On Wednesday, March 13, 2019, the Ukrainian Election Task Force, in partnership with the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, held a panel discussion in Brussels on foreign interference efforts in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election.
Former Secretary General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Founder & Chairman of Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Co-chair of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity along with Svitlana Grytsenko, Director of National Programs at the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, offered welcome remarks.
A panel discussion followed with members of the Ukrainian Election Task Force: David J. Kramer, team leader; Kenneth Geers, cyber analyst; Kateryna Kruk, disinformation analyst; and Oleksiy Melnyk, kinetic lead. Ambassador John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, moderated the discussion.
In his opening remarks Anders Fogh Rasmussen discussed interference efforts and challenges Ukraine has faced over the past several years and the effects of these challenges on Ukrainian citizens. “Moscow has used Ukraine as a testing ground for its interference playbook before and it will do so again,” Rasmussen said, adding, “Russia’s goal is not to elect their president in Ukraine; its aim is to delegitimize the election process altogether…”
Rasmussen asserted, “Given the high stakes and past experience, we cannot underestimate the risk of foreign interference in Ukraine’s elections.” The Kremlin’s goal will be to delegitimize the election process using tools such as disinformation, he said, “to undermine the winner and sow doubts among both Ukrainians and the international community about whether this was a free and fair vote, to reinforce the narrative that Ukraine is a failed country whose institutions cannot be trusted, and where everything is for sale, including the election results.”
Despite all of these threats, Ukrainians have taken to “the streets to demand a different path–a path of freedom, sovereignty, and self-determination,” Rasmussen added. The Ukrainian Election Task Force will work to “defend Ukraine’s interests to decide its own destiny through the ballot box.”
Ukraine is a “testing ground” for the ways the Kremlin wants “to destabilize democracies and countries transitioning and moving closer toward the EuroAtlantic community,” said David J. Kramer. Kenneth Geers added on that the Kremlin’s interest in weakening Ukrainian democracy was based on undermining the whole electoral process rather than just one candidate. The Kremlin has been sowing uncertainty and doubt, leaving people “questioning…the very democratic essence of Ukraine and stability of the country,” Kateryna Kruk noted. The Kremlin has been using a variety of disinformation networks at its disposable “to whitewash the crimes…or pollute the information space…” she added. “There are a lot of people who already question whether those will be legitimate and real results.”
According to Oleksiy Melnyk, “Putin has two main objectives: first, he wants to stay in power. And second he wants to be remembered as a great Russian leader. In achieving both these objectives, Ukraine is something that annoys Putin very much. If Ukraine becomes a free, democratic, European, prosperous country, it will present an alternative model for Russia.”
Ambassador Herbst gave reason to hope that Russian aggression in Ukraine might not be as successful in destabilizing the elections as Putin would want by saying that Ukraine “has demonstrated the ability to run a democracy in the face of invasion and in the face of a massive, hybrid effort—disinformation, financial manipulation, cyber operations—to maintain an open society.”
Ukrainians will head to the polls on March 31, 2019. The Task Force will closely monitor Kremlin and other foreign interference efforts in near real-time. Updates and analyses can be found on ukraineelects.org.