A Civil War is Brewing In Russian Tech Circles

The stand of Russian social media platform VK at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum on May 24, 2018 in Saint Petersburg.

The stand of Russian social media platform VK at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum on May 24, 2018 in Saint Petersburg. AFP via Getty Images / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/

Russian entrepreneurs and investors who have known each other for years are finding themselves on opposite sides of Putin’s war.

Someone has posted a list of Russian technology players and their public stances on Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. Is it a blacklist? A public accounting? And who’s behind it? 

The list, from an anonymous group called Stopwar22, is a series of links to public Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media posts from some key players in Russian tech development expressing either their support for Russia’s invasion, their opposition to it, or some muddled position in between. (You can access the list here, but note that the hosting company, Notion, has flagged the post as possibly containing “illegal, or inappropriate content.” The posts from inside Russia are now blocked in keeping with the government’s new censorship practices, making it difficult to view either in Russia or outside of it.)

Ukrainian technology entrepreneur and investor Denis Dovgopoliy said the list was “compiled by a group of activists and volunteers who formed the backbone of the venture capital industry in Ukraine before the war.” The Russian entities on the list are either Russian by birth or have received money from Russia for their companies. 

In Russia, a public stance against the war is not without consequence. A new law punishes even the use of the term “war” with up to 15 years in prison. While many of the individuals on the “oppose” side of list are not currently in the country, some of them have stayed behind or retain headquarters, investments, or operations there. And when a founder at a Russian company comes out publicly against the war, it brings scrutiny from Russian authorities upon everyone at the firm. 

The list arrives as Russian tech businesses attempt to make a sense of a chaotic new environment. Several large providers of cloud services are no longer selling their services in Russia, which will hinder local developers’ ability to get new products up and running. Some Russian businesses are already reporting losses of compute power due to the country’s relative dearth of servers. Perhaps they will move to Alibaba, which is the top cloud provider in China but has been a niche player in Russia. 

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has responded to heavy international sanctions with another new law that allows patent theft from any company affiliated with a country deemed hostile to Russia. 

Russian software companies are reportedly seeing a big increase in demand as bigger players leave the market. But as the value of Russian currency implodes, such companies will become even more dependent on the government. Take, for example, the plight of Russian social media network VK, the most popular social platform in the country. The company announced on Tuesday that it may not be able to repay bond holders outside of the country. 

Companies, founders, and investors who refuse to denounce Russia’s invasion will see their fates linked to those of Putin, Moscow-born venture capitalist Semen Dukach said. Dukach, who has publicly stated his opposition to Moscow’s war, says that his business interests lie outside of the country. Defense One reached him by phone in Poland, where he was helping with relief efforts for Ukrainian refugees. 

Dukach said the Kremlin isn’t the only entity watching who in the Russian tech world is for or against Putin’s war. 

“People are beginning to notice who's had the courage to oppose this,” he said. 

He says he’s not a fan of blacklists but called the Stopwar22 list “absolutely appropriate.” 

Dukach said he personally knows some of the people on the list who haven’t come out against the Kremlin and he has no sympathy for them. Any technologist or investor with any ties to Russia “is absolutely obligated to make clear public statements” opposing this war or count themselves as a supporter of Putin’s invasion, he said.  

Dmitri Gudkov, an exiled Russian opposition leader, says that the West’s sanctions have already struck Russian middle-class households. Many had believed that the exodus of foreign companies and capital would benefit them. Instead, he said, “They lose money. And that's maybe started changing the minds of people.”

But some of the moves by Western tech companies to limit tools or services in Russia are also hurting the ability of Russian dissidents to inform the public about Russia’s highly censored war. 

“Like my team. We're creating content on social media against this war and trying to spread it on the internet,” he said. But because Visa and Mastercard are suspending their activities in the country, “We cannot donate money to Russian journalists and human rights activists from out of Russia…Those people who have to flee persecution in Russia, flee to other countries, they cannot use their bank credit card. It turns out to be like a useless piece of plastic.”

By contrast, Gudkov said, poorer Russians have yet to feel the full weight of the sanctions. When that happens in a few months, it could reduce support for Putin among a demographic that is more likely to get their news from state television. 

Still, it’s unlikely to make a difference, he said: Putin “doesn’t care about public opinion.”