The Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled respectively in March and October 2019 are to draw our attention, especially taking into account the numerous Russian interferences seen in the past elections in the west.
In an interview given to the Financial Time in March, the current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said to consider the danger for Russian interference in the coming election to be “extremely high”.
Following other Russian interferences within national elections such as in France (May 2017) and in Germany (September 2017), governments have taken measures to counter such attacks from Russia. As a result, this July, the French parliament adopted a law concerning the spread of fake news in times of electoral campaign. On the basis of this example, President Poroshenko hopes to be able to benefit and learn from those experiences in matters related to the counter of potential Russian interferences.
As said previously Russian interferences are not a new phenomenon, in fact, a dataset made available by the University of Toronto, lists all electoral interferences from Moscow between 1991 and 2017. Ukraine was then subject to such interferences five times within that period.
It seems like before 2014, Russian interventions were focused on former Soviet states. The goal was to support pro-Russian candidates just like in 1994, in Ukraine, when Russia provided electoral support for one of the candidates, strategy that eventually led to the candidate winning the elections. However from 2014, the range of countries targeted by Russia was expended to Western states such as France or Germany.
Although Russia’s efforts might have been relevant in Ukraine, the results have turned to be very little. Indeed, only the 1994 presidential elections turned in favour of the candidate supported by Putin. None, of the following interferences in 2002, 2010 and 2014 actually turned to be in the advantage of what Russia wanted.
Therefore in 2014, year of the Euromaïdan turmoil, a pro-European candidate was elected despite series of coordinated cyber-attacks launched (fake vote totals according to Ukrainian officials) and significant media exposure for the pro-Russia candidate on the Russian television.
In the light of this dataset, Ukraine can be considered as a “test-bed for Russian attacks” as Toomas Ilves, former Estonian President, stated during an event in Kyiv last May. The up coming elections seem therefore to be the perfect opportunity for Moscow to interfere in favour of a pro-Russian candidate as well as to try new strategies for its potential involvement in other elections around Europe or in the United States.
There would be no reason for Putin not to seek a “convenient” candidate for the election, and as Olena Zerkal, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, said, Ukraine “should figure out how [Russia] is preparing to meddle in Ukrainian elections”.
The question that should be asked is what can the Ukrainian government do in order to minimise such interferences? Ukraine has been through deep changes since 2014 notably in the light of an attempt from its President for a European rapprochement. However, only strong and steady reforms will allow the government to have tools to counter Russia. Taking that into account, the governments might not be secured enough to face such Russian attacks on its infrastructure.
Russian interferences in Ukrainian elections are most likely to develop in three ways. The first one would be a more traditional approach consisting in carousel voting or bribes for votes. This strategy although considered as ‘basic’ could see outcomes especially when put in correlation with the state of people’s economical situation in Ukraine.
The second would consist in influencing people through information whether on mainstream media or on social media. Concretely resulting in Russian television broadcasting political shows with so-called experts providing objective opinions on a given subject or promoting a pro-Russian candidate, as it was the case in previous elections.
In addition to that, Facebook posts, tweets, etc, can also influence the votes of the population through simple slogans for instance. Moreover, it also goes hand in hand with the endless search for sensational revelations on the targeted candidate as it was seen during the US elections for instance.
As far as this second strategy is concerned, it is difficult to restrict disinformation from social media. Those platforms although they have been taking some measures (such as removing videos), are not interested or committed to take the problem more seriously.
The third, and last strategy would be cyber influence. It was already used during the 2014 presidential election and resulted in hacking attacks aiming at disconnecting the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) servers from the Internet.
This last way of interfering is what the Ukrainian authorities need to focus the most on. As stated in the Ukrainian law the technical protection of information is the responsibility of the owners. Heads of national institutional entities are to take measures to protect their websites, this particularly includes the CEC.
Valentyn Petrov, Head of the Information Security Department at the National Security and Defence Council (SCIS) said that the 2019 results will be protected by other security entities. Moreover, important to mention that votes are counted by hand, on paper ballots, a Russian attack on the electronic system would have little impact on the results of the voting as this system serves mainly for informative and consultative purposes.
One of the solutions to increase protection would be for the public and the private sector to join forces by exchanging information. Employees’ awareness of the importance of cyber threats and personal responsibility are also key issues that both sectors need to work on.
The President’s goal is to guarantee free and fair elections for next year; therefore there is report of the creating of special networks that would allow the state to held the elections correctly even in case of attack. A national telecommunication network has been created in order to secure data transfers for public entities. Moreover, the idea of a national computer emergency response team (CERT) to allow quicker communication on cyber attacks has been raised.
As the elections will take place next year, it is difficult to make any predictions both on which candidate will receive the greater support and whether the Russian interference will be fruitful.
Moreover, there is no guarantee for the national Ukrainian government, nor for European leaders, to predict for whom the Ukrainian people will vote for. The economic context (poverty, lack of opportunity) could as well tilt the balance in favor of a pro-Russian candidate.
It is in the EU’s interest to hope for Russian interferences to fail, the electoral campaign could already slow down the reform process and the election of a pro-Russian candidate would blur Kyiv’s course of intentions to a European rapprochement. The outcome of this election, and therefore the success of Moscow in interfering will impact the future of Ukraine’s prospect with the EU.