Suddenly Putin’s Worried About Online Attacks in the Run-Up to His Own Presidential Election
The Kremlin has threatened many times to block opposition figure Aleksei Navalny’s site and its investigations of corruption. Now it’s actually done it. But the fight isn’t over.
After several days of threats, Russia's internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has finally blocked the website of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, Navalny.com, for Russian internet users. The move comes in response to Navalny's scandalous video, posted a week ago, featuring Paul Manafort's ex-business partner Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, and Russian Deputy Prime Sergei Prikhodko cruising the coast of Norway in August 2016 with a group of "escort ladies." The leader of the ladies' group, who calls herself Nastya Rybka, provided salacious revelations about the cruise in a book she published last year and video taken with her cell phone that was used by Navalny for his report.
Following a court ruling last week in a suit brought by Deripaska, Roskomnadzor had demanded that Navalny delete the video and had also informed YouTube and Instagram that their sites would be blocked if they did not remove it. But nothing happened, and an emboldened Navalny tweeted defiantly on Wednesday: "February 14 has arrived and Youtube and Instagram are still operating. What's up with you, Roskomnadzor?" Toward the end of the day, he added another tweet, joking that he had promised "Ruslan" and "Daddy" (Rybka's respective nicknames for Deripaska and Prikhodko) that there would be five million viewers of his video as a Valentine's Day present, but the number only reached 4.8 million.
As if to make his point, Navalny posted a new clip, with the title "The Simplest Proof that Putin is Corrupt." Against background music from Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker,” the clip features a series of photographs of Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing designer watches, along with their price tags in dollars. The total value of the watches, $624,000, is then compared to Putin's publicly declared income for the past six years: 38 million rubles (roughly $670,000). This means, Navalny exclaims, that Putin has spent his entire salary for this period on watches!
Russian authorities have in the past threatened to shut down Navalny's website, as well as sites like YouTube and Instagram, but never followed up. Last May, a Russian judge ordered Navalny to delete the entire website that hosted a video about the corruption of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, which had already been viewed by over 20 million visitors to the site. Navalny ignored the order. Just last December, Roskomnadzor directed YouTube and Twitter to block access to the barred website Open Russia, sponsored by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a fierce Kremlin critic. Although the two services did not comply, their sites were not affected.
What was it about Navalny's video that led Russian authorities to finally take such drastic action against him? It could be that the presence of a bevy of prostitutes on Deripaska's yacht hit a raw Kremlin nerve. Deripaska's personal life is one thing, but Prikhodko has been a leading government official ever since the Yeltsin years, playing a key role in matters of foreign policy. And the Kremlin leadership does not like sex scandals. In fact, in 1999, Russian Prosecutor-General Iurii Skuratov (who happened to be investigating corruption within Yeltsin's family) was forced to resign after a video of him cavorting with prostitutes (filmed by the FSB, which Putin headed at the time) was shown on Russian television.
The fact that Navalny's video showed Deripaska and Prikhodko discussing U.S. foreign policy on the yacht in early August, after Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had allegedly offered Deripaska reports on what was happening in the presidential race, might also have caused the Kremlin displeasure.
Exiled Russian journalist Iulia Latynina claimed that "Aleksei Navalny is the first to provide real proof … of the agreement between Trump staff member Paul Manafort and Russia…. Navalny did the research that the FBI, the CIA, the director of National Intelligence and Special Prosecutor [Robert] Mueller could not do."
But Deripaska is known to be close to Putin, so he would not necessarily have needed an intermediary like Prikhodko to convey information about the Trump campaign. Most likely the Kremlin's main motivation in moving against Navalny is the threat that Navalny's use of the internet poses for Russia's presidential elections on March 18, where the Kremlin is hoping for a healthy turnout in favor of Putin.
Putin is certain to get two thirds of the votes, but because of calls by Navalny, who is barred from the ballot, for a boycott of the election, the turnout could be as low as 55 percent. It is hardly a surprise that, as shown by a live video posted yesterday by Navalny's campaign staff in Orenburg, police raided its headquarters and confiscated leaflets urging the public to boycott the elections.
The vast majority of Russians still use state-controlled television as their main source of news, and Putin's high approval rating (close to 80 percent) is in large part attributable to the constant barrage of pro-Putin propaganda that television viewers are fed. A case in point, is the airing this week on Russia's Channel One of the four-part series of fawning interviews with Putin by American filmmaker Oliver Stone, which were released in the spring of 2017.
But the internet is rapidly gaining ascendance among younger Russian audiences, despite increasing efforts by Russian authorities to curtail internet freedom. A law empowering the Prosecutor-General to block websites that disseminate "undesirable content" has been in place since 2015 and several U.S. donor groups like Open Russia are now banned. Last summer, new legislation was introduced that allows Roskomnadzor to ban internet proxy services (VPNs), if they allow internet users access to websites blocked by the government. And a second bill requires online messaging services such as Facebook and Telegram to make users' personal data available to law enforcement agencies. But until now, Russian authorities have dragged their feet in enforcing the regulations.
Russian journalist Evgenia Albats observed last spring that Navalny was able to use the internet as a tool for opposing the Kremlin because Putin and his colleagues did not fully appreciate how effective it could be: "Putin doesn't trust [the] internet. He believes that it is a trash can, that no real information exists [there]...he himself doesn't use it. And therefore, his bureaucracy in general is not using it as well."
Given the Kremlin’s success in exploiting the internet to undermine American democracy, it is ironic that it would take so long for Putin and his colleagues to realize its powerful impact at home. Judging from their decision to block Navalny's website, they have now come to see the internet as a crucial battleground in their struggle to suppress political opposition. But Navalny is not to be deterred. He is suing the government for illegal censorship. And for now, although Instagram has deleted the video that the Kremlin finds so offensive, YouTube has not. As for Navalny's website, it has been redirected to http://rybka.fuckrkn.org.