It has been coming—and now it’s here. Huawei 5G has gone live in Russia. This isn’t the first 5G pilot to launch in Moscow, but it is the most notable. It is based on an agreement signed between China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the 2019 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). The context of that discussion went to the heart of the emerging technology split between East and West, and so this launch has real political significance.
Russian network Tele2 went live in Moscow with Ericsson several weeks ago. And now, according to media reports this weekend, competing mobile operator MTS “has teamed up with Chinese tech giant Huawei for a 5G pilot scheme in Moscow—where for the first time the super-fast network will cover almost the entire city.”
5G pilots were not the only Huawei agenda item when Xi met Putin in June. That same meeting touched on the potential for Huawei smartphones to transition to Russian OS Aurora—which had been discussed in more detail between Huawei and Russia’s minister of digital development and communications. Last week, Reuters reported that Huawei is getting set to install Aurora “on 360,000 of its tablets to conduct Russia’s population census next year.” Reuters’ described the pilot as “the first stage of launching the Russian OS on Huawei devices.”
The same leaders’ meeting also covered the emerging tech split between the U.S. and its allies on one side, and China and others—including Russia—on the other. The so-called Splinternet strikes fear in certain intelligence agencies—loss of control, and across major players in the Western tech sector—loss of revenue. And those tech players include the likes of Intel, Qualcomm, Google and Microsoft.
At the time, it was also suggested Huawei might begin some Russian R&D and manufacturing, including “the joint production of chips and software.” The fact that the initial Aurora pilot looks set to be a Russian government program is consistent with the implication that there’s a deeper level of collaboration behind the scenes. Everything is linked.
Before the leaders came together in June, I had asked Moscow CIO and Government Minister Eduard Lysenko if he had concerns with the security risks associated with Huawei. Lysenko’s response was pointed. “The Russian Federation,” he told me, “has strict information security regulations which we always follow.” Russia and Washington have different views of the threat to national security from Huawei’s alleged intelligence links with Beijing.
5G was first piloted in Moscow in 2018, “during the World Cup,” Lysenko told me, “MegaFon, [another Russian network operators], used Nokia 5G equipment to demonstrate VR Broadcasts.” Now, though, “MegaFon have agreed to develop and implement 5G standards in Russia with Huawei.”
With respect to the Government of Moscow, the collaboration between China and Russia is a few pay grades up. And it extends to escalating hybrid warfare around the world, the peddling of influence and population control and interference, the ongoing cyber war in the Middle East, where both China and Russia see Iran as a unique proxy through which to battle the U.S. and its regional allies.
With the agreement between Xi and Putin signed, I quizzed Lysenko again on the role of Huawei. I asked him about the talks between Putin and Xi. “As I’m not part of the Russian Government,” he said, “I cannot be a source of information on the country leader’s agenda.”
As for Huawei’s role, he told me that “the Moscow Government has not signed any agreements with Huawei—the Moscow Government signed agreements with telecom operators and poses no restrictions on these operators and allows them to enter into agreements with different equipment suppliers.” Ironically, Lysenko described this Moscow-Beijing collaboration as “like in other European countries, securing the free market principle providing same opportunities for telecom operators and suppliers.”
And, as regards Huawei security concerns, his view hasn’t changed as the equipment has been deployed. “Our security systems are tailored to all types of threats,” he said “Of course, there are threats at various levels, but we are ready for them. In 2018, we repelled over 27,000 hacker attacks on our computers and are now constantly updating our security system.”
And so to that big picture. The emerging splinternet. “That China is a technology partner for us,” Lysenko told me, “is understandable and sufficiently predicted to build further relations—our primal interest is the growth of technological progress. Russia has fairly strict laws in the field of information technology development and we put forward serious safety requirements and demand their full implementation. Accordingly, we work only with those who can meet these requirements.”
Moscow is aware that it needs a defensible technical position in case other countries withdraw capabilities. “We do not know what position European companies will have in relations with Russia tomorrow,” Lysenko acknowledged. “In this sense, the story of Huawei is indicative. You can’t rely on the market of one country, you need to diversify the risks and that is what Russian operators are doing.”
And do Moscow’s citizens share the confidence in China’s technology in general and Huawei in particular? “We did not encounter any mass concerns of Moscow citizens on what is being written in the U.S. press. We did not receive complaints or requests to stop the exploitation of the Huawei.”
Moscow’s various 2019 5G pilots will build on the success of the World Cup trial, Lysenko had explained, with “full commercial use of 5G expected in 2020-2022.” The Huawei network will also “test so-called Smart City technology,” Russian media reported, “designed to improve security and urban services management, as well as helping to develop the transport system.”
But the real importance of this story goes way beyond the downloading of HD movies, the management of transportation systems or the development of citizen services.