Cyber in Perspective: Strategic Risk and Opportunity in the 2019 Ukrainian Elections

Once again, history is calling Ukraine to an extraordinary task. On Sunday, March 31 2019, Ukrainian voters will participate in a nationwide presidential poll at a time of historic technological, democratic, and geopolitical challenges—the convergence of which would make any strategist or nation tremble in fear.

Despite these risks—or perhaps due to them—Ukraine also has a golden opportunity to show the world that it has competence in all three of these strategic domains. Kyiv should embrace this moment as a way to demonstrate its capability to succeed in areas that continually pose a challenge even to the EU and NATO.

First, let’s talk about computers. When the Cold War ended, few people even owned one, but today nearly everyone in developed countries has a supercomputer in his or her pocket. Further, the Internet is now organizing them all into one global brain, which among other things is now used to control national critical infrastructures. Ukraine knows this as well as any nation, as its last presidential election and its electricity grid have both been targeted by hackers. But anyone who thinks that Ukraine is new to information technology is quite mistaken: Ukrainian scientists built a mechanical computer as early as 1914.

Second, it is clear not only that democracy is under attack, but that digital tools and tactics have given its adversaries new weapons to disrupt it. From its earliest days in Athens, democracy has always been under assault from parties both domestic and foreign. And a brief glance around the world today tells us that authoritarianism is currently trending.

There is reason to believe that information technology may help to fortify elections in the future, but currently it seems to be providing succor to tyrants through enhanced surveillance and political opportunism—best evidenced by the ongoing controversy surrounding the 2016 US presidential election. At this time, the United States has indicted 13 Russian nationals with conspiracy to commit numerous crimes related to that historic poll. If Russia would interfere in American politics, what are the odds that Moscow would hesitate to interfere in the upcoming Ukrainian election, given that, in Vladimir Putin’s words (which echo centuries of Russian leaders), Kyiv is the “mother of all Russian cities?”

Third and finally, let us remember what a difficult geopolitical climate currently surrounds this entire question. We thought the Cold War was over, but now we are not so sure. A unipolar world was short-lived indeed, and outside of NATO, there is currently no consensus on what the next international security regime will be. Over the horizon, Ukraine is surely headed for membership in the EU and NATO, but how fast and smooth that process will be depends in part on political progress in Red Square.

In Ukraine, there is a historic convergence of technology, democracy, and geopolitics at play that would frighten even the keenest strategist. All three domains are vulnerable to attack, both individually and collectively. But herein also lies a great opportunity for Ukraine to show the world that it can master these building blocks that are required to build a strong, modern nation-state.

For inspiration, Ukraine need look no further than Estonia, which not only weathered a major cyber attack in 2007 but has since developed the most advanced electronic government and digital society in the world. For Ukraine, such an achievement demonstrates how quickly this can be done, and for those who would attack the upcoming Ukrainian election, it is a reminder that even a tactical victory may lead to a strategic loss.