By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Ukraine is bracing itself for “unprecedented” cyberattacks during the first round of voting in the presidential election on March 31, Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service has warned.
“Russia intends to carry out unprecedented cyberattacks on the servers of the Central Election Commission and district election commissions of Ukraine on the day of the presidential election in order to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process,” the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine (SZRU) said in its latest report on March 27.
Relations between Kyiv and Moscow have plunged since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and started backing armed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000.
Kyiv has accused Russia in the past of launching cyberattacks on its computer systems and critical energy infrastructure since Moscow annexed Crimea, including one on its power grid at the end of 2015 that left part of western Ukraine temporarily without electricity.
The European Union’s disinformation watchdog has also warned about Russian “conventional and hybrid aggression” ahead of the vote.
The European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force said on March 27 that the Kremlin was in the midst of an “ongoing disinformation campaign” that is “both an attempt to interfere in Ukraine’s democracy and an extension of hybrid warfare against its sovereignty.”
Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 “will take place in the context of conventional and hybrid aggression from the Russian side,” said the EU watchdog, which was formed in 2015 to challenge Kremlin disinformation campaigns.
Thirty-nine candidates are running in Ukraine’s presidential election. The front-runners ahead of the first-round vote are pro-Western incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Should no candidate secure more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top will face off in an April 21 runoff.
Russia has repeatedly denied that it is interfering in Ukraine’s election campaign.
In its report, the SZRU said Russia may try to infect Ukraine’s electoral-system hardware with “malware worms” that cause a number of disruptions, such as issuing bogus exit-poll data that deliberately undercounts votes cast for pro-Russian candidates — particularly in eastern parts of the country that are under Kyiv’s control.
Voting is not taking place in territory under the control of Russia-backed separatists.
The three main contenders — Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and Zelenskyy — have all put their opposition to Russia front and center in their campaigns and have championed warmer relations with the West, raising the possibility of joining the European Union and NATO.
Russian hackers have a history of meddling in Ukrainian elections. In 2014, Russian hackers tried to influence the presidential election by targeting voting infrastructure and using fake news reports in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.
That campaign was widely seen as a precursor to Russian interference in U.S. and French elections.
On March 26, Facebook deleted more than 1,907 “inauthentic” group pages and accounts “linked to Russia” in a crackdown against social-media troll networks that try to manipulate public opinion in others countries.
The “Russia-linked” accounts and pages were “posting spam” that included “content related to Ukrainian news and politics” ahead of the March 31 vote, Facebook said.
“The Kremlin has long used Ukraine as a testing ground for its (dis)information and hybrid operations, refining techniques that it would later apply in Europe and the United States. Its election interference efforts are no exception,” the EU’s Stratcom Task Force warned in its report on March 27.
It said “negative messaging” about Ukraine’s upcoming election was “ever-present in the Russian state media, with a blatant focus on undermining the legitimacy of the electoral process and its results.”