The Kremlin is spending $10 million to access websites it itself banned

The Kremlin has spent $10 million on technology to circumvent its own bans on Western websites, according to new figures.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian public sector has spent millions on virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to bypass Internet restrictions on certain websites.

A new analysis of public contracts awarded by Russian state agencies reveals how much the country has spent to get around its own internet blocks.

Researcher Katherine Barnett, of Top10VPN, a comparison website, said: “Of the 236 contracts made public, 188 are with government agencies. Ironically, these documents reveal the need for state officials to circumvent their own government’s censorship of the Internet in Russia.

Since the start of the war, Vladimir Putin’s government has restricted access to Western websites, including Instagram, Facebook, a number of news sites, Amnesty International and Chess.com, the latter for condemning the war and organized pro-Ukraine fundraisers.

According to Top10VPN, the biggest VPN spender was the Interior Ministry outpost in the central city of Krasnoyarsk. Officials have spent $1.7 million on VPN services there since late February.

Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, admitted in April that he was a VPN user, telling a Belarusian news channel: “Yes of course, why not, it’s not banned”.

A day after Mr Peskov’s admission, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged ordinary Russians to install the technology, saying it could help them see the truth behind the Kremlin’s war crimes.

VPNs work by routing users’ web traffic through special digital tunnels that help conceal its true origin and destination. While not impossible to block, they can increase costs for organizations hoping to block access to particular websites from certain areas or regions.

Critics of VPNs claim that the operators of these services obtain valuable information about customers’ web browsing habits and, potentially, their own.

In 2020, Australia’s consumer protection regulator sued Facebook for allegedly using its VPN service Onavo Protect to secretly spy on its users, claiming the US company “collected and used significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for the commercial benefit of Facebook”. The case is ongoing.