With three weeks to go before Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election, the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign has yet to target particular candidates. Instead, propaganda outlets continue to insist that the election will be illegitimate no matter the result. Additionally, Russian politicians have already posed the question of whether they will even recognize the election results as legitimate.
Following Ukraine’s decision not to accredit Russian observers in the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Kremlin withdrew their applications. “The Ukrainian authorities have made it clear that Russian citizens will not be accredited, and there is no way to observe without such accreditation. As such, the Russians have decided not to send them,” ODIHR representative Thomas Rymer said.
Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov was among the first to suggest that if Ukraine refuses to allow Russian officials to observe the election, Russia will have “enough reasons” not to recognize the results. Russian MP Konstantin Zatulin suggested the same on Russia-1 TV.
The news spread quickly. Pushkov’s words appeared in the headlines of Izvestia, Gazeta.ru, and RIA. “But if the question of Russian observers is closed, the question of Russia’s attitude toward the election of the President of Ukraine, on the contrary, remains open,” TASS’s observer Andrei Nizamutdinov wrote.
In the Kremlin-controlled information space, the absence of Russian observers is one of many reasons to question the results of the fast-approaching election: the Russian MFA stated that Kyiv’s decision not to open polling stations in Russia also “raises questions about the transparency and objectivity of the results of the upcoming voting.” We have already explained why this argument is lacking.
Valentina Matvienko, the Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council, even blamed Kyiv for not opening polling stations in the occupied territories of The Donbas that resulted in “several millions of Ukrainian citizens having no right to elect the President.” This statement is obviously manipulative and inaccurate; it is impossible to organize voting in the occupied territories of The Donbas as they are beyond the control of the government. Moreover, it is dangerous for members of the police or civil society organizations to travel there as well.
Russian observers also repeatedly claim that the number of electoral legislation violations is excessive and corrupts the vote. Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev paid special attention to “hundreds of complaints of violations…recorded cases of illegal agitation and bribery of voters. Poroshenko has virtually no chance to be reelected for a second term. Poroshenko’s only hope is widespread use of falsifications and dirty tricks.”
Russian propaganda outlets, like RT, further perpetuated this claim regarding the election’s potential illegitimacy—“It is certainly obvious that the elections will not be fair and verifiable, and that is why Russian observers are not allowed in,” MP Zatulin said. In a separate article, RT forecasted that the “election will be corrupt and the results will be biased.”
The presidential campaign in Ukraine will be highly competitive, and presidential hopefuls may even use “dirty tricks” to improve their chances. However, independent monitors report that any violations to date are nowhere near enough to call the campaign or outcome of the election into question, and that these violations do not exceed past elections in Ukraine.
Despite its warnings to the contrary, the Kremlin may recognize the election in the end. The Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that the absence of Russian observers does not mean that Moscow will categorically deny the election results, though their observers’ exclusion “damaged the legitimacy” of the presidential election.
Once again, it appears that sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the presidential election is the Kremlin’s principal objective—at least in this phase of the campaign.