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March 11, 2021updated 19 Mar 2021 9:40am

Kremlin gremlins: Did Russia bungle its Twitter hit … or did someone help?

By Eric Johansson

Russian users struggled to access Google, YouTube, Reddit and Twitter yesterday, and many Russian government websites went down entirely. The Kremlin has blamed some of the problems on a data centre fire in Strasbourg. Analysts have suggested that much of the chaos may have resulted from the Russian regime’s own bungled attempt to throttle Twitter.

Twitter had been expected to have problems as Russian media regulator Roskomandzor had previously stated it would throttle the social network’s Russia traffic as a punishment for failure to take down content deemed to be unacceptable by the Kremlin.

However Russian media also reported that many government sites including those of the Kremlin, the government, Roskomandzor itself, important ministries, the supreme national-security council and the country’s anti-corruption agency also collapsed before returning later in the day. State telco Rostelecom also suffered difficulties.

Roskomandzor stated that problems with overseas sites other than Twitter were none of its doing.

“Roskomandzor explained that problems with access to Google and YouTube services arose due to a malfunction of the data centre in Strasbourg,” the radio station Kommersant FM tweeted.

The fire raged at a data centre run by OVHcloud. The company provides cloud services to 1.6 million customers across 140 countries and runs 32 sites in Europe, America and Asia, according to the BBC.

OVH CEO Octave Klaba tweeted that no one had been hurt in the fire, but it destroyed one data centre building and damaged part of an adjacent one.

Kremlin gremlins

Several different organisations have reportedly been hit by the OVH blaze, including some belonging to the French government, the cryptocurrency exchange Deribit and the multiplayer game Rust. Cybersecurity experts have also said that the fire may have caused problems for various cybercriminal and hacking groups, perhaps including various nation-state-backed ones.

However it was not immediately clear why such an event would seriously affect huge global web services such as Google and YouTube, and affect them only in Russia.

One expert, Doug Madory of network business Kentik, noted various other sites suffering problems in Russia including Reddit and Microsoft. He suggested that this could be a result of Roskomandzor targeting Twitter’s shortener domain, “t.co”, as both Reddit.com and Microsoft.com contain this string. Madory assessed that such bungling by Roskomandzor might have been behind the other Russian outages, including the collapse of its own site.

The Kremlin for its part told Russian media that “failures in Rostelecom”, coincidentally occurring on the same day as the Twitter throttling operation, had caused the Russian government outages.

It seems certain that some will suspect another hand at work in the Russian regime’s technical embarrassments yesterday. The Russian outages and the fire happened just days after the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was planning to retaliate against Russia for the nation’s suspected links to the SolarWinds hack.

It would certainly be an elegant piece of cyberwarfare to knock over much of the Russian state’s web estate amid the confusion caused by its own throttling of Twitter, so making the regime look as though it had shot itself in the foot.

Social media conflict

These events come against a background of ramped-up conflict between the Kremlin and several Silicon Valley companies. The most recent crackdown is generally thought to result from the web platforms’ hosting of content featuring jailed opposition leader and Putin critic Antony Navalny.

Following Navalny’s arrest in January, the government introduced a new law aimed at forcing websites to remove banned content, such as posts about Navalny protests, or risk big fines.

This week the Kremlin backed up these threats by officially suing Twitter, Google, Facebook, TikTok and Telegram for hosting illegal content. At the same time, Roskomandzor announced that it would choke the speed of Twitter’s services as punishment for the same offence.

Read more: Kremlin chokes Twitter, Texas AG starts legal gunfight over deplatforming

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