Expectations are high that Russia will attempt to interfere in the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for March 31. Having failed, since 2014, to force Kyiv back into its orbit using purely military means, the Kremlin has been gearing up a broad spectrum of instruments—including cyberattacks, disinformation, courting of pro-Russian politicians and their supporters, inflaming of religious tensions, as well as threats of further military escalation—in order to put pressure on Ukraine via its democratic process.
Three main candidates have for weeks been leading the polls in the Ukrainian presidential campaign: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, former prime minister and a leader of the Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”) party Yulia Tymoshenko, and a famous comedian with zero political experience, Volodymir Zelensky. None of them can be described as “pro-Russian.” The most popular among the current pro-Russian candidates, Yuriy Boyko, recently polled fourth, with 7.4 percent of support among decided voters (RBC, March, 4).
One of the methods (already being observed) that the Kremlin is using in an attempt to influence the election in Ukraine has been to enflame inter-religious tensions in the country. At the beginning of January 2019, Constantinople accorded the Ukrainian Orthodox Church a Tomos of Autocephaly, thus officially making it independent of the Moscow Patriarchate (that is, the Russian Orthodox Church). Shortly afterward, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly declared that the Kremlin was ready to protect the religious rights of Orthodox parishioners in Ukraine and elsewhere (UNIAN, February 1). By mid-February, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), Vasyl Hrytsak, revealed that a series of attempts had recently been made to set fire to buildings and facilities connected to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate. Hrytsak asserted that those provocations, which took place in Zaporizhia region, in central Ukraine, were orchestrated by the Russian secret services and carried out by the so-called MGB (analogue of KGB) of the separatist, Moscow-backed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” He pointedly did not exclude the possibility of further provocations to discredit the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Ssu.gov.ua, February 18).
Further leverage against Kyiv is likely to take the form of Moscow’s exploitation of far-right or extremist groups inside Ukraine. Dozens of such formations currently exist in the country, including C14, Right sector, Karpatska Sich and other groups, with many of their members having acquired military experience while fighting in eastern Ukraine. Notably, at the start of the year, the Central Election Commission of Ukraine (CEC) registered the far-right organization National Squads as official observers during the upcoming election (UNIAN, January 12). According to local sources, the organization is loyal to current Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and could cooperate with the National Police to prevent possible violations at polling places. In a recent interview, the press secretary of the National Squads, Ihor Vdovin, warned that his organization could use force if police is found turning a blind eye to falsifications during the elections (Radiosvoboda.org, March 5). In case of broad involvement of such groups in the democratic process, the Kremlin may seek to portray the elections themselves as potentially illegitimate. Such an information warfare campaign could be used to delegitimize the next Ukrainian president to both Russian and foreign audiences.
Russia is also likely to employ broader disinformation, broadcast via Moscow-friendly Ukrainian media outlets, including several highly popular local television channels. Last year, one of the Kremlin’s closest allies in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, purchased, through his business partners, two TV stations, NewsOne and Channel 112. In October, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers initiated sanctions against these media sources, which serve as platforms for Medvedchuk’s ideas about “federalizing” Ukraine and regularly air interviews with pro-Russian politicians who fled the country along with then-president Viktor Yanukovych following the EuroMaidan revolution in 2014 (Pravda.com.ua, October 3, 2018).
Among other previously tested approaches are Russian cyberattacks. In 2017, a number of Ukrainian government institutions came under heavy attack from a virus called Petya, which took offline several crucial public computer networks, including those of the National Bank and the Ministry of Defense. According to Oleg Derevianko, the founder of Information Systems Security Partners, a Ukrainian cybersecurity firm that cooperates with the Ukrainian government, attacks have spiked ahead of this year’s presidential elections. Since November, hacker groups have been targeting Ukrainian magistrates, government officials, attorneys and others. The victims receive e-mails that contain attachments with malware and viruses. Those attacks “are not only testing destruction but also testing your reflexes,” Derevianko suggested (Politico, February 14, 2019).
While overt military aggression to derail the Ukrainian elections will probably be the last option for Russia, such a possibility should not be excluded out of hand. The attack on the three small Ukrainian naval ships and capture of their crew last November illustrated the Kremlin’s determination to fully dominate the Black Sea as well as its readiness to pay a price for such aggressive actions (see EDM, November 26, 28, 29, 2018). Despite the prospect that a renewed military provocation could serve to entrench the position of incumbent President Poroshenko as commander-in-chief, the Kremlin may nevertheless attempt this option to spread panic and disintegration among Ukrainian society in an effort to deter significant numbers of people from going to the polls on election day.
Essentially, the Kremlin’s main goal is to discredit Ukrainian democracy in general through a combination of the aforementioned approaches. Having failed to promote a Moscow-friendly presidential candidate with any chances of winning, Russia will instead attempt to undermine the elections as such. Moreover, Moscow can be expected to further increase its focus on the following parliamentarian elections, scheduled for the fall, in which pro-Russian political forces will have more chances to succeed.