This week in the Ukrainian press, Volodymyr P. Horbulin, former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, took the stage to discuss his view of Russia’s role in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections. In the article “Play Without Deception” in Mirror Weekly, Horbulin analyzes Russia’s deep concern over the Ukrainian election results. He claims that the level of interference by Moscow in the elections will be unprecedented.
Many Ukrainians compare Volodymyr Horbulin to Zbignew Brzezinski, the famous American political scientist, sociologist, and former National Security Advisor. Horbulin sports a similarly impressive track record of positions in the intelligence and defense communities of Ukraine. What is especially important, however, is that he possesses the same clear and strategic understanding of the political landscape in Ukraine.
According to Horbulin, the Russian Federation’s full focus is now on Ukraine’s two national election campaigns in 2019. With the help of these campaigns, Russia, according to Horbulin, will try to achieve its strategic objectives with “little blood” in order to bring “negotiable” politicians to power at various levels or elevate suggestible Russian agents of influence.
The participation of pro-Russian candidates, or candidates who are at the very least willing to make concessions to Russia, is unprecedentedly high in this presidential election. More than 30 presidential candidates will run in the elections and most, according to Horbulin, will be “suitable” for Russia’s aims.
Russia’s mobilization of these pro-Russian candidates seemingly serves as yet another offensive tactic in the ongoing hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine. After four years of waging a hybrid war with Ukraine in The Donbas, Russian intelligence has turned its attention to interfering in the elections via cyberspace.
On May 23, 2018, The Daily Beast reported that the FBI blocked a network of 500,000 WiFi routers infiltrated by the hacker group APT28/Fancy Bear, which has been linked to the Russian Military Intelligence (GRU)–the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense. These routers were infected with the VPN Filter virus, malicious software that uses known vulnerabilities to infect home and office routers from vendors such as Linksys, MikroTik, NETGEAR and TP-Link. The virus can control routers and install malicious plugins that allow hackers to snoop on victims’ web traffic and steal website credentials. Experts from Cisco Systems had noted that VPN Filters were distributed in 54 countries, but mostly in Ukraine.
Most remarkably, the APT28/Fancy Bear group used the VPN Filter once before: to hack the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Based on The Daily Beast’s report, we should expect subversive measures utilizing the VPN Filter in the presidential elections in Ukraine. Pro-Western candidates will most likely be the targets of such attacks. We may see leaks of compromising information about these candidates and their staff on various media resources very soon. Moreover, even if a presidential candidate possesses an impeccable track record, infiltration of their election headquarters and personal emails will allow hackers to create deepfake messages that will be increasingly difficult to distinguish from reality. Such a tactic is merely one of the many information tools likely to be employed by malicious actors.
Horbulin hopes that the Ukrainian elections proceed without deception. While Western allies hope for fair and free elections, a much more complex reality is likely to play out.