Cutting Russia off from American technology could backfire

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    The world relies heavily on American technology: Intel chips, Microsoft code, Google search, Apple phones, Amazon’s cloud. And this fact can give the United States extraordinary leverage in geopolitical conflicts.

    As U.S. officials seek to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine, experts say, they run into the limits of this leverage.

    Technological deduction can be a soft power weapon to potentially turn a population against its leaders. However, it can also be costly to the US economy, slow to yield results, and have a bad effect – more likely to affect ordinary Russians using their iPhones than shooting generals. rockets on Ukrainian cities.

    There is another cost, as well. Experts warn that the United States’ dominant position in global technology has been built over generations but could be eroded in just a few years as rival powers – and especially Russia and China – investing billions of dollars to develop alternative technologies domestically, partly to reduce US Leverage at times like these.

    Even as Russians buy iPads, Android devices and Windows computers in anger, President Vladimir Putin is pushing to detox the country from Western technologies. And if Russia and other US adversaries succeed, the ability of US intelligence agencies – particularly skilled in exploiting US-made technology – could also suffer long-term damage to monitor developments in the next conflict, experts say.

    As a result, while technology sanctions can be unquestionably powerful, when implemented, they can trigger backlashes that undermine its long-term utility. The exclusion of rivals for US-made technology also threatens the future global outlook of an industry that has driven US economic growth for much of this century. The rise of Russia’s Google – or China’s Facebook or Iran’s YouTube – is not a theoretical development. They are already happening.

    “When you separate them from American technology, they find options,” said Peter Micek, general counsel of Access Now, a human rights group that advocates to make Internet services available to people worldwide. choose instead.

    Pressure on big tech companies to take a tougher line against Russia

    American technology officials and executives are trying to navigate this risk-and-reward board as they assemble a series of powerful punitive moves against Russia.

    The result has been increasing hardware restrictions, with Apple joining others in blocking sales to Russia and major social media platforms to limit the spread of Russian propaganda. through the state-funded RT information service – usually to meet the needs of Western governments. Tools for making digital purchases, such as Apple Pay, have also stopped working as Western sanctions cut back on normal Russian banks.

    But calls by Ukrainian officials in general to strip Russians of access to social media and even the Internet have provoked significant outcry from both companies and digital rights groups, who say that things like Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram are key to delivering information within Russia. They are often the only sources of news about the horrors Putin is inflicting on the Ukrainian people at a time when his control over the national media is almost complete.

    Meanwhile, the Russian government has tightened its grip on these companies, blocking Facebook and Twitter, and threatening action against Google in retaliation for its YouTube subsidiary restricting access to RT at the request of Google. Western governments.

    But as this conflict unfolds, the idea of ​​depriving Russian American companies of software updates or online support has not gained traction, although such moves could gradually erode wear down the technological tools used by the Russian government and its people every day.

    Such actions could increase frustration with Putin, experts say, but could also increase hostility against Western powers, persuading political leaders to pursue more aggressive strategies to undermine Silicon Valley’s tech hegemony. Another risk for the United States is Russia’s active adoption of technology from China, which increasingly offers viable alternatives to U.S. products and has made large financial investments to become a independent from Silicon Valley.

    These changes can be particularly felt by Russian consumers who have long been accustomed to iPhones and other American technologies. It is rare for political leaders to be the main victims of sanctions, despite efforts to target their wealth, experts say. Often, ordinary citizens of a country lose access to cash, imported goods, or potentially the technological conveniences of modern life – including information from unofficial sources. awake.

    “In the end you will put pressure on the population. It’s inevitable,” said Richard Nephew, a former US State Department sanctions official who is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. “The real question is whether what you’re doing in the country is making life more difficult, rather than life-threatening.”

    Social media promotes new type of ‘fog of war’ in Ukraine conflict

    In the absence of broader US sanctions on consumer technology in Russia, Ukrainian government officials have launched their own social media pressure campaign to promote companies. Western technology cuts their products and services from Russia. Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s deputy minister of digital transformation, said cutting out popular tech products would be a powerful way to turn public opinion in Russia against Putin – especially among young people.

    “They don’t want to be disconnected from the rest of the world,” Bornyakov said in an interview. “They want to use Instagram. They want to use other social media. They want to use an iPhone or an Android phone. They want to be part of a global community. If he starts a fight, and this leads to total isolation, I think at some point they start to ask, why are we doing this? “

    For several years, Russia – as well as China – has been promoting policies and investments to counter American technology and the geopolitical leverage that comes with it. That has helped Yandex, for example, become Russia’s most popular search engine.

    Just this week, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin called for more import substitution to reduce the country’s reliance on Western products, especially from technology companies, reports said.

    According to Samuel Bendett, a military technology expert at CNA, Russia has also developed alternatives to the Windows operating system and Intel chips, although the Zhores supercomputer – one of the fastest in Russia – uses graphics accelerators made by Nvidia, based in Northern California, a research team.

    Justin Sherman, a member of the Atlantic Council on Russia and Internet Security, said Russia requires the use of homegrown software on some products sold there and has a list of approved technology. approval that government purchasing agents must favor.

    However, these efforts have been met with major headwinds in terms of economy and efficiency as U.S. technology tends to be cheaper, better, more readily sourced, and easier to integrate with other systems. other system. Silicon Valley engineering standards are ubiquitous around the world – for now.

    “This domestic tech push is a mess,” Sherman said. “Much of the Western software that the Kremlin wants to disappear or replace is still there.”

    Apple suspends all product sales in Russia, out of concern for Ukraine

    Bendett, a CNA researcher, noted in a tweet On Wednesday, Russian energy giant Gazprom this week announced a slew of new technologies, including computers and tablets running software made by Apple and Google.

    “Replacement? Now unlike Russia’s Gazprom, the company decided on March 1 to supply its subsidiaries nationwide with computer and IT equipment of foreign origin,” Bendett wrote on Twitter.

    In an interview, he said the key exception to Western technological dominance is in the Russian military. Although government, business, and consumer technology remains heavily dependent on the United States and Western companies in general, military systems are largely built inside Russia, despite the use of some microchips produced by foreign countries.

    Even the most punitive regimes will have little chance of slowing down an army shelling of Kharkiv or a convoy of tanks moving towards Kyiv – although many observers have noted the use of Russian troops by Russian troops. smartphone, presumably connected to Ukraine’s own mobile network. According to experts, that system is dominated by European technology.

    However, experts agree that such advantages are unlikely to last forever and are susceptible to global events and especially conflicts in which Western nations wield power. their own to try to entice the opponent.

    China’s investments in new chip technology and the aggressive expansion of telecom supplier Huawei have changed the technology balance of power around the world, despite US sanctions blocking it company expansion.

    In Iran, amid the Trump administration’s imposition of strong sanctions aimed at preventing that country from obtaining nuclear weapons, the government ordered the global Internet to be disconnected during political protests in October. November 11, 2019. That barricaded the Iranians from the outside world while also allowing the country’s leaders to test nuclear weapons. The “halal internet”, an intranet that had been in development for several years up to that point, along with a set of in-house built apps.

    The disruption hurts businesses and complicates the lives of Iranians. Still, Access Now’s Micek says, at least some homegrown apps are already working, allowing digital life to continue, if less efficiently.

    “This really fell into the hands of the dictator,” he said. “We are actively helping to catalyze the development of a viable alternative Internet and I don’t want to see that happen in Russia.”

    Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.

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