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Digital Authoritarianism

Is the Russian government seeking to emulate China’s strategic use of technology for social management and political control as part of an intensifying crackdown on the country’s political opposition? To be sure, Chinese authorities’ widespread use of high-tech tools for such purposes has more than piqued the curiosity of the Russian security establishment. Yet there are vast gaps between the Russian government’s aspirations and its actual ability to harness digital tools such as facial recognition software using artificial intelligence, or China’s nascent social credit system.

Russia’s approach is colored by wider geopolitical considerations. The unmistakable convergence of Russian and Chinese leaders’ political outlooks is a by-product of their increasingly adversarial relationships with the United States. Yet this alignment falls far short of a proper alliance or security partnership. Indeed, Sino-Russian relations are more complicated than they appear at first glance due to vast asymmetries between the two powers’ economic and political clout. Nor have Moscow and Beijing fully overcome lingering sources of mutual mistrust.

Contrary to commonly held perceptions and the rhetoric of Russian politicians, the Kremlin has big hurdles to overcome as it tries to decouple from Western technology in critically important areas. What’s more, Russia’s own use of digital repression is considerably less prevalent than such repression in China, where technology is deployed on a mass scale to surveil, control, and censor citizens said to be challenging political and social stability.


Some analysts have suggested that Russia intends to follow China’s lead by trying to separate its digital supply chains from the West over the next decade, but Moscow’s ability to do so is far more constrained than Beijing’s. As security competition intensifies, Russian and Chinese leaders increasingly view their dependence on U.S. and European technology as a serious vulnerability. (To be sure, U.S. and some European officials increasingly express similar misgivings about technology originating from China.)

But it simply is not practical for Russia to detach itself from U.S. supply chains. Russia is not well-placed to achieve greater autonomy in the production of semiconductor chips (the most important component of any modern electronics) given the country’s current level of technological development. U.S. and European companies enjoy a monopoly on the advanced lithography equipment and automation tools for electronic design that are essential for semiconductor manufacturing.

Nor can Russia’s indigenous technology firms (including the Moscow Center of SPARC Technologies and others) produce many of their own microprocessor circuits domestically. The same is true for Russian chip manufacturers such as Baikal Electronics and Elvis, which are creating mobile processors for smartphones, AI systems, and Internet of Things devices. Instead, Russian firms typically outsource production to leading foreign manufacturing firms like the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which uses Western equipment and technologies.

Other aspects of Sino-Russian technological cooperation reflect this reliance on foreign semiconductors as well. Huawei, one of China’s largest technology companies, plans to produce server equipment at facilities owned by the Moscow-based firm Norsi-Trans as part of its ongoing relationships with Russian counterparts. Yet Huawei’s R&D division still relies on U.S. software to develop its semiconductor chips and needs foreign contractors to manufacture them. The Huawei servers manufactured in conjunction with Norsi-Trans will thus be equipped with chips made using Western technologies. In the absence of a fully independent Chinese manufacturing partner capable of producing vital technological components, Russia simply will not be able to decouple its technology supply chains from the United States and the EU.

Russian companies are also unwilling to give up Western technology. While the Russian government has aggressively pushed an IT import substitution policy to swap out reliance on foreign products, Russian firms have pushed back against the government’s mandate. Russian oil and natural gas giants, as well as state-controlled telecoms companies, are reluctant to embrace lower-quality substitutes for specialized Western software and IT systems. In some fields, like oil extraction, there are simply no domestic alternatives to the complex software systems provided by Western firms like Halliburton and Schlumberger. And even if partial solutions are available in other fields, the costs are steep. The head of Gazprom, for example, reportedly asked Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to remove strict deadlines for the import substitution policy; he calculated that it would cost his company about $2.4 billion to switch to domestic software providers instead.


Despite growing ties with China, Russia is still keeping Chinese partners at arm’s length in some technological arenas. Is Moscow actually willing to overlook Beijing’s track record of extensive intellectual property (IP) theft? And will Russia ignore the possibility that China might exploit backdoors embedded in Chinese-supplied technology, especially given Russia’s mounting worries about the threat of hostile Western intelligence activities? Moscow may have ignored these risks at times in the past, but it often does not do so.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian government did occasionally turn a blind eye to Chinese IP infringement on Russian military and technological innovations. Russia continued to export arms to China during this period because this revenue allowed Moscow to maintain its defense industrial base, fund the development of new weapons systems, and retain China as its largest customer. At the time, Russian leaders recognized that cutting back on arms exports to China was simply not worth the expense. They also shrewdly calculated that by the time Beijing could replicate the production of certain Russian systems, Russia would have already developed newer and more technologically advanced models of its own.

However, this precedent does not mean that Russia is not wary of the risk of Chinese IP theft or espionage. In several sensitive defense and national security areas, Russia has long preferred to use its own technology, rather than rely on equipment imported from Western or Chinese suppliers. Moreover, the Russian security establishment has become increasingly attentive to Chinese technology theft. In the last year alone, at least two Russian citizens have been accused of espionage in cases tied to China. The public disclosure of such prosecutions represents a shift by Russian security agencies and reflects heightened vigilance against Chinese actors.

Moscow’s increased distrust of China is especially apparent in the attitude of Russian officialdom toward Chinese 5G infrastructure. Russian security agencies are increasingly wary about the presence of Chinese equipment in Russian 5G networks. This is partially out of fear that Chinese telecoms companies might build backdoors into their network equipment to enable the Chinese government to spy on Russian users. For this reason, Russian authorities allowed the construction of 5G infrastructure on the condition that only Russian telecoms equipment would be used. At the moment, however, such Russian equipment does not exist, so the development of 5G networks in Russia is essentially stalled, given the government’s reluctance to proceed with Chinese components.

While Russian authorities are considering imposing localization requirements on telecoms equipment, doing so would only result in partial domestic production because domestic Russian firms cannot manufacture such equipment from start to finish. The Russian national security establishment’s main bind is that it only truly trusts technology that is made within the country’s own borders, yet its industries lack the capabilities to pull this off.


Russia is increasingly adopting approaches to internet governance reminiscent of China’s model, but these similarities have clear limits. Until recently, Russia’s internet had developed according to the West’s model: it was relatively free and had multiple international exchange points. After street protests in 2011-2012, Russian authorities began to move, in fits and starts, to tighten control over internet users and platforms. For example, users of certain messaging services and social media networks were forced to register using their real names, and individual users have been prosecuted for what they post online. The authorities developed new tools such as deep packet inspection and compulsory traffic routing to monitor online activities.

All of these digitally repressive techniques are familiar to Chinese internet users, but the extent of Russia’s internet controls still cannot compare with China’s. After all, major Western websites like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter are all banned in China, but they operate—for now—in Russia. What accounts for these differences?

There are two reasons for Russia’s relative online openness. First, Russia’s internet infrastructure was originally built according to Western principles of openness, and the government has long touted the digital economy as a tool for promoting the diversification of the Russian economy. Against this backdrop, it has been more technically (and politically) difficult for Russia to set up the strict firewalls and content monitoring that China uses.

Second, whereas China has popular local equivalents of prominent global internet websites and apps, Russian users are accustomed to using Western-owned social media networks, search engines, and email services. Blocking them would be extremely disruptive for Russian users, particularly when Russian alternatives do not exist. If the Russian government were to impose such a firewall, it could spur public discontent or even social instability, a possibility that does not appear to be lost on the Russian authorities. State-backed efforts to build local competitors to platforms like YouTube are only in their infancy.

Meanwhile, Russia’s regulatory body for the telecoms sector, Roskomnadzor, has threatened to block Twitter in Russia if the platform does not remove content the Russian authorities consider illegal. But it is unclear whether the government is actually prepared to deny access to Twitter, which has a relatively small Russian user base. At the same time, the Russian government is pressuring Western tech companies on multiple fronts. For instance, it is threatening to impose fines assessed against a percentage of tech companies’ global profits and preparing legislation modeled after a Turkish bill that mandates that tech companies open new local representational offices within the country. Although the government was badly embarrassed in mid-2018 by a botched attempt to ban the popular messaging platform Telegram, it lately has become much more aggressive in its stance toward internet and social media platforms that can be used to mobilize people for street protests.

Russia’s approach to digital surveillance is similar to its stance on semiconductors and other forms of advanced technology—a reliance on both Western and Chinese technologies due to a limited capacity for homegrown import substitution. On the one hand, the coronavirus pandemic has moderately spurred the arrival of new digital surveillance systems in Russia. During the pandemic, Moscow’s surveillance camera systems have tracked people in the streets to detect infractions of quarantine rules. Citizens have been automatically fined for violating lockdown measures. Furthermore, Russian authorities used facial recognition technology to identify, track, and arrest protesters who attended the January 2021 demonstrations over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Russian officials reportedly maintain a database tracking the location of dissidents, which can alert the police when such individuals appear in the vicinity of political protests. Many of these developments seem fairly similar to how things have gone in China.

While the Russian government has copied the spirit of China’s digital authoritarian model during the pandemic, it has not followed through on the finer technical details of this vision, nor has it provided commensurate resource allocations. For instance, the Russian government has introduced systems for monitoring and controlling the movement and activities of citizens by using facial recognition systems and QR codes that citizens need to scan to use ride-sharing services and enter buildings—practices that bear a clear resemblance to those in China. Yet these systems are being implemented in an ad hoc and hodgepodge manner in contrast to the more systematic surveillance measures installed by the Chinese state. Wealthy cities like Moscow are likely to pour resources into building advanced systems for facial recognition and surveillance, but such systems will be far less ubiquitous than they are in China and their technical features are likely to differ significantly. Moreover, the scale of China’s surveillance investments dwarfs Russia’s expenditures. In 2019, for example, Moscow allocated $53 million for its facial recognition system. In contrast, China funded 786 surveillance projects under its Sharp Eyes program and related initiatives at a cost exceeding $5 billion in 2018.


Given all the progress China has made on trailblazing digital surveillance, observers could be forgiven for mistakenly assuming that Russia buys sophisticated surveillance technology from no one else. It is true that Chinese companies hold the most patents for 5G technologies. Chinese companies have also achieved global leadership in the production of surveillance cameras: Chinese tech giants HikVision and Dahua control more than 40 percent of the global market today.

Despite this significant technological advancement, however, there are many areas in which Chinese firms continue to lag or are unable to provide comparable or basic technologies necessary to power advanced systems. Chinese products cannot match the quality of Western firms in areas such as data storage, processing systems, servers, algorithms, and software. Chinese versions of these technologies are mainly purchased by developing countries in Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where cost often plays a decisive role in purchasing decisions.

As Russian authorities continue to invest heavily in developing security and surveillance systems, they often choose to purchase highly reliable Western equipment. In fact, Moscow’s digital infrastructure for its smart city surveillance system is primarily furnished by firms like Cisco, Dell, and HP. Likewise, Moscow’s video analytics systems, which are the foundation of Russia’s model of public control, are dependent on products from Nvidia and other U.S. suppliers. Chinese vendors account for only a small share of the components purchased by Moscow’s authorities, and they are usually limited to auxiliary systems, such as uninterrupted power supplies and hard drives.

All of this goes to show the Russian state is not simply importing China’s model of digital authoritarianism and related technologies. Instead, it is building and adapting its own version­— incorporating both Chinese and Western products—based on its own needs and conditions.

Leonid Kovachich, Andrei Kolesnikov