The Russian icebreaker Tor at the port of Sabetta in the Kara Sea off the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic. Moscow has made development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic regions of its territory one of its chief focus areas. Photo: AFP / Kirill Kudryavtsev

Russia’s energy industry currently brings in a major chunk of state revenue and is tied to common prosperity and employment in the Russian economy. Although a willingness eventually to phase out hydrocarbons now exists, the idea is to switch to exporting greener sources of energy such as hydrogen instead of just watching business decline.

This pivot will require a lot of public communication to build the momentum in terms of awareness and popular support for the required policy measures. 

The Internet and social media play the most important roles as opinion shapers and amplifiers in any country today, and Russia is no exception. Russia’s largest social-media website VKontakte, often stylized as VK, has in effect changed hands. The controlling stakes now belong to two entities, Gazprom Media and Sogaz, closely related to Gazprom, the government-controlled hydrocarbons company. 

Gazprom Media owns stakes in dozens of cross-media holdings in Russia, including television channels, radio outlets, film production establishments, print media and Internet outlets, now including VK. Although it has been announced that VK will continue as an independent outfit, it would be naive to think it will not be in some capacity amenable to Gazprom. 

VK began as a Facebook clone built by the tech-wiz Durov brothers, Pavel and Nikolai, who are also known for the even more popular Telegram messenger. The Durovs’ exit from VK in 2014 created a storm of controversy mired in concerns over state censorship, law-enforcement pressure and end-user data privacy.

VK has a significant user base in many post-Soviet countries and is one of the more successful manifestations of the Russian Internet (Runet). 

The new chief executive officer of VK is Vladimir Kirienko, a top executive at Rostelecom, the largest telecom services provider in Russia. Vladimir Kirienko is also the son of Kremlin official Sergey Kirienko, a close friend and top aide of President Vladimir Putin. Sergey Kirienko also briefly served as prime minister of Russia during the Boris Yeltsin era and had a much longer, illustrious tenure at the state nuclear-energy company Rosatom. 

Sergey Kirienko’s appointment as Rosatom’s head was pivotal to the energy establishment, furthering many geopolitical goals and bringing in much-needed revenue, and as a result, he still serves as the chairman of the supervisory board of Rosatom.

Rosatom has found a place in the Kremlin’s policy and by extension the national development priorities of Russia. Moscow has made the development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic regions of its territory one of its chief focus areas, with Rosatom being in charge for much of it.

One possible rationale could be Rosatom’s subsidiary Rosatomflot possessing the necessary nuclear-powered icebreakers and technical expertise to operate and organize the complex logistics of the Northern Sea Route, an increase in trade volumes over which will directly contribute to common prosperity and development of the undeveloped Far Eastern regions of Russia.

This increase will also constitute shipments of carbon-neutral liquefied natural gas (LNG) and eventually hydrogen too. 

Currently, a favorable environment exists for receiving these energy shipments in such countries as Japan, India and China. Effective communication can aid this further, as well as create more potential customers and stakeholders.

Furthermore, there is an even higher need for better communication in terms of dissipating information domestically for these national priorities, Including nudging Russian youth to choose careers in certain scientific, technical and logistical expertise so that a lack of human resources doesn’t leave the ambitious plans hamstrung. 

Effects of cross-media holdings

While the positives of the energy conglomerates possessing influence over VK are clear, there are also fears that it could lead to censorship and selective narratives amenable only to their business interests being propagated online. State-enterprise interests may not always be the same as the interests that secure the population’s general prosperity. 

Ecological concerns over melting permafrost, possible oil spills and potential nuclear disasters could be improperly communicated or in the worst case hushed up at the detriment of accountability. Similar worries could also be applicable to the crushing of domestic political dissent and the inculcation of an environment where embezzlement and misuse of state funds and resources never comes to light.

On the flip side, there are also concerns about ensuring digital sovereignty and safeguarding against destabilizing influence from adversarial information operations, especially on social-media platforms.

The latest Russian National Security Strategy document and national legislation on digital sovereignty also highlight the effect social media and other digital communication networks can have on society to the detriment of security.

There have also been more stringent calls by prominent opinion makers such as RT head Margarita Simonyan for decoupling Russian masses from Western platforms.

Russia’s Internet and broadcasting regulator Roskomnadzor has also taken stringent measures against platforms and conglomerates such as Google and Twitter in terms of imposing fines and throttling speeds for alleged non-compliance. President Putin has also recently touched upon the need for a balanced approach to platform regulation in Russia. 

However, the approach of stonewalling Russia to exchange of ideas and information online from the rest of the world either selectively or in total would be an unfortunate outcome if it ever materializes. As some commentators opine, the VK saga may also be a step in the direction to stem the influence of Facebook and other Western social media in Russia and instead nudge the use of domestic alternatives that can be more easily monitored and regulated. 

Russia’s business landscape is uniquely positioned, where the state holds considerable influence in most major companies. Controversies on independent entrepreneurs standing up to the might of the Russian state might come to a close with this incident.

The independence of communication platforms appears uncertain in Russia and many other states going the protectionist route. However, protectionism is not the sole challenge to the public in the times of new media. Corporate lobbying resulting in weakened regulation also dangerously impacts the public sphere on the Internet.

Finding the ideal balance, without yielding to corporate or state capture of media, is critical to the future Internet’s public sphere. 

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.

Sapni G K is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore, India. She is a public policy lawyer researching technology and its regulation.