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Russia’s Successes and Shortfalls

A closer look beyond the statements and proclaimed goals of Russia’s leadership reveals sober realities. The Russian state is actively building up its sovereign internet and gaining more and more direct control over society and the domestic IT market. At the same time, Russia remains highly dependent on others and has failed to utilize its technological potential for the country’s digitally sovereign future. In this chapter, we map and analyze the implementation of both the sovereign internet and technology sovereignty to provide a detailed picture.

Succeeding in Censorship and Securing the Regime

Over the last several years, content security and a sovereign internet have been actively implemented. A mere decade ago, Russians made use of the unfettered internet to keep themselves informed or organize protests. Today, state authorities use digital technology to hinder free communication, prevent the dissemination of critical information, and control both society and internet companies.

Controlling the Internet Infrastructure

Under the Sovereign Internet Law, Russia also plans to build its own Domain Name System (DNS) and infrastructure managed by Roskomnadzor as an alternative to the one currently globally managed by the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). In a nutshell, the DNS can be considered the backbone of the internet, serving as its “phone book” by allocating domain names and associating them with IP addresses.

There is no doubt that this step represents a tall technical challenge; no single country has yet created a system that could work in parallel to the worldwide DNS. But the Kremlin has its reasons. It sees ICANN as being dominated by the United States and fears that Russia could get cut off from the global internet from outside – even if this is technically almost impossible. Since the Kremlin started criticizing ICANN in 2012, Russia has pursued more independence from it and pushed for state control over the national DNS. This is crucial for Russia not only in the context of internet governance in general, but also for achieving greater control over information and maintaining the regime’s stability.

Such possible disruption of the internet in Russia, however, does not seem likely to deter the authorities from implementing the national DNS. Since early 2021, Russian internet service providers are required to connect to the new national DNS – although they can still connect to the worldwide DNS in parallel. Some companies that have not established a connection to the national DNS have already been fined. However, as the fines for companies are currently low, some companies prefer to pay them and not connect to the national DNS to not be disrupted by incidents that such a connection could cause. These disruptions could cost them more than the fines. This example, in turn, shows that Russian authorities still have technical limits in censoring information because of technical dependency on international internet companies. Therefore, the state has gradually deployed pressure and threatened IT companies with fines and prosecution in an attempt to subjugate them.

Pushing Foreign IT Out of the Russian Market and Taking Over Domestic Tech

In the case of another Russian tech giant – Yandex, which is registered in the Netherlands – the state has indirect control over the strategic decisions of the company. Yandex was forced to build state control into its corporate governance structure and adapt to the legislation limiting foreign ownership of major internet companies.

Staying Dependent and Missing the Chance for Tech Power

Compared to its progress on the sovereign internet, Russia has achieved less significant results in technology sovereignty. This confirms the assessment that the state has prioritized content security and regime stability over economic growth and technological leadership.

To guarantee that its long-term goal of self-sufficiency in IT can be met, Russia would need to create equivalents for the entire foreign tech stack – hardware, software, and data. This huge challenge is almost impossible to achieve in the short and medium term. Despite its proclaimed course, Russia is still dependent on crucial foreign technologies and global supply chains. Forced IT import substitution, which privileges a closed group of companies and creates artificial IT markets for them, would lead to the marginalization of its IT sector and digital economy.

Since we have limited space in this paper, we will only focus our analysis on a few industries that we assume will play the most important role in the realm of technology sovereignty for Russia. When it comes to Russia’s progress on achieving self-sufficiency in the hardware sector, we will look at central processing units (CPUs) and the creation of domestic 5G solutions. In the software sector, we will turn to operating systems, software and repository hosting platforms, and cloud computing solutions. We will then close this section by assessing the effects of Russia’s digital and innovation policy on its pursuit of technology sovereignty, including in the area of artificial intelligence (AI).

Self-Sufficiency in the Hardware Sector

Especially in the hardware sector, Russia’s current position is weak. Although the country has a few of its own manufacturers of processors, proper self-sufficiency will hardly be possible anytime soon.

In Russia, processors are mainly developed by two companies, both of which have already successfully launched microchips for use in computers: Baikal Electronics and the Moscow Centre of SPARC Technologies (MCST).

Baikal Electronics, a subsidiary of the Russian supercomputer company T-Platforms, manufactures CPUs based on the ARM architecture. ARM is a British semiconductor company owned by SoftBank Group, a multinational conglomerate holding company based in Japan. To use the architecture, Baikal Electronics pays fees to ARM. This means that it is not independent of Western companies and cannot only rely on Russian solutions.

From a technical point of view, the choice of ARM is obvious: it is the leading chip design company in the world and has been praised for being a very powerful and highly energy-efficient platform. Originally, ARM architecture was mainly used in mobile phones, but, more and more, it is finding its way into other devices such as laptops. For example, with its M1 chip, Apple has started to produce its own CPUs based on ARM, breaking benchmark records in terms of performance and power-management.

ARM chips of the BE-M1000 type for Baikal are produced by the Taiwanese company TSMC, one of the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturers. In fall 2021, Baikal received the first batch of its ARM chips; however, the number of delivered units per month – 5,000 – is very low. In the long term, the company plans to obtain up to 15,000 units per month from TSMC.

The Baikal processors are supposed to be used in the computers of state-owned companies. According to outside assessments, the processor is comparably slow: it has roughly the same performance as low-end Intel CPUs from 2017 that were designed to handle only light office tasks.

Apart from Baikal’s CPU and its modified operating system Astra Linux, none of its other components are designed or manufactured in Russia. Given that the country currently has no production capacities for memory chips and storage drives, it is therefore fully dependent on foreign manufacturers.

How a CPU Architecture WorksIn very simplified terms, a computer’s CPU architecture links its hardware to its software and defines what a CPU needs to do. CPUs work when given specific instructions – a so-called instruction set – that tells the processor how to move data and perform calculations. Different CPUs use different instruction sets, each of which has their own respective advantage, for example creating more performance while consuming less power.

The second Russian computer manufacturer, MCST, uses its own Elbrus architecture, which works with the VLIW method. While VLIW (Very Long Instruction Word) has proven itself in a very specific application area, it is not suitable for the mass market. The complicated programming paths within the processor make it too energy intensive for operations in everyday applications and consumer devices.

Elbrus computers are designed according to Russia’s governmental requirements for security and reliability and only used by customers whose work is designated as sensitive to the state, such as the Ministry of the Interior and some oil and gas companies. Elbrus plans on releasing its newest CPU soon, the so-called 16C, which will have more cores and run considerably faster than its older versions. In comparison to today’s leading-edge processors though, Elbrus will still be significantly slower. Elbrus also depends on chips manufactured by TSMC in Taiwan.

The state corporation Rostec – together with the developer Yadro, a subsidiary of ICS Holding that belongs to Alisher Usmanov, a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin – has now set its sights on producing another Russian processor. Rostec aims to create a new processor for use in computers at schools, universities, and hospitals by 2025. It is not yet possible to say how powerful this new CPU will be; although the architecture (RISC-V), the number of cores (8), the projected clock speed (2 GHz), and the production size (12 nm) are known, no clear conclusions can be drawn about performance. Such assessment is difficult mainly because the Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) of RISC-V, which creates the link between hardware and software and defines what a processor is capable of, is not yet used as a standard. For conventional ISAs, processor manufacturers must pay royalties to companies like ARM or Intel. RISC-V, however, is open source and therefore available for free. Its new and largely unproven architecture does not yet make it possible to say whether the project will be successful at all – let alone in the tight timeframe foreseen by Rostec. Yet even if the project were to be completed by 2025, it is unlikely that the processor will be able to compete with the likes of Intel or AMD, major manufacturers of computer processors both based in the United States, in terms of performance. Admittedly, the Russian state’s main objective is not to be best in performance but to reduce its dependence on Western systems by providing workable alternatives.

Despite the developments at Baikal Electronics and MCST, Russia is not able to produce its own chips. Initially, the Elbrus CPU was supposed to be produced by Russia’s biggest manufacturer of microelectronics, the Mikron Group. This project never materialized. In fact, Russian manufacturers do not seem to be able to produce any chips with small Dennard scaling (see box). Both the Elbrus and the Baikal CPUs are manufactured by TSMC in Taiwan – on machines that TSMC needs to order in Europe. Moreover, as already mentioned, Russia does not have the capability to manufacture memory chips and storage drives. Thus, there is no independent, purely Russian supply chain.

Producing Advanced CPUsPhotolithography machines are needed to produce CPUs. The most advanced producer of these machines – and the only one using the Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography (EUVL) required to manufacture modern chips with smaller Dennard scaling, i. , in very simplified terms those having smaller transistors that make CPUs more powerful – is a Dutch company called ASML. It effectively holds a monopoly in this domain.

Russia can produce other types of chips for civil and military use. The Mikron Group, for example, sells products including bank card microcontrollers, power management chips, and radio frequency identification (RFID) chips. Russian companies such as Angstrem used to produce chips for military use but are now bankrupt. Evidence suggests, however, that Russia almost exclusively imports chips for highly sophisticated applications.

It is also complicated for Russia to develop domestic solutions for the hardware required for its fifth-generation cellular network, so-called 5G.

Russia’s plans to use only domestic systems and software in building up its 5G network have created a lot of uncertainty for domestic mobile operators. Currently, the country has none of its own equipment and therefore relies on foreign vendors with whom Russian operators have cooperated for several decades to establish the previous generations of the country’s cellular network. But this policy plays into the hands of the state corporation Rostec, one of the main drivers of import substitutions. After it lobbied for the exclusive use of Russian-made equipment, it received a major contract to manufacture 5G technology and billions of rubles in state subsidies. However, Rostec’s equipment will not be ready until 2024 at the earliest – a long time in a rapidly changing technology market. Moreover, given that Russian companies have no expertise in mass-producing 5G equipment and there are no Russian 5G patents in international ratings, the timespan for building 5G equipment from the ground up by 2024 is very ambitious, if not unrealistic.

A way to build up 5G and claim it as Russian might be the localization of foreign technology production on Russian territory. This could also provide a certain level of control over the 5G infrastructure. In fall 2021, the Finnish corporation Nokia and Yadro, a Russian manufacturer of computing equipment, agreed to create a joint venture for the production of base stations of 4G and 5G standards in Russia. Production will be done at the Yadro plant under construction in Dubna, a city close to Moscow. In addition, Nokia software licenses will be transferred and a research and development (R&D) center for the advancement of 4G and 5G technology will be established. Other foreign vendors, such as China’s Huawei and ZTE, as well as Sweden’s Ericsson, have also expressed interest in localization.

For now, it seems like Russia is trying to avoid one-sided dependency and find balance among the leading companies in this field – Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei. The 5G example is significant as it shows that, despite clashes with the West, the presumption of Russia’s drift toward the Chinese tech sphere has not played out. Even if Chinese tech companies are actively expanding their presence in the Russian market and Huawei extended its investments in R&D in Russia after the United States announced sanctions against the company, a decisive shift to Chinese technologies is anything but certain. Russia’s IT sector and its state security services have fundamental security concerns about relying on Chinese IT. Also, Russia is reluctant to solely rely on Chinese companies as they have already been sanctioned by the United States and might be targeted again, leading to a negative spillover effect on Russia itself.

The development of 5G in Russia is facing not only the import substitution problem but also another major obstacle: the availability of the so-called golden band – radio frequencies from 3. 4 to 3. 8 GHz that are considered to be the most suitable for the development of the network worldwide. For now, Russia’s siloviki occupy these frequencies and are not willing to free them up for commercial purposes. As an alternative, Russia’s network operators were offered the band from 4. 4 to 4. 9 GHz. Even if it is also possible to develop a 5G network on this band, equipment costs will be significantly higher and deployment significantly slower under such conditions, much to the chagrin of many investors who see 5G playing a major role in advanced technologies. Consequently, the future of 5G and, with it, Russia’s digital economy and competitiveness remains uncertain at best.

Self-Sufficiency in the Software Sector

Among governmental authorities and businesses, there is strong reluctance to decouple from familiar and proven Western technologies. Often, domestic alternatives to foreign IT are lacking, especially in terms of quality. In addition, there are practical hurdles of compatibility. Russian analogues have proven to be poorly compatible both with each other and foreign solutions, for example when it comes to database management systems (DBMS) or operating systems (OS).

Currently, Aurora OS is installed on many mobile devices of the employees of Russian Railways, the Russian Post Service, and Rostelecom. It was also installed on hundreds of thousands of tablets involved in the All-Russia Population Census in autumn 2021. The mandatory provision of teachers and doctors with Russian tablets based on Aurora OS is currently planned. So most probably, employees of governmental bodies, state-owned companies, and critical infrastructure will soon be obliged to use Aurora on their work smartphones and tablets.

Although Aurora cannot compete with Android and iOS on the free market and could hardly become commercially viable, it is still very likely that the state will continue to create such spaces for the Russian mobile operating system. If Russia’s security services continue to see it as a secure solution and an alternative to foreign OS, Aurora has good chances of being implemented in the state sector.

Open Source Software and Repository Hosting Platforms

Since then, the idea of replicating these sites nationally to circumvent such restrictions has arisen in Russia several times. Most recently, Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, proposed to launch a domestic analogue version of GitHub. Whether this is at all feasible in practice and if it could have the potential of becoming popular is controversial. The incident showed that the fear of being cut off from the outside world, at least in some areas and for some businesses, could be genuine, making a transfer or backup onto Russian systems in line with state interests.

Cloud Computing and Data Sovereignty

Even if large US companies do not yet directly have data centers in Russia, it can be assumed that they will not want to forgo the market in the long term. For Google, Meta, or Microsoft, for example, Russia is already an important market; yet they are currently violating Russian law to some extent. Both cooperation with Russian companies (which we will mention later) and examples from China show that, when the pressure from the authorities becomes too great, companies tend to think economically. For instance, to be able to keep selling its products in China, Apple had to move some of its data onto Chinese soil. Since then, certain iCloud data has been stored on servers there. Apple claims that the data is encrypted and that only Apple has the keys to decrypt it, though this cannot be verified. If Russia were to enforce its data localization law vehemently, it remains to be seen whether Western companies will also give in to the pressure of the state and store their data on Russian soil. Missing out on the Russian market might not be an option for profit-oriented companies like Apple or Google.

Compared to other countries, Russia’s current cloud computing market is not particularly large. This is mainly because the use of cloud computing there only started at a late stage. Globally, around 50 percent of companies use cloud-based solutions, while in Russia the figure is just under 20 percent. Nevertheless, the market is growing fast and it warrants taking a closer look at the three sectors that comprise it.

Three Service Models of Cloud ComputingIn cloud computing, providers usually offer three different service models:IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) provides customers with IT infrastructure, for example servers, that they can rent. Customers then need to manage the software on the servers themselves. While the providers make sure the servers run properly, they usually do not interfere with what customers load onto them. PaaS (Platform as a Service) provides customers with a platform that enables them to develop applications, for example AI platforms. Saas (Software as a service) provides finished ready-to-use-software that customers can rent and that fulfills their task with no additional development. For example, email providers or video conferencing platforms are categorized as SaaS.

Digital and Innovation Policy

For now, it is unclear how Russia’s state-controlled and state-driven digital policy, as well as its ongoing IT import-substitution, will foster the quality of the country’s IT and its prospects in the technological race in the long term. It is doubtful that Russian IT companies could become globally competitive under sector development driven by protectionism. On the contrary: artificially favorable conditions for privileged companies and pressure on both foreign companies and independent Russian IT businesses will reduce the country’s competitiveness. Moreover, Russia’s authoritarian turn and the worsening geopolitical situation will increasingly lead to the retreat of homegrown IT leaders – companies and people – to the West.

These trends will lead to a negative impact on the development of Russia’s IT industry and reduce its chances of becoming a technological leader. Aiming to reverse them and keep up in the global technology sphere, Russia’s leadership has initiated several strategies for digital and innovation policy. However, their implementation reveals significant problems in achieving the targets and catching up with the leading countries.

One of the main national programs in this field, which is called “Digital Economy,” faces serious challenges. It was launched in 2017 and included ambitious plans for the development of the Russian IT industry. Yet, the government has failed to achieve its own performance indicators, postponing deadlines again and again, and cutting the program’s budget a number of times. One of the key parts of the Digital Economy program is a federal project on information infrastructure, which also includes the concept of 5G development; it has only reached one of the ten goals set for the second quarter of 2020. There is no clear explanation for this underperformance, but presumably the model of massive state investment is outdated for the needs of a modern digital economy. Instead, such an economy would require functioning innovation ecosystems, developed institutional settings, and a favorable business environment.

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has been made a high priority by Russia’s leadership – mirroring a similar development in many advanced countries. Even if Russia currently has a modest position among world leaders like China and the United States, it is actively developing its technology, regulatory frameworks, and research in this area. Between 2011 and 2019, for example, publications on AI and robotics in Russia grew at 3. 6 percent annually, one of the fastest rates in the world.

In October 2019, the country adopted the National Artificial Intelligence Development Strategy for 2020 to 2030 and aims to become one of the world’s leaders in AI and robotics. One year later, the biggest players in Russia’s AI development – Sberb, Gazprom Neft, Yandex, VK, MTS, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund – signed a code of ethics on AI. It defines general principles and standards for creating, implementing, and using AI technologies.

When it comes to the funding of AI, it is not easy to grasp its precise scope. There are several schemes to foster research and development in AI, but, at the same time, significant cuts have already been made to the budget of the federal AI program. According to a proposed AI road map, Russia will spend 244 billion rubles (about $3. 3 billion) on the development of AI through 2024. Some estimates suggest that Russia’s fund is far less than those of China and the United States, the global leaders in AI. Still, the amount is comparable to the scope of AI funding in other Western countries such as the UK and Germany.

In Russia’s case, it is probably more important to look at who is driving AI development than what the official numbers say. One of the main actors behind Russia’s AI strategy and development is a very powerful player – Sberbank, a state-owned bank that is the largest in the country. Sberbank, or simply Sber after having dropped the word “bank” from its logo, no longer positions itself as a mere bank, but rather as a new tech leader in Russia. Under the leadership of its influential president, Herman Gref, it is actively developing its own IT ecosystem around the unprecedented quantity of data it has from its customers, assets, and capital. Sber has invested in services such as food delivery, e-commerce, cloud technology, and digital healthcare, ending up with a very diverse set of digital assets. Doubtless, it realizes the growing importance of AI for future-proofing its business model and is ready to invest into its development. At the same time, it can rely on support from the Russian state, which also sees the potential of AI’s dual use nature in possible advantages for the military sector.

The extent to which Russia will be able to reach its goals in the AI race remains to be seen. For now, Russia can hardly be described as a leader in the global context, as it is far behind the tech powers of the United States and China. However, Russia could use the potential of its existing IT sector, scholarly traditions in mathematics, and skilled specialists to develop its own AI solutions for certain niches and regions.

An indicator that Russia might be catching up is that it is moving up in the list of the 500 most powerful computers. Not long ago, Russia had only three supercomputers; today it has seven and is among the top ten leading countries according to the number of supercomputers. Again, in comparison to China and the United States which have 173 and 149 supercomputers respectively, Russia’s capacity is rather poor. At the same time, it performs successfully in its league in one of the most promising areas for the future. Moreover, Russia has several domestic actors that are developing supercomputers and have managed to get into the top 500: Yandex, Moscow State University, MTS, and Sber. Recently, Sber launched its second supercomputer, the Christofari Neo, and is catching up with Yandex.

Jury Mentions

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Alena Strom

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