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The Russian “Enigma” of the 21st century: how Telegram is connected to the Kremlin

    Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Telegram has gained significant influence over the Ukrainian audience.

    Almost a million users downloaded the app in the month after February 24, 2022. Today, this messenger is used by 88% of Ukrainians . Today, Telegram for us is news, warnings about the approach of missiles to the region of stay, volunteer meetings, access to uncensored information from the battlefield in every phone. 

    But in the conditions of a full-scale war, is our trust in such a convenient tool, which has ties to the aggressor country, justified? 

    War of ciphers. Why does Russia need a global messenger?

    During the Second World War, information was transmitted by radio, and it was possible to intercept it. Therefore, in order to keep the data – plans and orders – secret, they were transmitted in encrypted form. For this, the warring states used sophisticated machines that converted plain text into a secret code. For example, Hitler’s Germany and Japan used a cipher generated by the Enigma machine. It was believed that it was impossible to crack this cipher, so the Nazis were not afraid to use it to transmit the most secret information. 

    Enigma encryption machine used by the Nazis during World War II Image: Central Intelligence Agency

    The Allies really could not “crack” the German encryption code for a long time. But when the British finally succeeded, they guarded this secret very carefully. So that the enemy does not understand that they have gained full access to the system of distribution of secret information.

    For this, the British government even had to sacrifice its military: knowing from the deciphered intercepts about individual plans to attack British convoys, the command did nothing to avoid danger. Consciously allowing individual defeats, the British possessed the entire picture of the battle. And they used their knowledge of the plans of the Nazis at a crucial moment. Thanks to this, it was possible to end the war with a victory over Nazism almost a few years earlier.

    But what does history have in common with Hitler’s “Enigma” and Russian Telegram? 

    The closed MTProto encryption protocol, the dubious jurisdiction of Telegram, the “dark” history of its financing, as well as the active connections of the top managers of the social network with Russia even after their allegedly forced departure from their homeland — all this raises doubts about the veracity of official statements from from the Telegram administration about the “super reliability” of their messenger. 

    On the contrary, being closely connected with the Chekist-Kremlin regime, which started a full-scale war in Europe, Telegram can also be a kind of “Enigma of the XXI century” operation, which is currently being implemented by the Russian special services.

    All this causes concern, will the Kremlin use the messenger with 800 million users as a tool in its war against Ukraine? And later – in a global hybrid war against the West, implementing the Bolshevik ideology “we will fan the world fire.”

    Durov’s pole of gravity

    Pavel Durov publicly dissociates himself from any ties with the Russian authorities. But he presents himself as a victim of the Putin-Chekist regime — including for his political position: when in 2014 Durov announced that he refused to provide personal data of Ukrainian Vkontakte users at the request of Russian security forces. And because of this, the Kremlin completely took over Durov’s network.  

    Then Vkontakte went under the wing of United Capital Partners, which was managed by the board of directors

    state corporation “Rosneft” (which means the Kremlin). After all, from 2014 to 2021, the controlling stake belonged to Alisher Usmanov and his Group, a billionaire and one of Russia’s richest men and “Putin’s favorite oligarch,” as Western media called him.

    And in December 2021, Radio Liberty reported that the controlling stake in VK (which controls, including the largest Russian social network Vkontakte) was bought by the Sogaz group, whose owners are Putin’s friend Yuriy Kovalchuk, the dictator’s nephew Mikhail Shelomov, and Gazprom. Also, a large stake belongs to the Russian state company “Rostech”, which is headed by Putin’s colleague from the time of the KGB, Sergei Chemezov. In March 2022, all foreigners left the company’s board of directors. Thus, there is no doubt that the Vkontakte social network is fully under the control of the Kremlin-Putin. 

     In 2022 , in a comment to the American Forbes, Durov’s representative noted that Pavel had left Russia many years ago and was not going to return. Today, Durov also has the citizenship of France, UAE, Senet-Kits and Nevis . 

    After the full-scale intrusion began in 2022, Pavel Durov published a post on his page in which he assured that user privacy is a priority for Telegram, despite his former career and life in Russia. Although he did not condemn Russia’s aggression then, calling the war a “tragic conflict.”

    Translation: “9 years ago, I protected the private data of Ukrainians from the Russian government — and lost my company and home. I would do it again without hesitation.”

    However, as Moxie Marlinspike (an American cybersecurity expert, cryptographer, co-founder of the Signal messenger, and author of the Signal Protocol encryption protocol used in Signal, WhatsApp, Google Messages, Facebook Messenger, and Skype) aptly pointed out—although the Telegram team is no longer based in Russia – they can still have their family members there. And, therefore, to be vulnerable to the Russian government. 

    Moreover, members of the Telegram team do not shy away from the company of Russian politicians – both during public events and in private meetings. Thus, Russia still remains the “pole of gravity” of Durov’s team. 

    Money from warm countries: financing from the Arab Fund through the Russian Federation

    Determining Telegram’s funding sources is an asterisk task, because the company attracts its investors privately. However, the names of some individuals and organizations, which were indicated as investors in the messenger, appeared in the media more than once.

    So, among the investors of TON (Telegram cryptocurrency) were Russians David Yakobashvili and oligarch Roman Abramovich. The first is under Ukrainian sanctions, and the second is included in the sanctions lists of the European Union, the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Ukraine and other countries. Both have close ties to the Kremlin.

    Telegram’s investors include the sanctioned David Yakobashvili, Roman Abramovich and Arab funds with a long history of cooperation with the Russians Mubadala Capital and Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners

    Among the investors who saw the potential in Telegram are many representatives of the UAE. Namely, the two investment funds that bought the messenger’s bonds worth 150 million US dollars are often mentioned: Mubadala and Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners (a fund created by Mubadala and the American investment company Falcon Edge Capital).

     In particular, the Emirati company Mubadala has worked closely with Russia , creating a fund in the amount of 2 billion US dollars in 2013 together with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to invest in long-term projects in various sectors of the Russian economy.

    Mubadala also invested in Pulkovo Airport in Russia , SIBUR (a chemical holding company), En+ and Gazprom Neft projects . The total portfolio of the fund in Russia is estimated at 3 billion US dollars , as reported by Reuters. In March 2021, information appeared in the media that the Mubadala fund together with the RFPI invested in Telegram. However, the management of Telegram denied the information about investments from the RFPI.

    After the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mubadala announced that it was suspending its investments in Russia . However, Khaldun Mubarak, Mubadala’s top manager, stated as early as March 2023 that the Russian invasion will not stop the fund’s aspirations to be a global investor. Therefore, today Telegram is still present in the portfolio of Mubadala , like the rest of the mentioned Russian companies.

    An interesting detail: already at the beginning of 2024, the Russian authorities “wrote off” the debt due to fines that they had previously imposed on Telegram and Western technology companies. The relevant record has disappeared from the database of the Federal Bailiff Service. In return, Telegram did not pay any debts, assuring Reuters that they do not know why the debts were written off, since the company has neither assets, nor offices, nor employees in Russia. However, in reality, this is not the case: Telegram and Russia are still connected by money, technological resources and people. And Russia is still finding workarounds to invest in Telegram.

    Traffic in Russian hands

    Telegram uses only companies of Russian origin for traffic transmission networks. Network traffic (may also be called data traffic or simply traffic ) is the amount of data that moves over a network in a given period of time. Any application that we use on the Internet (like Telegram) must transmit data packets over the network in order to function accordingly. Network administrators can control traffic — prioritize or monitor traffic (measure its volume and data types). 

    Telegram uses two companies for such a task — RETN and LLC GLOBALNET . Both are of Russian origin.

    Intelligence in chats: interference with Telegram channels in the war zone

    In January 2024, the monitoring group of the information space of one of the divisions of the Armed Forces noticed the facts of external interference in the work of local Telegram channels of the occupied Berdyansk, Melitopol and Mariupol. It was from there that the information space monitoring group received information about the hits, destruction, losses of personnel, equipment and military equipment of the Russians. But at one point, without the knowledge of the administrators of these channels, entire posts, photos and videos, comments in channels and chats of condominiums, which were monitored, were deleted. 

    During the Bryansk Massacre special operation, when the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine destroyed 5 air crews of the Russians in 5 minutes in May 2023, all local Telegram channels closed the discussion. It is still unknown whether this was due to outside interference or if it was just the initiative of the channel administrators. 

    Similarly, during Prigozhin’s “campaign” to Moscow, out of 15 Wagner channels that were monitored, only three continued to function. At the same time, there were failures in the work of Telegram throughout the Russian Federation. 

    Using Telegram in a war zone means giving the Russians access to your geolocation, multimedia and chat history, even deleted ones. This is confirmed by the Russians themselves. Thus, at the end of 2023, a leading Russian TV channel released a news story in which it boasted that Russian security forces had access to the deleted Telegram correspondence of detained Ukrainians.

    And the very fact that Telegram and Vkontakte is one of the two social networks that the Russian leadership has officially allowed its military to use is very telling.

    Moveton or a security issue?

    The Ukrainian community of cyber specialists DC8044 recently announced that it was “moving” from Telegram to another platform for communication due to the dubious jurisdiction of this messenger and its ties to the Kremlin. 

    The President of Ukraine, the Air Force, the State Emergency Service, the State Emergency Service, the Center for Strategic Communications at the ICIP, and other state organizations  have begun to develop their own channels on WhatsApp and other resources .

    The trend is set. Using a Russian information product now is like playing with face down cards when your opponent knows exactly what your next moves will be. And in the conditions of war, it becomes not just a buzzword, but a problematic issue of national security.

    If Elon Musk, having access to the control of Starlink, was able to disrupt the attack of Ukrainian drones on the ship of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation, then what steps is the Russian Pavel Durov’s team capable of, which continues to be dependent on the Kremlin, in this war between Russia and Ukraine?