Never one to shy away from a gunfight, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been nibbling around the edges of Washington’s battle with Chinese tech giant Huawei for months. In June, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin met China’s President Xi Jinping and technology was high on the agenda. Putin used the event to accuse the U.S. of “brazenly forcing Huawei from the global market,” adding that “in some circles, it is even called the first technological war of the coming digital era.”
Fast forward six months, and November has started with Putin taking a gloomy page from China’s technology copybook. The launch of RuNet—Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law—provides a theoretical kill switch to disconnect Russia’s internet from the world wide web, essentially reverting to a domestic DNS setup. This has been presented as a defence against U.S. cyberattacks, but the real enemies are much closer to home. The technology is likely to become a weapon for censorship, surveillance and monitoring.
The fear in Russia is that the state intends to emulate China’s “Great Firewall,” with an “Iron Cyber Curtain.” Digital parallels for the the real world. A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch warned that Moscow can “directly censor content or even turn Russia’s internet into a closed system—this jeopardizing the right of people in Russia to free speech and freedom of information online.” The mandate for ISPs and telcos to install government hardware is a pretty blunt surveillance backdoor. Ostensibly to provide this domestic cutoff, the tech can clearly perform other functions.
Back in June, in St Petersburg, Putin and Xi’s political entourages debated the so-called Splinternet, the technology wedge being driven between East and West—a generation of globalising standards for devices, networks and applications hangs in the balance. Unsurprisingly, China’s premier technology champion was a factor in those discussions. Following the meeting, Huawei secured its role in Russia’s 5G rollout. According to reports, those discussions also touched on the potential for Huawei to adopt a Russian smartphone OS (Aurora) as an Android alternative—although speculation that this would be more widely deployed has since dwindled, and the potential for some joint manufacturing collaboration.
At the end of October, I reported that Huawei’s smartphone business had secured an “extraordinary” 42% share of its home Chinese market, posting 66% sales growth. Well according to a Nikkei report citing research from M.Video-Eldorado, Huawei’s growth in Russia is not far behind, with 37% of the market. While there are different sets of analysis as to actual shipments in Russia, what is clear is that Huawei is on one of its growth tears. According to Counterpoint, in the final quarter of 2017 the Chinese giant had only 13% of the Russian market. A year later, its market share had doubled.
Just as in China, Huawei is breaking the Russian market by pushing its value devices—in this case under the Honor brand. And this isn’t the only investment it is making. Huawei is training locals as part of its 5G infrastructure build-out. “Huawei is using its own money,” one exec at a Moscow software house told Nikkei, “to train Russian citizens on how to use advanced technologies and give them an opportunity to participate in global scale product development.” The company plans to upskill 10,000 such local technicians over five years.
So what about the security concerns about Huawei’s alleged links to China? “There is a joke among Russian tech professionals,” the software exec explained to Nikkei, “if you use Apple, Washington listens to your calls. If you use Huawei, Beijing listens to your calls. Which is better?” I asked the same question earlier this year of Moscow CIO and Government Minister Eduard Lysenko. “The Russian Federation,” he said, “has strict information security regulations which we always follow.” As I said at the time, Russia and Washington have different views of the threat to national security from Huawei’s alleged intelligence links with Beijing.
Stepping back from the detail, it is hardly surprising that Huawei has been a beneficiary of the warming relationship between China and Russia. There are practical considerations here, Russia doesn’t have a Huawei equivalent, but it does have a strong manufacturing base that the Chinese can access. It also has a strong domestic market and a strong sphere of influence. From a security perspective, there are some other considerations though. Strengthening research and development links, Huawei’s access to Russian institutions, another market that helps the Chinese giant hedge the damage of the blacklist.
Ultimately, though, the real issues are twofold—one political, one technical. The position Huawei is building for itself in Russia can be seen as illustrative of the ties between the two countries, ties that include elements of defence and security collaboration. And this leads into the technical consideration. From a cybersecurity perspective, there are implications from Russia and China collaborating over the top of a tech champion with a presence in 170 countries–that basically goes without saying. And let’s remember, that while Russia excels in nation-state offensive cyber capabilities, when it comes to mass population surveillance no-one comes close to the machine that China has built for itself.
The relationship between China and Russia has ebbed and flowed over the years. In June, Putin and Xi signed a joint statement to confirm that “the China-Russian relationship has entered a new era, and is facing new opportunities for greater development.” As reported by China’s state media, “the objective of such a new kind of partnership is for both sides to give more support to each other as they seek to take their own development paths, preserve respective core interests, and protect sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
From a technology security perspective, behind all this remains a risk that the current U.S. influence on global standards will start to diminish if a more independent ecosystem can be developed. Cue business tie-ups that provide a new frontier for Chinese giants like Tencent and Alibaba, not just Huawei. Cue the Splinternet and Technology Cold War debates. Cue collaboration on elements of defence tech and AI.
If Huawei’s battle with Washington is really “the first technological war of the coming digital era,” then you can be sure that Putin will do all he can to leverage its political implications and tune its outcomes to benefit Russia’s own political objectives. Huawei, meanwhile will welcome the sales boost, the manufacturing and research collaborations, the additional political support. All of which will give pause for thought among those in the U.S. assessing the long-term implications of such moves.