You would think that Vladimir Putin's Russian propaganda machine would be far too busy trying to spin their catastrophic illegal invasion of Ukraine to focus on any other issues.
But you would be wrong, as it seems that the Putin regime has VPNs in their crosshairs too.
There is growing evidence coming out of Russia of a largescale soft-power propaganda initiative intended to steer Russian internet users away from VPNs and the free, uncensored internet and into the bosom of Russia's state-controlled internet where the Putin regime can control exactly what information they get and when.
Russia's awkward relationship with VPNs
Russia's relationship with VPNs has been on the rocks for some time now.
In 2017, Russia made it illegal for VPNs to allow access to censored content in Russia. These days, this is a huge number of sites, and it is a rule that the majority of VPNs ignored, with little consequence.
Then the Roskomnadzor wrote to the majority of large VPNs, ordering them to store all user data on servers located in Russia and threatening serious punishments if they failed to comply. Just one provider, the Russian-based Kaspersky VPN complied, although a number of premium VPN services did shut down their Russian servers as a result.
However, the Russian people are still using VPNs in huge numbers, and since the invasion of Ukraine began, this number has markedly increased. It is estimated that around a quarter of Russian adults are now using a VPN. In younger demographics, this is likely to be significantly higher.
This doubtless angers Putin and his cronies, but so far, they have not banned VPN use outright. They are aware of its popularity for unblocking western media, social media, online gaming sites, and so forth and aware of the potential backlash if this access is withdrawn.
But they are determined to control the information stream and ensure that the Russian people can only access the information the regime wants them too. Which is why they have now changed tact.
Russia's new anti-VPN propaganda campaign
What Russian internet users are now likely to see on popular Russian blogs and Russian social media sites such as VKontakte is a slew of posts and content denouncing VPNs.
Radio Free Europe has highlighted several examples, including Batya-Goda, a popular Russian blogger. He has described VPNs as “the problem of 2022” and claimed that on using his VPN, “nothing works, other apps got hung up, my battery drained like mad, Internet access slowed. A friend of mine in IT said VPNs — particularly the free ones — sell user data.”
While his claims about free VPNs are not a million miles away from the truth, his post does beg the question, which VPN was he using? He clearly hasn't read VPNCompare because none of the premium VPNs that we regularly review and test have any of the issues he cited.
Data theft by VPNs seems to be a popular theme among Putin's allies.
Nikita Danyuk, a member of the Putin regime's advisory Public Chamber and an academic, has been widely quoted in the Russian media of late saying, “the data VPNs take does not remain in Russia and can end up in various hands, including those of scam call centres, spy agencies, and so on.”
Artyom Geller, the man who designed the Kremlin.ru website, has claimed that the United States was financing free VPN services in order to get “access to the data of users in other countries” and to exercise “ideological influence” over Internet users abroad.
This is presumably a reference to the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a non-profit based in the US that does get some government funding and does promote tools, including VPNs, that enable uncensored access to the internet.
There is zero evidence that this activity results in data from VPNs being handed to the US Government.
Why Russians should still use VPNs
Pretty much all of these claims, and the many more like them, are baseless and false. This has led experts to conclude that there is a concerted propaganda campaign underway in Russia to attempt to scare Russian internet users away from VPNs and, therefore, the open and free information that they enable Russian internet users to access.
As the head of the Internet-monitoring group Roskomsvoboda, Stanislav Shakirov, told Radio Free Europe, “Most likely they noticed that more and more people are using VPNs, and they decided to try this to influence their core electorate — people who don't know much about technology and can't tell what is true and what is not.”
In other words, they believe that the core Russian electorate who vote for Putin are dumb enough to believe their scare stories and steer clear of VPNs, thereby continuing to swallow Putin's lies and propaganda about Ukraine, the state of the Russian economy, and everything else.
Shakirov knows his stuff. He also rightly added that some free VPNs do harvest and sell user data, saying “VPN services cost money… if the clients aren't paying, that means they have to get the money somewhere else.”
We couldn't have put it better ourselves, and while we would urge all Russians to use a VPN to enable them to access true and accurate information about the regime that controls their country, we would strongly advise you to avoid using free VPNs at any cost.
There are lots of premium VPNs that offer safe, secure, and private VPN connections, with reliable, independently-verified no user logs guarantees, and which can be accessed in Russia.
If cost is a problem for you, our advice would be to get together with family, friends, or neighbours and share a subscription to a VPN that allows unlimited simultaneous connections like Surfshark VPN or IPVanish.
These will allow you and your friends and family to connect as many devices as you like on a single subscription.
For advice on which VPNs are best to use inside Russia, the best place to start is our guide to the Best VPN for Russia.