information about the war in Ukraine that the Russian government doesn’t want them to access. After a number of U.S.-based certificate authorities stopped issuing SSL certificates for Russian websites, Russia responded in early March by encouraging Russian citizens to download a Russian Root Certificate Authority instead. As observed by EFF, “the Russian state’s stopgap measure to keep its services running also enables spying on Russians, now and in the future.”
This is why there has been near universal agreement by experts that it is imperative the Russian Internet stay as open as possible for the Russian people. Dozens of civil society groups have urged governments to work to counteract authoritarian actions “and ensure that sanctions and other steps meant to repudiate the Russian government’s illegal actions do not backfire, by reinforcing Putin’s efforts to assert information control.” Russian digital rights activists have pleaded with service providers to offer Russians free VPN access, so they are not left isolated from global news sources. Even the U.S. State Department has made clear, “It is critical to maintain the flow of information to the people of Russia to the fullest extent possible.”
Supporting our mission to help build a better Internet, it’s been a busy six weeks for our team monitoring these developments and working around the clock to make sure Ukrainian web properties are defended and that ordinary Russians can access the global Internet. We remain in awe of the brave Ukrainians standing up in defense of their homeland, and continue to hope that peace will prevail.