Russian Officials Purchase VPNs to Bypass Government Restrictions
Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the Russian government has blocked over 3,500 websites in a bid to clamp down on dissent. Local news outlets, international broadcasters, social media platforms and civil society organisations’ websites have all been affected in recent weeks.
Citizens have responded by downloading VPN apps to circumvent the blocks. At its peak, demand for VPN apps increased by 2,692% compared to peacetime levels.
As well as negatively impacting regular citizens and damaging the economy, companies and government officials have also been affected.
To circumvent the increasingly punitive digital restrictions, state officials and companies may have turned to VPN software to retain access to international news outlets, local financial publications, and social media platforms.
We analyzed Russia’s official public procurement database managed by the Federal Treasury. Although it’s inaccessible from the UK, we were able to gain access by using a VPN that still works in Russia.
Companies included are regulated under the Federal Law No. 223-FZ “On Procurement of Goods, Works and Services by Certain Types of Legal Entities” which applies to state controlled companies and natural monopolies.
We unearthed 236 official contracts for VPN technology that have been made public since February 24. In total, the contracts are worth over 807 million rubles, or $9.8 million.
VPN use remains a sensitive topic in Russia. The Russian government confirmed on March 15 that Roskomnadzor had been making efforts to block VPN traffic and would continue to do so. However, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov recently disclosed that he uses a VPN. Their legality largely depends on what the technology is being used for.
Ironically the home of the Kremlin, Moscow, is also where most amount of money has been spent on VPN technology since the invasion of Ukraine and legislative agencies have spent more than any other sector.
VPNs have various use cases and are frequently used by institutions to enable secure remote working and improve cybersecurity. If configured in a specific way, these networks can also adopt a foreign IP address and bypass content restrictions.
See the full details of the VPN contracts referenced in this report