Five years ago this week, Putin’s Russia illegally and illegitimately annexed Crimea. Strong statements condemning that move at the time were echoed again over the past few days from European, Canadian, and American capitals, underscoring that the West will never recognize the seizure of the peninsula by the Kremlin.
The anniversary also serves as a reminder of blatant Russian interference in Ukraine’s upcoming election. The occupation of Crimea and parts of The Donbas over the past five years means that several million Ukrainians have been disenfranchised; they will not be able to participate in the upcoming presidential election. Denying citizens the right to vote and choose their legitimate leaders is the height of interference. As our Task Force and others expose other forms of meddling, we should not overlook what is hiding in plain sight.
That said, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev defied truth by suggesting earlier this month that it was Ukrainian authorities who staged a “provocation” in the Kerch Strait to scapegoat Russia for Ukraine’s internal issues. In reality, though, Russian ships fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels and captured twenty-four Ukrainian sailors, some of whom continue to be held illegally in Russian detention. “Russia is openly used as an issue to distract voters from the government’s failures in domestic policy and the economy, from civilian casualties in The Donbas, and from economic ruin,” Medvedev argued, as cited by the Task Force’s Kateryna Kruk.
In a display of sheer chutzpah coming from a country where the outcome of elections is known well in advance, Medvedev went on to say: “The presidential campaign in that country has featured flagrant violations of generally accepted democratic norms, including those guiding European countries.”
Russian propaganda outlets have taken a similar approach in describing the Ukrainian election campaign. As our partner Detector Media reports, Kremlin-backed television increasingly pushed the idea that President Poroshenko plans to organize an escalation in The Donbas and institute a new martial law as a way to stay in power, or at least to divert attention from topics he wishes to avoid.
Finally, the source of interference in Ukraine’s election is not limited to Russia. Belarus and Hungary appear to be spreading Kremlin-style disinformation as well. President Lukashenko claimed that Poroshenko will be the next president; he did admit, however, given his popularity, Vladimir Zelenskiy might progress to round two of the presidential election with Poroshenko. According to Kateryna Kruk, Hungarian officials have been weighing in as well. Responding to a question about elections in Ukraine at a recent press conference in Budapest, Gergely Gulyás, the Minister of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Office, accused Ukrainian authorities of trampling minority rights and adopting a “semi-fascist” law. As Kruk notes, the rhetoric employed by Prime Minister Orbán and those who represent him is strongly reminiscent of Kremlin-backed propaganda narratives.