Why the Biden administration is keeping Russia’s internet afloat

The U.S. strategy for curbing Russia’s attack on Ukraine has largely been to weaken Russia militarily, by providing Ukrainians with weapons and intelligence, and economically via sanctions. 

Given the brutality we’ve witnessed in recent weeks, some might wonder why the Biden administration hasn’t urgently moved to disrupt Russia’s internet access. Doing so would definitely hamper the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign and, as a result, its efforts to conjure domestic support for the invasion. In light of that fact, the Biden administration’s reluctance to do so underscores the important role the internet plays in modern warfare. It’s a vital tool that helps shape public opinion. 

Late last week, the U.S. Treasury Department officially announced it would exempt a class of internet and telecommunication providers from its latest round of Russian sanctions. 

Those exempt include “services, software, hardware, or technology” related to “the exchange of communications over the internet, such as instant messaging, videoconferencing, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos, movies, and documents, web browsing, blogging, web hosting, and domain name registration services.”

Photo Illustration: A URL against the colors of the Russian flag
MSNBC / Getty Images

The administration said it was making these exemptions “to support the flow of information and access to the internet which provides outside perspectives to the Russian people.” 

In other words: Keeping the Russians online and attached to the outside world, where they can receive information that counters the Kremlin’s talking points, is in the United States’ and the world’s best interest. That matches guidance from human rights groups, who warned the administration about the downside to cutting off Russia’s access. 

Doing so, they said, could allow the Kremlin to create what’s called a “splinternet,” or a nationalized version of the internet controlled exclusively by the Kremlin and detached from the global internet infrastructure. 

In the early weeks of Russia’s invasion, there were reports that the Biden administration was considering temporary disruptions of Russian internet service. The White House has warned about the high likelihood of Russian cyberattacks against the U.S., so there’s always the possibility that the Biden administration reneges on its sanctions exemption or takes aggressive steps to hinder internet access in Russia. 

For the time being, the administration sees that access as integral in its effort to stop the war.


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