Leonid Kovachich & Andrey Kolesnikov
The Russian authorities are closely monitoring the large-scale use of video surveillance technologies and control over the lives of citizens in China. However, Moscow is not ready to unconditionally accept the Beijing model as a model.
Is Russia trying to adopt China’s strategy of using technology for social and political control, including increasing pressure on the opposition? The widespread use of high technologies by the Chinese authorities for such purposes clearly arouses the interest of the Russian special services. However, there are a number of obstacles to the implementation of tools such as AI-based facial recognition or China’s social credit system.
The actions of the Russian authorities in this field are determined by considerations of a geopolitical nature. The coincidence of the political views of the Russian and Chinese leaders is further expanding in the context of the increasingly hostile relations between Russia and the PRC with the United States. And yet, a real alliance between Moscow and Beijing is still a long way off. Russian-Chinese relations are much more complicated than they might seem at first glance, mainly due to the serious difference in the political weight and scale of the economies of the two states. In addition, Moscow and Beijing have not completely eliminated the sources of long-standing mutual distrust.
Contrary to popular beliefs and rhetoric of Russian politicians, the Kremlin has not abandoned Western technology in key areas. Moreover, digital repression in Russia is much less widespread than in China, where technology is massively used to spy on and control citizens who, according to the authorities, may pose a threat to political and social stability.
Myth # 1: Russia is overcoming dependence on Western technology
Some analysts believe that Russia intends to follow the example of China, which plans to become independent from the West in its digital supply chains in the next ten years. However, it will be much more difficult for Moscow to achieve this than Beijing. As competition in security intensifies, Russian and Chinese leaders increasingly see the dependence on American and European technology as a major problem. (To be fair, the US and some European officials have similar concerns about technology from China.)
In practice, it will be extremely difficult for Russia to refuse supplies from the United States. At the current level of technological development, the country is not able to organize an autonomous production of semiconductor crystals (the most important component of microelectronics). The United States and Europe have a monopoly on advanced lithography equipment and electronic design automation tools for semiconductor fabrication.
Russian companies, including JSC “MCST” (formerly the Moscow Center for SPARC Technologies), cannot start the production of chips and microcircuits, which are considered their own products. The same can be said about Russian microcircuit manufacturers such as Baikal Electronics and the Elvis Scientific and Production Center, which create mobile processors for smartphones, artificial intelligence systems and IoT devices. They traditionally outsource the production itself to leading foreign companies, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which uses Western equipment and technologies. Other aspects of Sino-Russian technology cooperation also point to dependence on overseas-produced semiconductors. The largest Chinese technology company Huawei, as part of the development of a partnership with Russia, plans to produce server equipment on the basis of the Moscow company Norsi-Trans. That being said, Huawei’s R&D division remains dependent on US software and overseas contractors for chips. The servers produced jointly with Norsi-Trans will be equipped with chips created using Western technologies. Thus, China cannot be counted on as an independent partner capable of producing all the necessary components, and Russia cannot yet suspend supplies from the US and the EU.
Russian companies are also not ready to abandon Western technologies. Despite the fact that the Russian government is aggressively promoting the project of import substitution in the IT sector, Russian firms are resisting these demands. Oil and gas giants and state-owned telecommunications companies are not enthusiastic about the idea of ??replacing Western software and IT systems. In some areas, such as oil production, Russian alternatives to software supplied by Western companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger simply do not exist. And even in areas where the transition is partially possible, it will require huge costs. Thus, the head of Gazprom, according to some information, asked Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to move the timeline for the implementation of the import substitution program: according to his calculations,
Myth # 2: Russia fully trusts China as a technology partner
Despite the strengthening of ties with China, in some areas of technology, Russia still keeps its Chinese partners at a distance. Is Moscow ready to close its eyes to the fact that Beijing is often accused of stealing intellectual property? And how do you assess the likelihood that China could use backdoors built into the products it supplies – especially given Moscow’s growing concern about the threat of hostile Western intelligence operations? In the past, Moscow has sometimes ignored such risks, but not too often.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian government periodically ignored the fact that China violated intellectual property rights in the field of Russian innovative military and technological developments. The country continued to supply China with weapons as it maintained a defense industrial base, funded the development of new weapons systems, and kept China as its largest buyer. At that moment, Russian leaders felt that cutting arms exports to China would be completely unprofitable. Moreover, it was assumed that by the time Beijing was able to establish production of some Russian systems, Russia would have more advanced weapons.
This does not mean, however, that Russia is unaware of the dangers of intellectual property theft or industrial espionage by China. In some areas related to defense and national security, Russia has long preferred to use its own technology rather than relying on imports from the West or from China. In addition, the Russian security services are showing more and more attention to this problem. In the past year alone, at least two Russian citizens have been charged with high treason and espionage in cases involving China. The disclosure of such processes indicates an increased vigilance with regard to Chinese structures. The growing mistrust in China is especially noticeable in the reaction of Russian officials to China’s 5G infrastructure. Russian security services are increasingly wary of Chinese equipment on Russian fifth-generation networks. This is due in part to fears that Chinese telecommunications companies could build backdoors into their network equipment, allowing their government to spy on Russian users. For this reason, the Russian authorities agreed to build infrastructure for 5G only on condition that they use domestic telecommunications equipment. However, now there is no such equipment in Russia and the development of 5G networks, in fact, has stopped.
The Russian authorities are considering the idea of ??introducing a requirement that telecommunications equipment must be produced only in Russia – however, local companies are not able to organize a full production cycle. The paradox is that the Russian state security bodies trust only technologies created within the country, but there are no opportunities for the development of such production so far.
Myth # 3: Russia Reproduces China’s Digital Authoritarianism as a Carbon Copy
Russia is actively introducing approaches to Internet governance that are very similar to the Chinese, but this similarity has certain limits. Until recently, the Russian Internet developed according to the Western model: it was relatively free and open for international exchange. However, after the protest actions of 2011-2012, the authorities began to tighten control over users and Internet platforms.
For example, users of so-me messengers and social networks began to be for-ced to register under their real names, and individual citizens were prosecuted for posts on social networks. To monitor the activities of citizens in the network, the authorities have developed new tools, such as DPI technologies.
All of these methods of digital repression are well known to Chinese Internet users, but so far the level of control over the Internet in Russia is not comparable to what is happening in China. Key Western services such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter are blocked in China, but work in Russia. How can this be explained?
There are two reasons for the relative freedom of the Internet in Russia. First, the infrastructure of the Russian Internet was originally built on Western principles of openness. This means that it is technically (and politically) more difficult for Russia to install the firewall and content monitoring systems that China uses.
Secondly, if in China there are local analogues of the world’s main Internet services, then Russians are used to using Western social networks, search and postal services. Blocking them will be a serious blow to the interests of users – given that there are virtually no local alternatives: work on creating local platforms like YouTube, which is being carried out with the support of the state, is just beginning. If the Russian government decides to take such measures, it could provoke serious public discontent or even social instability – a prospect hardly desirable for the authorities. Roskomnadzor, meanwhile, has threatened to block Twitter in Russia if the site does not remove information that the authorities deemed illegal. Howe-ver, it is not entirely clear whether the government is really willing to shut down Twitter, which has relatively few Russian users.
In parallel, the Russian government is increasing pressure on Western tech companies. This includes the threat of levying fines in the form of a percentage of the company’s global profits, and the preparation of the so-called “landing law”, which obliges technology companies to open offices within the country. Despite a failed attempt to block Telegram in mid-2018, the government has stepped up its assault on the internet and social media, which is being used to mobilize street protests.
The Russian approach to video surveillance is similar to the position regarding semiconductors and other types of advanced technologies – it is a forced dependence on Western and Chinese suppliers. The pandemic has stimulated the emergence of new video surveillance systems in Russia. During the lockdown period, Moscow street video surveillance systems were used to identify violators of the quarantine regime: fines were automatically imposed on citizens for violating the isolation rules.
Moreover, the Russian authorities are using a facial recognition system to track and arrest protesters. Russian officials reportedly maintain a database of opposition-minded activists and notify the police when any of them is in the vicinity of protests. Many of these developments are very similar to those in China.
And yet, while the Russian government followed the spirit of China’s digital authoritarian model during the pandemic, the concept was not elaborated in detail and in terms of adequate resource allocation. For example, the authorities launched programs to monitor and control the movements and actions of citizens, using a facial recognition system and introducing QR codes that must be scanned when traveling and at the entrance to buildings – this practice, of course, copies the Chinese experience. But, unlike the well-built organization of video surveillance in China, these technologies were introduced here ill-considered and chaotic.
Wealthy cities, primarily Moscow, are likely to continue to develop advanced video surveillance and facial recognition systems, but these systems will not be as widespread as in China, and will technically differ significantly from their Chinese counterparts. The scale of China’s investments in video surveillance technologies significantly exceeds Russian ones. So, Moscow allocated $ 53 million for the face recognition system in 2019. For comparison: China in 2018 funded 786 projects under the “Sharp Eye” program and related initiatives worth more than $ 5 billion.
Myth # 4: Russia only buys digital surveillance technology from China
Considering China’s success in digital video surveillance, one can understand those who mistakenly assume that Russia only buys advanced video surveillance technologies from it. The largest number of patents for 5G technology actually belong to Chinese companies. They have also achieved global leadership in CCTV cameras, with Chinese giants Hikvision and Dahua controlling over 40% of the global market.
However, there are many areas where Chinese companies continue to lag behind Western competitors, such as data processing and storage systems, servers, algorithms and software. Comprehensive Chinese solutions are mainly borrowed by the countries of Central Asia, Latin America, Africa, where the issue of cost sometimes plays a decisive role.
As the Russian authorities continue to actively invest in the development of security systems and video surveillance, they prefer to buy more reliable Western equipment. In Moscow, the digital infrastructure for smart video surveillance systems is mainly supplied by Cisco, Dell and HP. Likewise, Moscow’s video analytics systems, which are the basis for the Russian digital control model, depend on products from Nvidia and other US suppliers. In China, the Moscow authorities buy only a fraction of the components for auxiliary systems, such as uninterruptible power supplies and hard drives.
All of this suggests that the Russian state is not just importing the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism and related technologies. It builds and debugs its own version, using both Chinese and Western products, based on its needs and current circumstances.