Task Force Update: From First to Second…

In the homestretch of Ukraine’s presidential race, we should know in just a few days which two candidates will face off in the second round on April 21. That assumes, of course, that no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the first round on March 31, that there will be no problems in the vote tabulation, that the candidates who fail to advance  to the second round accept the results of the first, and that there will be no hacking of the Central Election Commission, as happened in 2014, and so on.

That said, it is worth appreciating for a moment that no one can say for sure who will eventually become the president of Ukraine. No one can even forecast who will be in the second round, if there is a second round. In an election that is not preordained, Ukrainians’ votes will truly matter. That distinguishes Ukraine from its regional counterparts, especially from its large neighbor to the north.

Once the presidential election is over and the winner declared, attention will shift to the fall’s parliamentary, or Rada, elections. Many observers expect that Russian interference in that election will be greater than in the presidential race. This is not to suggest, however, that all has been quiet up to this point on the Russian interference front.

Indeed, as our partner Detector Media has shown, Russian state TV stations have devoted considerable time and resources to Ukraine’s presidential election. It is important to note that 5 percent of Ukrainians, roughly 1.4 million potential voters, receive information about events in Ukraine and the world from Russian TV channels. Russian TV channels’ focus on Ukraine’s presidential election demonstrates the extent of the Kremlin’s interference efforts. A predominant theme, one which has been replicated in various disinformation efforts by Kremlin supporters, is that that the upcoming elections will be illegitimate.

The Task Force’s Roman Shutov has described Kremlin propaganda efforts to create the impression that the election in Ukraine will be rigged and fraudulent. Such efforts include utter misrepresentation of the positions and statements of various international bodies observing the election, including the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Detector Media reveals other Kremlin-propounded themes that paint Ukraine as a dangerous, radicalized place, presumably with the aim of discouraging voter turnout. One absurd example comes from Russian commentator Vladimir Solovyov, who warned viewers that “if you speak incorrectly, you will be approached by bandits who will beat you, they will rape your wife, and burn your house.”

Shutov also describes recent efforts to stir up trouble ahead of the election by the unrecognized and illegitimate leaders of the separatist movements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. These leaders depend wholly on Russian support. Their impact, however, is likely very limited as those still living in the area have been disenfranchised as a result of Moscow’s aggression.

Finally, a survey, comparing public opinion over time, conducted by our own Oleksiy Melnyk and the Razumkov Center, another Task Force partner, suggests that the Kremlin’s efforts may be failing to make serious inroads. Nearly 59 percent of those Ukrainians surveyed believe Russia is and will have a negative influence on the election; less than 8 percent believe Russia’s influence will be positive.