Task Force Update: Kremlin Rhetoric Heats Up Two Months Before Elections

Over the past two weeks, Russian action and rhetoric have been heating up in an effort to apply greater pressure on Ukraine and discredit its upcoming elections, now a little more than two months away.

First, on the rhetoric side– Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s security council, warned of the “loss of Ukraine’s statehood” if Ukraine continues to pursue its current policy of submitting to the West’s agenda at the expense of its own citizens. Using the tried-and-tested lie, Russian propaganda outlets seek to stir up controversy on the sensitive issue of language, with absurd allegations that Ukrainian officials have banned the use of Russian in Ukraine and will seek to go after Russian speakers after the election. Given the still widespread use of Russian in much of the country, especially in the eastern part, such claims seek to create controversies where they currently do not exist.

On the action side, the Kremlin continues to exploit and abuse its judicial system to punish the twenty-four Ukrainian sailors captured in the November Kerch Strait incident; they remain in Russian detention. Moreover, Russian courts have even opened investigations, without any legitimate grounds for doing so, against several Ukrainian presidential candidates in an apparent effort to delegitimize the Ukrainian democratic and electoral processes.

On the cyber front, a dangerous type of malicious code, “GreyEnergy,” has been detected in Ukraine and Poland, affecting at least three energy and transport companies, in the latest instance of targeting of Ukraine by Russian military intelligence with serious malware, threatening to cause economic, social, and political disruption in the country.

Meanwhile, the West still has not taken any major steps to respond to November’s Russian aggression against Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait, aside from the visits of a U.S. naval warship, the USS Fort McHenry, to a Romanian port earlier this month and a British warship to Odesa to demonstrate interest in free navigation in the Black Sea area; UK defense minister also visited Ukraine. The lack of a stronger response risks emboldening Moscow to test the waters, so to speak, with a repeat of what happened in November.

Finally, the January 22 announcement that Wess Mitchell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, is resigning in mid-February is a loss for Ukraine and for those arguing inside the U.S. government for a tougher stance against Russian aggression and misbehavior.