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1 big thing: YouTube eludes Putin's internet chokehold

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vladimir Putin has gone to extreme lengths to control the flow of information in Russia, but there’s one step he hasn’t dared take: shutting down YouTube.

Why it matters: One of Putin’s first initiatives upon taking office 20 years ago was to bring Russia’s independent TV networks under his control. But YouTube has replaced TV in the news and entertainment diets of Russians under 30, and it's become the go-to platform for Putin’s critics, Russian journalist Andrey Loshak tells Axios.

The big picture: Loshak has explored Putin’s attempt to bring Russia’s once free-wheeling internet under his control in the award-winning Current Time documentary, “InterNYET: A History of the Russian Internet."

Flashback: Putin convened a meeting on the internet as prime minister in 1999, Loshak says. He had one question: “Can it be controlled?”

  • But for the next decade, his crackdowns on the media largely ignored the internet, which he never viewed as a threat to his power. That was until the 2011–2012 protests against his return to the presidency.
  • Putin then realized the significance of the internet as a tool to mobilize the opposition. “It’s hard to put all these ingredients back in the pot,” says Loshak of the relatively open internet that existed to that point. “But he’s trying."

Driving the news: A new law gives the Kremlin the power to sever Russia's connection to the world wide web under "emergency" circumstances.

  • Moscow announced what it called a successful test of that system last December. More tests are planned for this year.
  • “This isn’t like China where you can get around it with a VPN. This is the North Korean model — an intranet," says Loshak, who believes Putin views the off switch he's building for the global internet as a "last resort."

Putin has taken intermediary steps to tame Russia’s internet.

But the government has turned the screws on Russia's domestic internet giants.

  • Yandex, a search platform even more popular than Google in Russia, now serves articles that take the Kremlin line above those criticizing it, Loshak says. On social media platforms, pro-Kremlin trolls “pollute the discussion.”
  • Putin has tried to intimidate Western giants, demanding that Google and Facebook store users’ data in Russia. They’ve resisted, but Moscow’s decision to block LinkedIn on similar grounds in 2016 appeared to be a warning shot.

Which brings us back to YouTube — where Russia’s most visible opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny, can be heard. Why doesn’t Putin simply ban it?

  • “It has a very special meaning and prominence in Russia now,” Loshak says.
  • “To shut down YouTube means shutting down the young generation and turning people under 30 against the government.”

What to watch: “He’s dreaming about how to destroy it, but it’s dangerous," says Loshak.

2. Exclusive: Russian indicted by Mueller breaks silence

Some of the Internet Research Agency's handiwork. Illustration: Axios Visuals

Sergey Pavlovich Polozov says he was so surprised to find his name included in special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments that he told himself it couldn’t be him — until he saw a more detailed document that included his date of birth.

Why it matters: Mueller’s indictment accused Polozov of providing “material and technological support” to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory” on the front lines of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

In an interview for Loshak's documentary, shared exclusively with Axios, Polozov scoffs at the idea that he and the other 12 Russians indicted could have influenced American voters.

  • “My position is pretty simple,” Polozov says. "I believe that what occurs in another country, it’s pretty hard for me to influence it.” 

Polozov essentially admits to one of the accusations against him — that, in Mueller's words, he “oversaw the procurement” of proxy servers that “masked the firm’s location when conducting operations within the United States.”

  • Russians working for the IRA posed as Americans, sharing provocative posts aimed at sowing disruption and boosting Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

He compares his work for the IRA to that of an SEO consultant and says “blaming me is the same as blaming Zuckerberg for creating Facebook.”

  • He says he did not usually work out of the IRA’s headquarters but “when I came there, it differed nothing from an ordinary office with normal people who smiled, went in, smoked, talked.” 

The state of play: Polozov says he’s surviving just fine under indictment, but won’t travel abroad for fear of extradition to the U.S. Fortunately, he says, Russia is "such a big country."

Go deeper

Update: State of the outbreak

We've seen the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths from the coronavirus in China jump significantly over the past few days.

Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC and the Chinese Health Ministry; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios
  • Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who was punished by local authorities in Wuhan for sounding the alarm about the outbreak, has died after contracting the virus, per multiple reports. He was 34.
    • Li's death has reportedly generated widespread anger and anguish on Chinese social media.
  • A senior Chinese official has reportedly instructed authorities in Wuhan to enter homes, round up all sick people and get them into quarantine.
    • "During these wartime conditions, there must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever,” Sun Chunlan, the official, reportedly said.
  • There are a dozen research projects underway to try to come up with a vaccine, but they won't offer a short-term solution.
  • A cruise ship has been quarantined off Japan, with 10 people on board testing positive for the virus.
  • 350 Americans evacuated from Wuhan have been quarantined in California.

Go deeper: Coronavirus speeds world's retreat into national shells

3. Middle East: The crisis in Idlib

Fleeing Idlib. Photo: Rami Al Sayed/AFP via Getty Images

Bashar al-Assad’s Russia-backed offensive on Syria's northwestern enclave of Idlib — home to the last rebel-held areas — has forced some 150,000 civilians to flee over the past two weeks and led to direct clashes with Turkey.

  • Turkey, which supported the rebels against Assad, announced earlier this week that eight of its forces had been killed by shelling in Idlib. It claimed to have "neutralized" 76 Syrian troops in response.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reserved some of his ire for Assad's patron, Russia. Turkey and Russia have inched closer together in recent years but stand on opposite sides in Syria as well as Libya.

Why it matters: David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, pointed out in a recent Axios interview that the future of Idlib is being decided by an “arm wrestle between the Russians and the Turks” with “no U.S. engagement” and massive humanitarian consequences.

What to watch: In northeast Syria, meanwhile, there have been a series of “potentially dangerous standoffs” between Russian contractors and U.S. troops, per WSJ. U.S. envoy James Jeffrey says Russia is attempting to “challenge our presence in the northeast.”

4. World news roundup

1. Sinn Féin, a left-wing nationalist party historically associated with the IRA, has taken a surprising polling lead ahead of Saturday's general election in Ireland.

  • Ireland's economy has boomed as the country has opened its arms to global giants like Google, but inequality has grown and housing has become more scarce.
  • Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a centrist who won international praise for his adept handling of Brexit negotiations and debates on sensitive social issues, is in danger of losing his job.

2. The premier of the German state of Thuringia has stepped down after just one day. To win, Thomas Kemmerich formed an alliance in the state parliament that included the far-right AfD.

  • That shocked Germany and broke a major political taboo. No previous leader had allied with the far-right to win office.
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose CDU party also joined the alliance against her wishes, quickly called on Kemmerich to step down.

3. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta arrived in Washington, ahead of a visit today with President Trump, with a message: The U.S. and China should not see Africa as a battlefield to be conquered, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh writes.

  • World powers are "behaving like Africa is for the taking," he said. "We don't want to be forced to choose."
  • Trump and Kenyatta were expected to discuss a possible free trade deal that would be the first between the U.S. and a country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Reality check: China already dominates trade with Africa.

Expand chart
Data: The Observatory of Economic Complexity; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
5. Resurgent nationalism in tense times

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary rest in the hills of Tipperary, 1921. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ireland’s election campaign has overlapped not only with the U.K.’s formal exit from the EU — further dividing the Irish Republic from Northern Ireland — but with rolling celebrations of the centenary of Irish independence.

Driving the news: Plans to honor fallen Royal Irish Constabulary members who stood with the British against groups like the IRA had to be scrapped after a public outcry, per the NY Times.

“A lot of what has happened in the last three years has brought out militancy in people who thought they were quite moderate nationalists. Three years of listening to the debate about the border, and to British ignorance about Ireland, have allowed a reflex anti-British sentiment to come to the fore.”
— Diarmaid Ferriter, University College Dublin

Zoom out: Around the world, current political circumstances are bringing nationalist sentiments that had been buried into the open.

In India, where politics is now dominated by the Hindu nationalist BJP, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi has been honored in an increasingly public fashion.

  • The assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, "believed Gandhi had betrayed Hindus by being too conciliatory to Muslims and by allowing Pakistan to break off during the partition of India in 1947," per NYT.
  • Some nationalists consider him a hero and Gandhi a traitor.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro defends the country’s brutal military dictatorship.

And in Putin's Russia, revising history is almost a national pastime. Putin whitewashes the Soviet Union’s wartime pact with Nazi Germany and has tried to rehabilitate the image of Josef Stalin.

6. Scoop(s): Netanyahu's Arab maneuvering

Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed at the White House in May. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Axios contributor Barak Ravid has broken story after story about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to unlock warmer relations in the Arab world.

1. The White House hosted a secret trilateral meeting in December between the U.S., Israel and the UAE on coordination against Iran.

  • The meeting, which took place on Dec. 17, is one in a series of steps from the Trump administration to facilitate closer ties between Israel and the Arab states.
  • Read the full story

2. Israel and the U.S. have been discussing a deal that would see the U.S. recognize Moroccan sovereignty in the occupied Western Sahara and Morocco take steps to normalize relations with Israel.

  • The big picture: Sparsely populated Western Sahara is disputed territory, formerly controlled by Spain but claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and fierce resistance from the indigenous population.
  • Read the full story

3. Netanyahu met in Uganda with the leader of Sudan's governing council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and discussed the possibility of normalizing relations.

Bonus: What I'm reading

Adam Entous and Evan Osnos have a piece in the New Yorker this week that's worthy of that formidable joint byline.

  • The topic: The increasing use of assassinations by the U.S. and Israel, and how three killings in particular (including Qasem Soleimani) came together.
  • It's a great companion to an astonishingly richly reported book I recently read on Israel's history of target killings: "Rise and Kill First," by Ronen Bergman.
7. Stories we're watching

The Feast of Sant'Agata in Catania, Sicily. Photo: Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images

  1. A China-centric 21st century
  2. China to cut tariffs on $75 billion of U.S. goods
  3. Europe's loudest Huawei critic
  4. The FBI is walking a tightrope on China
  5. EU investigating Qualcomm over 5G
  6. ICE is fingerprinting teen migrants
  7. Ambassador Yovanovitch: Trump "undermined our democratic institutions"

Quoted:

“We have perhaps the best relationship we have ever had with China, especially with President Xi.”
— Trump in his State of the Union
“The Chinese Communist Party presents the central threat of our time."
— Mike Pompeo

h/t Josh Rogin