When talking about presidential elections in 2014, one should keep in mind their context. After Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in late February, following the bloody shootings on Maidan, the Verkhovna Rada dismissed him from office and scheduled early presidential elections on May 25. The presidential campaign started right away, on February 25.
The events unfolded rapidly: Russian forces started the take-over operation in Crimea that led to the peninsula’s illegal annexation; unrest in Eastern Ukraine was followed by Russia’s invasion; and a few weeks before the elections, tragic clashes in Odesa took place. All of these events kept Russian propagandists busy. According to extensive research archives, back in early 2014, most of the disinformation involved:
- coverage of the “referendum” in Crimea and the issue of international recognition of the Crimean annexation;
- blaming Kyiv authorities for tragic clashes in Odesa on May 2 and sowing panic;
- covering developments in Eastern Ukraine with special focus on allied “atrocities” of the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions.
In the light of these topics, very little attention was devoted to the elections themselves. Stopfake’s archive contains only a few fake news stories about the early presidential elections, most of which appeared in late May, right before or on the day of elections. The earliest piece about the upcoming elections and their potential outcome for Ukraine appeared after Yanukovych gave his first interview following his escape from Ukraine in late February 2014. Yanukovych called elections “illegitimate” and said conducting elections in such a chaotic situation will lead to further destabilization of the country and possible collapse of its statehood.
A month later, RT again returned to the rhetoric that early presidential elections will be “illegitimate.” Russian political scientists that were quoted in that article point out that “illegitimacy” is a result of the “punitive operation against the people of Eastern and Southern Ukraine” and the rise of far right forces like Right Sector that they claimed were responsible for the deadly clashes in Odesa.
Since then, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine has repeated allegations about illegitimate or rigged elections many times, including disinformation cases about the elections and referenda in the United States, Austria, France, Germany, Macedonia, Czech Republic, or United Kingdom.
On election day 2014, the Russian disinformation machine further propped up an organization it found favorable—the far right “Right Sector”. The organization’s leader Dmytro Yarosh was declared the winner of the presidential elections on Russia’s First Channel. Russian TV displayed a supposed screenshot of a chart purporting to show results that reflected Yarosh’s victory; this chart was a total fake that was never even on the website of the Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine. However, the Security Service of Ukraine later confirmed that the system had indeed been infected by a malicious virus, which could have published the wrong results on the official website of the Central Electoral Commission had it not been detected earlier.
The Central Electoral Commission became a target of one more fake news story. On the very morning of the elections, Russian propagandists started distributing disinformation that the electoral system “Vybory” has been destroyed, making it impossible to count and learn the real results of the elections.
Having no direct disinformation campaigns against the main candidates but rather on the system of elections, one might get the impression that the Kremlin was attempting to disrupt the very notion of democratic elections in Ukraine and question the legitimacy and integrity of the results. Moreover, Moscow’s propagandists were actively focused on spreading fake news on other topics, seemingly implying that fueling the unrest in The Donbas might be more key for their disinformation campaign than the presidential elections.