Russian VPN Usage Skyrockets Amid Ukraine Crisis

Photograph of a Man Protesting Censorship

Amid the ongoing crisis in Europe and with most of the world cutting off all ties with Russia, VPN usage is surging to record levels, analytics company Appfigures and NU.nl said.

The demand for VPNs has been steadily rising since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and trending almost vertically from Feb. 27 onwards. In Russia, VPNs are now the most downloaded apps across both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store. Meanwhile, VPN providers have registered unprecedented sales.

Soaring VPN Downloads and Subscriptions

With most Western platforms and services now slowly being switched off in Russia, the Russian population is looking for ways to circumvent censorship and surveillance by utilizing VPNs.

VPN usage has soared over one thousand percent compared to its usual state, with Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store registering at least 4.6 million VPN app downloads between Feb. 24 and March 5, AppFigures said.

On the other hand, VPN activity has also surged in Ukraine by hundreds of percent, due to incoming cyberattacks, disruptions, and the Ukrainian population’s need for anonymity and security while using the internet during the crisis.

Facebook, Twitter, and Others Blocked

As of March 4, the Russian state communications regulator “Roskomnadzor” blocked access to Facebook and Twitter, claiming that social media sites were discriminating against Russian information resources and media. This began with the throttling of internet speeds, rendering the platforms unusable.

On the other hand, Meta (Facebook) had responded by restricting access to state-controlled platforms such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik across the EU.

It is not just social media that is inaccessible without a VPN now in Russia, but news and entertainment too. Major entertainment providers such as TikTok, Netflix, and several others have stopped functioning in the country, Appfigures said.

Russians then flooded the app stores to download various no-name VPN services, such as “VPN Proxy Master,” “Secure VPN,” “VPN Proxy Master,” and “Turbo VPN,” to get back on their social media platforms and unblock news and entertainment sites.

Users Want SurfShark and ExpressVPN

Major VPN providers SurfShark and ExpressVPN have seen a particularly significant increase in interest from Russia for their VPN services. SurfShark registered a 3,000+ percent increase in sales post-invasion, while ExpressVPN registered a 330 percent increase, NU.nl said.

NordVPN, another VPN giant, stated that they only registered a small increase in Russian visitors, NU.nl added.

Will the Russian Government Crack Down on VPN Usage?

Even though there is clearly a way to circumvent Russian censorship, this may not continue for too long, Appfigures said.

“The government has a variety of ways to stop VPNs from operating in the country, both technically and “legally.” And there’s always the possibility of blocking the App Store and Google Play entirely” added Appfigures.

Russia will probably not leave VPN services alone. Evidence of this is that Roskomnadzor required major VPN providers such as NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and others to hand over access to the servers in the country in 2019, NU.nl said. VPN companies had refused to comply then, and later halted their servers in Russia. However, Russians can still connect to servers located elsewhere.

The Digital Iron Curtain

This could be the “death knell” for Russia’s presence on the World Wide Web and the lowering of a “digital Iron Curtain,” Rishi Iyengar, CNN Bussiness reported.

“The crisis is definitely a flashpoint, and likely a turning point, for western platforms operating in Russia,” Jessica Brandt, policy director for AI and Emerging Technology at the Brookings Institution added.

If you find yourself in Russia or around the crisis region and need unfettered access to the internet, you will need VPN software that works under these conditions. To do that, refer to our full guide on the best VPNs for Russia or find out more about NordVPN, our No. 1 recommended VPN for Russia.

Tech researcher & communications specialist
Mirza has an education background in Global Communications, has worked in advertising, marketing, journalism and television over the years while living in several different countries. He is now working to consolidate news and outreach at VPNoverview.com, while in his free time he likes to work on documentary projects, read about sociology and write about world events.