As Ukraine prepares for its March 31, 2019, election—and gears up to defend that poll from cyberattacks—Kyiv should coordinate its defenses with other countries also preparing for elections of their own. The Republic of Lithuania, the southernmost Baltic country, will hold its own presidential election on May 12, just six weeks after Ukrainians head to the polls.
Lithuania and Ukraine have a shared geopolitical history. Both countries have been ruled from Moscow under Tsarist and Soviet regimes, and both currently have strained relations with Moscow: Ukraine is battling Russia in The Donbas, and Lithuania (and Poland) have recently seen a build-up of Russian military forces just across its border in Kaliningrad.
Both nations have acknowledged their concern that the Kremlin will try to interfere in their upcoming elections. Ukraine’s concerns are well-known, and stem in part from cyberattacks against its 2014 presidential election. The recently released Lithuanian National Threat Assessment states that “it is possible that Russia will seek to sway the course of the elections by information and cyber means … cyber activity is becoming one of the major tools used to accomplish Russian geopolitical goals not only during a conflict, but also at peacetime.”
The cyber threats are not limited to attacks on democracy—they include threats to national critical infrastructures. Lithuanian Vice-Minister of National Defence Edvinas Kerza explained that information attacks and cyberattacks, as well as traditional political and military pressure, can be different facets of one strategic campaign. For example, last year, hackers infiltrated a Lithuanian TV station, leveraged that access to publish a false story, then circulated a press release about the infiltration embedded with malicious code. More recently, Lithuanian intelligence agencies believe that Russia attempted to hack the nation’s energy sector control systems with the goal of disrupting Lithuania’s electricity supply.
One unique aspect of conflict in the cyber domain is that private sector researchers and cyber-savvy citizens can play a tangible role in national defense. Lithuania organizes volunteer groups called “elves,” comprised of journalists, IT professionals, students, and scientists, who fight Russian bots, trolls, and information operations. These groups do not only track information operations such as digital propaganda and disinformation, but they also identify and monitor instances of computer hacking, botnets, and automated attacks.
Given the intense challenges associated with cybersecurity today, most democracies are struggling with a wide range of issues, ranging from vulnerable infrastructure to fears of censorship and government surveillance. Therefore, as they prepare for upcoming elections, Ukraine, Lithuania, and the European Union (EU) should proactively collaborate on best practices in cybersecurity and intelligence sharing, while reactively conducting transparent, joint investigations of significant cyber incidents.