By Matthew Ivey
The Ukrainian government is providing the world a master class in how to use the modern information environment as an asymmetric advantage, underscoring the importance of the internet in fighting authoritarianism. After the United States offered to evacuate President Volodymyr Zelensky, he achieved meme status overnight when he famously replied, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Zelensky has effectively used his prolific internet following to bolster international support and tamp down Russian disinformation campaigns. Similarly, one of Zelensky’s vice prime ministers, Mykhailo Fedorov, has grown his government twitter account from 98 followers a year ago to over 200,000 as of March 2022. Fedorov has employed his platform to great effect to urge Silicon Valley companies to crack down on Russian state propaganda and persuaded Elon Musk to deploy Starlink satellites over Ukraine when faced with potential internet shutdown in the face of Russian attacks. Indeed, Ukraine’s deputy digital minister, Oleksandr “Alex” Bornyakov, described Ukraine’s digital battle against Russia a “new warfare.”
Ukraine only serves as microcosm of how control and use of the internet is shaping competition and conflict between authoritarian governments and democratic people on a global scale. The fight between authoritarianism and democracy will be won by the internet and through this “new warfare.” But the current U.S. strategy in this new environment appears to rely on old playbooks, by building up a military presence and levying sanctions, all while focusing on ostracizing Russia from the rest of the international community on the internet and elsewhere. This strategy may prove effective in short-term, but to be successful in this age of “new warfare,” the United States and like-minded democratic nations must think beyond traditional strategies, now and in the future. A critical opportunity to continuing shaping the “new warfare” environment to the advantage of all democratic people resides at the upcoming election for Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The International Telecommunication Union
The ITU is a treaty-based United Nations organization that enjoys almost universal membership from the nations of the world, including Russia and China. Though lesser known than other bodies within the United Nations, the ITU plays an important global role in establishing international norms related to global communications, digital technologies, and internet governance. Both China and Russia have doggedly advocated that the ITU should provide national governments with the dominant role in controlling the internet, presumably to facilitate greater state surveillance and censorship. This is in contrast to the current, more free and open internet governance structure favored by most Western nations.
This autumn, at its Plenipotentiary Conference in Romania, the ITU is scheduled to elect its next Secretary General as China’s Houlin Zhao completes his second term. During his tenure, Beijing has dramatically increased its presence and influence throughout the ITU to China’s advantage. For the upcoming election, the field has narrowed to two leading candidates: one from a democratic nation and the other from an authoritarian one. The first is an American, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who currently serves as the Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. The second is Rashid Ismailov, former deputy chief of the Russian communications ministry and notably, a former executive at Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant.
Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in such close proximity to this election suggests he may hold one of two possible sentiments relative to the ITU. First, Putin may believe that Ismailov is on a course to win, and that the result of the election won’t be impacted by the mere condemnation of Russia by members of the NATO alliance or other Western countries. The second, and more likely and alarming scenario: Putin’s regard for international law, particularly in the sphere of the internet, is so low, that he believes the results of the ITU election – even if an American candidate wins — to be inconsequential to his ultimate strategic goals. In either case, the United States and likeminded democratic nations must vigorously preserve the relevance of the ITU and international law, and help ensure responsible global governance of the internet.
Support for Russia in the Global South
Supporters of Bogdan-Martin, the American candidate, might be tempted to consider her victory over the Russian candidate a fait accompli in light of widespread Russian condemnation on the global stage. Although Bogdan-Martin presumably has the support of most western nations, it would be imprudent to discount the potentially significant block of support that could sway the election in favor of the Russian candidate. First, the most prominent Russian partner remains China, a country that has persistently sought to capitalize on waning influences of the United States in certain key regions of the world. Further, both China and Russia have recognized the untapped potential in the global south (primarily, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean), and have made strides to strengthen ties there. The implications of both emerging and historical relationships should not be discounted in the upcoming ITU election cycle.
The largest block of ITU voters resides in Africa; it remains uncertain which candidate will win these votes. Perhaps a harbinger of the ITU election, in a U.N. General Assembly vote just weeks ago, almost half of all African nations voted not to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. This may be credited to Russia’s persistent efforts to increase influence across the continent after Putin declared Africa a foreign policy imperative in 2019. And for at least five years, the Russian state-backed Wagner Group, an organization condemned by the European Union for destabilization efforts and human rights abuses, has worked to increase Russian influence across Africa, though some units were recently redeployed to Ukraine.
China, for its part, has entered agreements with fifty African countries as a key component of its Belt and Road Initiative. Huawei is engaged in 25 projects throughout continent and has already secured seventy percent of Africa’s 4G network. Additionally, in December 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that China is establishing a significant naval base in Equatorial Guinea, giving China increased naval access to the Atlantic.
Latin America & the Caribbean
Perhaps also predictive of the upcoming ITU election, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have shown strong support for Moscow by blaming the hostilities in Ukraine on the United States and NATO. Nine other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have failed to explicitly condemn Russia. And while the two biggest democracies in Latin America (Brazil and Mexico) have generally condemned all invasions, they have declined to support economic sanctions against Russia.
Over the last fifteen years, Russian aggression in Europe has been concurrent with Russian strategic engagement in Latin America. For example, concurrent with Russian invasions in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014), and after a Russian warship fired upon and seized three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait (2018), Russia deployed nuclear-capable military aircraft and other military assets to Venezuela and elsewhere in the region for the stated purpose of supporting of military exercises, and also a show of force to the west. Despite Ukraine’s success at thwarting Russian disinformation, Moscow has been effective in sowing seeds of doubt in Spanish-language outlets designed to undermine NATO. Finally, just prior to Russia’s most recent act of aggression against Ukraine, the heads of Brazil and Argentina met with Putin and other high-level Russian officials to further security cooperation initiatives.
These positions are reflective of years-long and ongoing Chinese and Russian campaigns to increase influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Historically, China has not enjoyed tremendous support in the region; of the fourteen remaining countries that recognize Taiwan as the legitimate China (in lieu of Beijing), eight reside in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the tide is turning. In the past four years, three countries in the region have shifted their positions, throwing favor to Beijing instead of Taiwan. Additionally, nineteen governments across Latin America have joined the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, China invested $12.8 billion in Latin American, concentrating on infrastructure investments, including ports, roads, dams, and railways. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, China provided billions of dollars of aid in cash and in kind to governments throughout the region.
The most obvious rationale for China’s and Russia’s efforts to increase influence in the global south is to benefit from economic resources on both continents and expand their global reach beyond their home continents. Another less obvious but very compelling rationale is that the global south is poised to experience tremendous internet connectivity growth in the near term. Nearly 3.7 billion people (or roughly half of the global population), do not have internet access, most of whom reside in the global south. But this is expected to change with the proliferation of low earth orbit satellites, increased broadband access, and other technologies. Increased internet access could drastically improve the lives of people throughout the global south, but it could also be used for state-sponsored oppression, disinformation, and surveillance – the favored tools of the modern authoritarian. This reality makes it all the more important to elect an ITU Secretary General that would allow democratic principles to inform how the internet is governed.
Clearly, China and Russia are finding potential partners in the global south in both likeminded authoritarian governments and relatively fledgling democracies. Nine military coups in Africa since the start of 2021 have highlighted the fragility of democracy in the face of authoritarianism. Latin America and the Caribbean’s increasing distrust of the United States and other western governments also underscore this challenge. Moreover, China and Russia’s efforts to build these partnerships not only serve obvious longer-term economic and national security interests, but provide a hedge against sanctions from western nations. Separately, the African Union has sought to increase its stature of the global stage, petitioning the United Nations for an increased role on the Security Council, which China and Russia could use to counterbalance the votes of the western nations that predominate. Undoubtedly, Russia’s and China’s pattern of practice on both continents demonstrate that they understand the potential of global south; the United States and other democratic nations should as well.
The Ukrainian people are suffering through a perilous moment in time for their government and their people, and deserve the world’s attention and resources. While the Russian military’s current lack of dominance in Ukraine seems to provide some measure of reassurance to many western governments, it is far too soon to be reassured. What is happening in Ukraine now is only a single waypoint—rather than a culmination–in what could be a long and protracted effort to curb authoritarianism across many fronts, and, quite prominently, on the internet.
The United States, its allies, and partners, and cannot afford to be myopic about what is happening in Ukraine, but instead must continuously look across a world that is more complicated and interconnected, and changing faster than ever. Whether the future of the global south is authoritarian or democratic is yet to be determined. The ITU election is upon us, and with the right attention from the United States, likeminded nations, and industry, it could be a bloodless victory in the fight for the internet, and the broader fight for freedom against authoritarianism.
Matthew Ivey is a retired Naval Officer and currently serves as Vice President of Legislative Affairs and National Security at Freedom Technologies, Inc. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official views of Foreign Policy News, Freedom Technologies, Inc., or any other entity.