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Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

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.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 7 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker