Russia’s Disinformation Attack on Ukraine
By Marren Haneburg
In what researchers at Oxford Internet Institute described as “the most globally advanced case of
computational propaganda,” Ukraine was Europe’s most frequent target of disinformation campaigns in
2018 (Bohdanova). According to the EU vs Disinfo database, Ukraine had “461 references among a
total of 1,000 disinformation cases reported in 2018” (“Ukraine Under Information Fire”). Some of these
cases included Kremlin-based false reports that Ukrainian authorities planned to construct a 120
kilometer waterway that would isolate Crimea from Ukraine. Another story surfaced that US secret
services and the Ukrainian government were working together to poison water in Donbas (Zoria).
False Stories about the Sea of Azov
Russia ran a notable disinformation campaign leading up to its November 2018 Sea of Azov
clash with Ukraine, which resulted in Russia jailing twelve Ukrainian sailors. After the incident,
Kremlin-owned news sites, including Russia Today, Sputnik, and TASS, disseminated false information
that “that Russian FSB patrol boats were justified in detaining Ukrainian vessels because those vessels had violated international waters surrounding Crimea” (Mrachek and Thatcher). Contrary to these
stories, Russia violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Leading up to the Sea of Azov incident, Russia carried out a long-term disinformation campaign. This campaign started in September 2017 when Kremlin-controlled outlets began running false reports that Ukraine was preparing to bring a NATO fleet into the Sea of Azov by deepening the seabed. Kremlin-controlled outlets reported that Ukraine infected the sea with cholera in September 2018, a story which was later debunked after the World Health Organization reported no cholera cases in the area. Basing their evidence on a video game released fifteen years earlier, these outlets also reported “West-inspired provocations on the Azov Sea shore” and that US plans “for clashes between Ukrainian and Russian naval forces in the Black Sea” had existed since the 1990s (“Russia’s Long-Term Disinformation…”).
Cyberattacks on Ukraine’s Central Election Commission
“The available information indicates that Russia intends to use the entire existing arsenal, including cybernetic means, to influence the democratic will of the Ukrainian people,” Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov warned on February 24 (“РФ збирається задіяти…”). His warning echoed that of U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who said “Russia will use cyber-technologies in order to influence the upcoming presidential elections
in Ukraine” in a January 29 US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing (“Russia to attempt…”).
Leading up to Ukraine’s March 31 election, Russia’s actions have given these warnings merit. In a March 15 interview, Ukrainian Cyberpolice Chief Sergey Demedyuk said the agency had seen a significant increase in cyberattacks on Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC) website. The
Cyberpolice traced these attacks to groups with Russian ties, such as Fancy Bear and The Shadow Brokers; these groups attempted to gain internal voter data from CEC databases. On March 22, a fake email about election rules circulated among officials. The email appeared to have been sent by Ukraine’s Minister of Interior, but further investigation revealed that the email originated on Russian territory (“Russian hackers send…”). Demedyuk also reported increased mass distribution of harmful software, some of which was used in previous attacks on Ukrainian government agencies (Bogapov, Denisova).
As Ukraine’s most popular social network, Facebook is Russia’s main platform for disinformation campaigns. Citing Ukraine’s upcoming election, Facebook has banned “all political ads purchased from outside of the country” to prevent Kremlin-based groups from creating pages to spread
false political news or promote pro-Kremlin candidates (Bohdanova). This has not stopped Russian operatives, who bought out administrators of Facebook groups popular in eastern Ukraine and hired Ukrainians to set up websites domestically that support Russian political interests.
Bribery: Ukraine’s Weak Spot
With only seven percent of Ukrainians approving of Russian leadership, it is highly unlikely a pro-Russia candidate will win Ukraine’s election (Bikus). However, Ukraine has yet to tackle corruption issues, and recent laws have made corruption and bribery an even more viable source for Russia to gain
covert political control. Making for “a major setback in the war against corruption” in February, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court (CCU) removed the illicit enrichment offense from its criminal code, meaning “public officials can no longer be prosecuted for receiving potentially illicit sources of income” (Polyakova). This ruling makes Ukraine’s political system vulnerable to Russian political sabotage, as officials can take bribes from Russian agents with impunity. Despite an opportunity to bring in six new
judges to the CCU, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko instead has kept appointees from the corrupt Yanukovych era, which will make it all the more difficult for Ukraine’s government to take legal action against Russian operations, including bribery (Drik).
Sowing Seeds of Discord
“Russia’s goal is not to aid a particular candidate, but rather ‘to delegitimize the election process altogether,” according to Ukrainian Election Task Force observers (Bohdanova). By using disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and bribery, Russia aims to cause chaos in Ukraine’s wide-open election. By causing disorder, Russia stands to gain the justification to either not recognize Ukraine’s election results or declare Ukraine a failed state (Polishchuk et al.). Ukraine’s next president needs to address its susceptibility to chaos, particularly that which is caused by corruption, so that Ukraine can move towards its goal of EU membership.
- Bikus, Zach. 2019. “Unpopular Russia Still Looms Large Over Ukraine Elections.” March 26. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/248033/ unpopular-russia-looms-large-ukraine-elections.aspx.
- Bogapov, Herman. 2018. “Украина стала плацдармом для кибератак.” November 3. ZN.ua. https://zn.ua/business/ukraina-stala-placdarmom-dlya-kiberatak299046_.html&xid=17259,1500004, 15700019,15700186,15700191,15700248,15700253&usg=ALkJrhhmKjawd4AQTR54KHRrT18Pmrcf0g.
- Bohdanova, Tetyana. 2019. “With elections just days away, Ukraine faces disinformation, cyber attacks and further Russian interference.” March 26. Advox Global Voices. https://advox.globalvoices.org/2019/03/ 27/with-elections-just-days-away-ukraine-faces-disinformation-cyber-attacks-and-further-russian-interference/.
- Denisova, Oksana. 2019. “Руководитель Киберполиции Сергей Демедюк: “Лицу, которое будетотдавать преступный приказ, надо иметь за спиной очень мощную команду, лояльную лично кнему”.” March 15. ZN.ua. https://zn.ua/interview/rukovoditel-kiberpolicii-sergey-demedyuk-licu-kotoroe-budet-otdavat-prestupnyy-prikaz-nado-imet-za-spinoy-ochen-moschnuyu-komandu-loyalnuyu-lichno-k-nemu-311946_.html.
- Drik, Oleksandra. 2019. “Why the West Should Be Worried about Ukraine’s Flagging Fight against Graft.” March 12. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/why-the-west-should-be-worried-about-ukraine-s-flagging-fight-against-graft.
- Mracheck, Alexis and Will Thatcher. 2019. “Russian Disinformation Is a Serious Threat to Europe. Here’s How to Counter It.” February 1. Daily Signal. https://www.dailysignal.com/2019/02/01/russian-disinformation-is-a-serious-threat-to-europe-heres-how-to-counter-it/.
- Polishchuk, Oksana, Vladyslav Obukh, Yulia Horban, Oleksandr Volynskyi, and Serhiy Tykhyi. 2019. “Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections: results may be unpredictable!” March 28. Ukrinform. https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-elections/2669107-ukraines-2019-presidential-elections-results-may-be-unpredictable.html.
- Polyakova, Alina. 2019. “Want to know what’s next in Russian election interference? Pay attention to Ukraine’s elections.” March 28. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/03 /28/want-to-know-whats-next-in-russian-election-interference-pay-attention-to-ukraines-elections/.
- “РФ збирається задіяти весь наявний арсенал включно з кібернетичними засобами для впливу на демократичне волевиявлення українського народу.” February 19, 2019. Turchynov.com. http://turchynov.com/news/details/rf-zbirayetsya-zadiyati-ves-nayavnij-arsenal-vklyuchno-z-kibernetichnimi-zasobami-dlya-vplivu-na-demokratichne-voleviyavlennya-ukrayinskogo-narodu.
- “Russia to attempt cyber attacks to interfere in Ukraine’s elections, – US Intelligence director.” January 29, 2019. 112 UA International. https://112.international/ukraine-top-news/russia-to-perform-cyber-attacks-to-interfere-in-ukraines-elections-us-intelligence-director-36487.html.
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- “Russia’s Long-Term Disinformation Plan For The Azov Sea.” December 6, 2018. EU vs Disinfo. https://euvsdisinfo.eu/russias-long-term-disinformation-plan-for-the-azov-sea/.
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Zoria, Yuri. 2018.
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