Ukraine’s Presidential Election

On April 1, 2019, the Atlantic Council hosted a panel exploring foreign, particularly Kremlin, interference in the first round of the March 31 Ukrainian presidential election as part of the Ukrainian Election Task Force’s public event. The panel consisted of team leaders from the Task Force: Olekisy Melnyk, kinetic lead and co-director of the Foreign Relations and International Security programs at the Razumkov Centre; Jakub Kalenský, disinformation lead and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Laura Galante, senior strategist and cyber lead as well as senior fellow with both the Eurasia Center and Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council; and David J. Kramer, team leader of the Task Force and senior fellow with the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs of Florida International University.

Kramer opened the panel saying that “the Task Force…has been very effective in exposing efforts to interfere in Ukraine’s election coming from outside.” He went on to describe how the first round was not completely free of outside interference, and how “99.9 percent of the incidents not surprisingly have come from Russia, from the Putin regime.” The interference encompassed a variety of threat types, including cyber, disinformation, and kinetic measures. The goal of the Kremlin’s interference was to destabilize Ukraine and “create this image that Ukraine was incapable of conducting a free and fair and legitimate election.”

Kalenský delved further into the nature of the information space surrounding the elections.  The Task Force works with Semantic Visions, a big data analysis company; StopFake, a group of counter disinformation “pioneers”; and Detector Media, a Ukrainian organization that monitors Russian TV. Kalenský noted that while Tymoshenko, Poroshenko, and Zelenskiy were the candidates most frequently mentioned in the information space, “the biggest effort of the disinformation influence on the Ukrainian elections was to delegitimize the whole process.” The Kremlin’s overarching goal was to “spread mistrust towards democracy.” Accordingly, Kremlin messaging focused more on the election being “rigged, manipulated or illegitimate” than on negative portrayals of specific candidates. While Poroshenko did receive much of the negative messaging, Kalenský attributed this to Poroshenko’s still being in office. Going forward, Kalenský suggested that the Kremlin may begin to adopt specific stances on individual candidates and try to promote one over the other in the Ukrainian information space.

While disinformation posed a consistent challenge to the first round of the election, Melnyk spoke to the equally important kinetic dimension. The Task Force expanded the definition of kinetic measures to include not only traditional military strikes but also hybrid warfare tactics entailing disinformation and cyber operations as “the current Russian strategy is aimed to weaponize everything.” Melnyk explained that the Kremlin likes to “play this card for creating chaos” and that Putin’s maneuvering often defies prediction. While the Task Force successfully detected several operations aimed at influencing the elections, Melnyk suggested that “we shouldn’t connect or may make an obvious connection between Russian actions and the elections because most of the actions have been done in the broader context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.”

Examining the cyberspace around the first stage of the presidential election, Galante noted that the Task Force “did not see anything that hit the high bars that had been put out” by previous Kremlin cyberattacks in Ukraine. However, despite the lack of any particularly destructive attacks, disruptions aimed at the servers and computers of Central Election Commission staff constituted noteworthy incidents. Further analysis will show if these disruptions were “either reconnaissance or seeds planted for something in the second round or simply preparatory action should Russia have wanted to do something bigger.”

Overall, the panelists agreed that the first round of the election proceeded with low levels of foreign interference and thus signaled a positive step for democracy in Ukraine.  Even with these positives, however, the Task Force remains cautious of foreign interference. According to Melnyk, “Russian interference didn’t start at the beginning of the Ukrainian elections and it’s not [going to] end after the elections.”