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March 12, 2021updated 19 Mar 2021 9:38am

Liar, liar, Kremlin’s on fire: Google flatly contradicts Russian outage story

By Eric Johansson

Google has dismissed claims made by Russian authorities that a data centre fire in France had caused its services to go down in Russia earlier this week, saying ‘the reality of events’ was network problems within Russian territory. Not only Google and YouTube but various other sites and much of the Russian government’s own web estate suffered problems on Tuesday.

Analysts have speculated that the internet problems in the country were due to the Kremlin bungling its attempt to throttle Twitter, mounted on the same day. Russian regulator Roskomandzor had denied that the issues were caused by it choking the social media platform. Roskomandzor’s measures against Twitter were intended as a punishment for failure to remove content deemed unacceptable by the Russian government.

Instead, the Kremlin authority blamed the Google and YouTube outages on a fire at cloud service provider OVHcloud’s data centre in France.

However Google has now contradicted the claims linking the Strasbourg blaze to its services dropping out in Russia. Mountain View stated that the outage had actually been caused by “an upstream network issue that partially impacted internet services for users in Russia”.

“We believe the cause of this incident was a misconfiguration of the routers at a local third-party internet service provider,” Google said in a statement. “Following extensive investigation we have no evidence to indicate that the fire in OVHcloud’s data centre, or Google’s own infrastructure, was the root cause of this incident.”

Having first detected the issues in the early hours of March 10, Google said it had solved the problems after a few hours. Google confirmed that the problems with accessing its sites only occurred in Russia.

When Verdict asked why it was important for Google to set the record straight on the matter, a spokesperson replied, “Because it’s the reality of events.”

Probed as to why the Kremlin had linked the fire to the service outage, the spokesperson said, “The BBC ran the article but no one checked in with Google for the facts.”

Verdict has reached out to Roskomandzor for comment on Google’s statements, but did not receive an answer before the publication of this story.

What’s really going on?

The OVHcloud fire affected several organisations in France, including the government, cryptocurrency exchange Deribit and the multiplayer game Rust.

However, as Verdict noted when it first reported on the story, it was not immediately clear why the blaze would seriously affect huge global web services such as Google and YouTube, and affect them only in Russia and on the same day that the Kremlin sought to restrict access to Twitter and saw its own websites fail.

One expert, Doug Madory of network business Kentik, offered one potential explanation, speculating that it was all due to a potentially massive own goal by the Kremlin itself. He suggested Roskomandzor could have inflicted the issues by attempting to target the Twitter’s shortener domain, “t.co”. By doing so, the regulator may have inadvertently also affected both Reddit.com and Microsoft.com, which also contain this string.

If true, Madory believed the mistake could also explain why several of the Russian government’s own sites – including several ministries, the supreme national-security council, the country’s anti-corruption agency, and Rozkomandzor as well as the state telco Rostelecom – had issues on the day.

Others pointed to the timing of the events, noting that the Russian internet problems came only days after the Biden administration announced plans to get some payback against the Kremlin for its involvement in the SolarWinds hack. White House officials said over the weekend that they planned to retaliate against Russia over the next three weeks. With the events unfolding this week, some believe the US may have moved up its schedule.

The news also comes against a backdrop of intensified legal conflicts between the Kremlin and several Silicon Valley companies.

Earlier this week, Russian authorities filed lawsuits against Twitter, Google, Facebook, TikTok and Telegram for breaking a law introduced in February. The new regulations prohibit companies hosting illegal content on their site and would force these platforms to delete such content on being ordered to by the Russian authorities.

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