Russia’s sovereign Internet law, a series of legal acts that came into force in November 2019, has made headlines as a sign of the increasing fragmentation of Internet governance. Russian authorities justify the laws as a defensive measure against the threat of being cut off from the global Internet, following the US’ National Cyber Security Strategy adopted in September 2018, which accused Russia, along with China, Iran, and North Korea, of using “cyber tools to undermine [the US] economy and democracy.”
The coalition of states advocating for “free, open, and secure” Internet based on the multistakeholder model, known as “the like-minded”, interpret the law as yet another manifestation of growing digital authoritarianism. These positions arguably represent distinct and divergent visions of the Internet, commonly referred to as “open” versus “state-controlled”. But these broad geopolitical stances conceal as much as they reveal.
The idea of a lost Golden Age of the Internet, when we were all presumably empowered by global connectivity, in contrast to the current threat of fragmentation, is a distinct political narrative. However, the narrative downplays the extent to which the Internet never operated independently from existing political, economic, and social dynamics and power structures. In fact, it has often provided a platform for a digital version of off-line configurations, such as, for example, a marketable space for big corporations to determine the contours of the contemporary international society of consumers.
The New America Foundation’s Sasha Meinrath captures well the ambiguous dynamics of both the “unfragmented space” and challenges to it when he complains that “the motivations of those nations questioning America’s de facto control over the global Internet may vary, but their responses are all pointing in the same troubling direction: toward a Balkanized Internet.”
What the narrative of the threat of fragmentation obscures in particular is the emergent macro-securitisation of the Internet, which binds cyberspace through threat rather than market opportunity. Whatever liberal democratic rhetoric may say, there is a definite global shift away from the multistakeholder model towards multilateralism, understood in its traditional sense as alliance politics—that is, as the competition of rival groups of states that align to balance against threats by their adversary. In other words, we do have a consensus in the global Internet that it is a strategic space that generates security threats.
As a result, and as Milton Muller also argues, the fragmentation narrative is really about the future of national sovereignty in the digital world. This global consensus that digitalisation is dangerous is indeed how the Internet has been hacked. That is, first economic dominance and then security politics have crowded out the empowering potential of unrestrained global connectivity. Russia has played a crucial role in the latter aspect of this process. It has laboured since the late 1990s to regionally and globally streamline the notion of “international information security” and to regulate the Internet in a regime similar to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, thereby branding the Internet itself as a weapon.
There is a distinct rationale behind this. In contrast to Western approaches focused on technology, protection of communication infrastructure, and free access to information, Russian authorities want to have control over the contents of the information itself: unregulated information creates vulnerability since it can be used as a tool of influence in the socio-humanitarian sphere, that is, for “winning hearts and minds”. Russia has been somewhat vindicated in this rationale, like many other state and non-state actors, in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations which cracked the ideal of a globalised free flow of information.
The Kremlin’s expansion of its “digitally sovereign” Russia programme reflects, in this context, the dynamics of global cybergeopolitics. The development of the Russian segment of the information and communication network, known as Runet, is part of this agenda. It serves, above all, as a defence of the regime against unchecked external influence, which is blamed for sowing discontent among Russia’s population. It requires Russian telecom firms to install '”technical means” to re-route all Russian Internet traffic to exchange points managed by Roskomnazor, Russia's telecom watchdog, as a precaution in the case of threat of disconnection from the global Internet.
However, the roll-out of Runet is technically challenged and its implementation may never meet the demands of the rhetoric of technological sovereignty. Russia missed the opportunity of building a firewall similar to China’s. And yet while it may not be able to fully escape global interoperability, its technical cooperation with China over Internet infrastructure makes the technical fragmentation of the global Internet closer to becoming a reality.
In summary, then, Runet is a geopolitical gesture made in relation to power struggles over the idea of digital sovereignty; however, seen in a broader context, it is ultimately about building a new world order. Russia capitalises on existing digital inequalities and perceptions of digital chaos to sow its own version of global discontent. Exacerbating fears and excavating alliance strategies from the past, it contributes to creating a mindset of global militarisation. In its geopolitical pursuit of a leading role in the global order managed by a few great powers, Russia has effectively neutralised the politically empowering potential of the Internet by reasserting powerful security logics. The world has swiftly bought into this tactic—the US as much if not more than any other actor—and this is how the Internet has indeed been hacked.
 The multistakeholder model of Internet governance envisages broad participation and collaboration among governments, private sector, civil society, academia and technical community, in contrast to “the sovereign Internet” which is fully controlled by national governments.
 On the fallacies of the fragmentation narrative more broadly see Milton Meuller, Will the Internet Fragment?: Sovereignty, Globalization and Cyberspace, Polity Press, 2017.
 On the concept of macro-securitisation see Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, “Macrosecuritisation and security constellations: Reconsidering scale in securitisation theory,” Review of International Studies, 35(2009), 253-276.