Task Force Update: As Candidates File, Concern Increases Over Outside Interference

Tomorrow, February 8, is the deadline for prospective candidates to file for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. So far, some three dozen applications have been approved by the Central Election Commission (CEC). As election day nears, Ukrainian officials and outside observers are sounding more warnings about Kremlin-driven attempts to interfere in the election.

The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine (FISU), Yegor Bozhok, recently claimed that the Kremlin has allocated $350 million to its intelligence services to finance interference in Ukraine’s elections, and others have pointed to an increase in Russian hacking efforts. Serhiy Demedyuk, head of Ukraine’s cyber police force, cited hackers’ targeting of Ukraine’s electoral servers and the personal computers of election staff. The GRU and FSB, of course, have been implicated in interference in other elections, including in the United States, and we can expect that they will view the election in Ukraine as an inviting target.

Russian state television, which many Ukrainians can access directly or see via online outlets and social media, continues to pump out disinformation about Ukraine and the upcoming elections. Among the main propaganda themes to date are that Ukraine is “under the control of the West” and that the election will be “rigged.” During his mid-January press conference, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, tried to sow divisions in Ukraine, sputtering the usual nonsense about “the anti-constitutional coup d’etat” in February 2014 in Kyiv when “nationalists came to power and began to openly demand…the extermination or expulsion of Russians from Crimea.” As Kateryna Kruk writes for us this week, “In reality, there was no coup, no matter how many times the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine keeps repeating it.”

A survey conducted in late December showed that many Ukrainians see through Russian disinformation efforts. A majority of Ukrainians (53.5%) believe Russia is having and will continue to have a negative influence on Ukraine’s presidential election; only 6.2% expect Russia to play a positive role. Another 25.6% think the influence of the Russian-controlled Commonwealth of Independent States is negative; by contrast, only 22.5% think that of the United States, whereas 24.1% think the U.S. is playing a positive role and 34.3% think positively of the European Union.

The CEC’s announcement in the coming days of the approved list of candidates – and with it a real heating up of the election campaign – is likely to accelerate interference efforts coming out of Moscow.