With less than three months to go before Ukrainians head to the polls to cast their votes for president, the election campaign is heating up. A number of political figures have registered their candidacies, and more are expected to follow suit. Accompanying ramped up election activity in Ukraine is an increase in unwanted Russian attention to and nascent interference in that election.
Since our last newsletter, Ukrainian authorities have not renewed the limited martial law that had been imposed following Russia’s attacks on three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait in late November. Concerns that that incident and the declaration of martial law could interrupt the election have been allayed, for now, barring any further Russian aggression. The reported build-up of Russian military forces along the border of Ukraine and Moscow’s continued military provisions for their proxy forces in The Donbas, however, remain a serious source of anxiety.
Equally disturbing is rhetoric from Russian propaganda outlets and Russian officials arguing that it is Ukraine, not Russia, that seeks provocations ahead of the elections. Moscow has criticized the recent closing down of polling places for Ukrainians living in Russia. A consistent theme coming out of Russian propaganda outlets is that Ukraine’s upcoming election will not be legitimate for a variety of reasons. Russian cyber activity is also heating up. More than in the 2014 election campaign, Ukrainians are very attuned to and on guard against such efforts by Moscow to interfere, maintaining vigilance against possible large-scale cyberattacks and hacking.
For its part, the West responded weakly to the Kerch Strait incident and failed to impose any new sanctions against the Kremlin and its cronies for this act. Europe and the United States, coming out of their holiday season, need to demonstrate stronger support for Ukraine against Russian and other foreign interference and for Ukrainians’ right to choose their leaders freely, without outside meddling.
Task Force members, consisting of Ukrainians and others from elsewhere in Europe along with Americans, visited Ukraine last month to get a firsthand sense of recent developments. Our dashboard with reports of Russian activity and analysis is monitoring the situation on a steady basis. We anticipate ramping up our own efforts as the election nears with the likelihood of a spike in foreign interference. Stay tuned.