Less than two weeks left before the first round of the presidential election. In addition to the actual question of who the Ukrainians will elect as the head of the state for the next five years, there is the no less painful question about the safety of the elections itself. The failure threatens Ukraine with undesirable chaos during the war. How to resist Kremlin cyber-attacks, riots, and other adversities?
Russian special services are ready to attack
The issue of cyber threats is escalating before every election. The IT sphere is rapidly improving, hackers are constantly searching for new ways to effectively use their attacks, and all this is under the omophorion of the political factor and special services. Professionals, involved in neutralizing possible hazards, are guaranteed to have a headache.
“If we take the last election in 2014, then, obviously, this presidential risk was perhaps the greatest,” Andrii Mahera, the former deputy chairman of the CEC, recalled for Opinion. “At the parliamentary election they were already more or less ready for this situation, and the CEC adopted certain preventive measures. It is difficult to say whether there will be more or fewer risks in these elections. The main thing is to be ready for that.”
Even the Russians have no doubt that the Kremlin will attack the CEC’s servers. Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation (2007‒2016) Ilya Ponomarev noted for Opinion: “The purpose of such attacks is to give the candidates, who are losing, the opportunity to appeal against the voting results. The main goal of the Kremlin is to delegitimize the future winner, to destabilize the internal situation in the country, prevent the consolidation of society around the elected president. Two-three hours of freezing of the CEC servers may play well such a role.”
The concerns about foreign interference in the electoral process are expressed by the leaders of power structures, politicians, experts, race participants, and voters. Back in mid-February, Oleksandr Klymchuk, the head of the counterintelligence Department for protecting the interests of the state in the field of information security at the SSU, said that the Service would block websites, suspected of undermining the country’s national security. According to him, the special services of the Russian Federation are preparing powerful cyber-attacks on the eve and during the presidential elections. Not only on the CEC electronic systems, but also on critical infrastructure: energy, transport, communications, and finance.
Almost a month later, the deputy chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, Oleh Frolov, said that the special services of the Russian Federation intend to intervene in an unauthorized manner in the work of the information infrastructure of the CEC. The statement was made after the international cyber-trainings on the basis of the SSU, in the framework of the EU project “Strengthening cybersecurity in Ukraine before the elections”. The training was also attended by the heads of the CEC, the State Special Communications Service, and foreign partners.
The counteraction is already underway. The SBU warned of a massive cyber-attack on the CEC website, aimed at blocking users’ access to information on preparations for the presidential elections. Last week, Service employees exposed a group of hackers in the Chernihiv region that was preparing cyber-attacks during the elections. To remotely gain control over the computers of state institutions, attackers used virus programs. Funding came from the aggressor state. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Internal Affairs checks the message on unauthorized access to the Election System of the CEC “Elections-2019”. Until March 20, the Commission expects the results of the comprehensive examinations of protection systems.
“The Russian Federation is constantly conducting cyber-attacks against our resources, including accompanying military actions,” Ellina Shnurko-Tabakova, the head of the NGO Information Security and Cyber Defense, said to Opinion. “Also they make bookmarks for the future, as it was in the case with the Petya virus. Since elections can be attributed to risky processes, and the Russian Federation is interested in using any indulgences in the state power of Ukraine and undermining democratic processes, the likelihood of interventions rises, including cyber operations. It makes no sense to argue with the SBU in the forecasts; I would like more specificity about the measures taken by the state, recommendations to citizens and businesses.”
Counteraction to cyber threats
However, the experts are not in a hurry to admit how they will defend future elections from Kremlin cyber-attacks.
“The protection system of the CEC and other state structures during elections is a state secret, and the measures taken are within the competence of the State Special Communication Service,” Mykhailo Prytula, retired Colonel of the SBU, explained to Opinion. “That is, any actions that they perform in defense of the CEC servers are secret since it is interesting not only for ordinary people, how the Government protects them but also for hackers, who will attack them.”
It is possible that the cyber-troops will become the guard of the election process. In February, Ivan Vinnyk, the secretary of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security and Defense, said that in Ukraine such troops were actually created with the support of foreign partners. Mr. Vinnyk assured Opinion that the name “cyber-troops” is conditional.
“Their number has no direct causal relationship with respect to their effectiveness,” the People’s Deputy noted. “One conditional hacker can do much more than 100 or 200 people, who have the same specialty.”
“We need to understand what is being put into the term “cyberwar” because many people misinterpret it,” Oleksandr Fediyenko, the Chairman of the Board of the Internet Association of Ukraine, said to Opinion. “It can be a network of bots that directly form or reflect some informational ejection through the Internet. For example, massive ejection begins in all social networks. And this is where other cyber-bots or cyber warders intervene. They are starting to write to divert the attention of the population, to explain that everything is not like that, they are trying to reassure society. Relevant agents of influence analyze threats and work out defense mechanisms.”
The United States will help counter the cyber -attacks of the Russian Federation during the presidential election. According to the assurances of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine in this state, Valerii Chalyi, they promised to protect the servers, ensuring the work of the CEC. The CEC chairperson Tetyana Slipachuk reported that the Commission cooperates with international organizations that will finance the necessary equipment to fight Russian hackers.
On the legal component, the Law “On the Basic Principles for Ensuring the Cyber-security of Ukraine” was adopted in 2017.
“The law requires many additions, including in harmonization with EU legislation on cyber-security directives,” Ellina Shnurko-Tabakova explained. “I would rate this first step as 20 percent of the required. Also, a lot of practical steps are the responsibility of the Cabinet. Especially, not much has been done in the matter of introducing NATO standards. In fact, the Army lives in the issues of information security on the state standards of the early 90ies. This question is in the plane of non-compliance with the strategic defense bulletin. A small amendment has long been developed by experts, including the NGO Information Security and Cyber Defense Council together with the professionals from the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But profile deputies cannot collect votes, and executive authorities are not too worried and continue to check subordinate structures by the standards of the last century.”
Security officials promise to cope
Not only hackers whom no one sees can spoil the election. Real people on the streets are also able to disrupt the electoral process. Therefore, in addition to professionals-intellectuals, to resist cyber threats, law enforcement officers, who will ensure security at polling stations, should be properly trained. The recent events on Bankova Street in Kyiv and Cherkasy became a warm-up for the police. In clashes of law enforcement with representatives of paramilitary organizations, more than twenty police officers were injured.
“Firstly, there should be a clear position of all without exception law enforcement structures: paramilitary organizations have no place in the electoral process. This is bad from any point of view ‒ both for the election participants and for the international image of Ukraine,” Andrii Mahera said. “Secondly, I would like the presidential candidates also to take a common position on this issue. They may have made a joint statement or signed a memorandum that none of them will use paramilitary organizations and that they condemn any illegal influence on the electoral process. Politicians should have an understanding that life does not end with elections.”
Last week, the leaders of the security forces and the CEC discussed security issues at the elections. The SBU chairman Vasyl Hrytsak noted that the Service is ready to ensure the fair will of citizens, and each security agency to respond within the limits of authority defined by law in case of violations. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that election observers from the National squads would not intervene in the electoral process by force, although representatives of this organization warned that they could use force in case of fraud.
The current President, Petro Poroshenko, does not exclude the fact that the election may be broken because of street riots. His words about the likelihood of such a scenario were heard on March 17 during a meeting with voters on the capital’s Mykhailivska Square.
According to the Minister of the Interior, during the elections, 131 thousand policemen will guard the rule of law in the country, 30 thousand less than in 2014. Since March 25, the metropolitan police will intensify duty in connection with the conduct of the expression of will. And from this week on, the border guards will switch to an intensified service schedule. As was explained in the State Border Service of Ukraine, the reason is in the upcoming elections.
However, the people’s deputy Ivan Vinnyk is convinced that problems can be avoided: “Law enforcement officers are citizens of Ukraine, mainly with a higher education. They understand that if the security of the electoral process at all levels is not guaranteed, then the elections will not be recognized as legitimate, and any citizen of the state will suffer, regardless of the position. Therefore, there is no doubt that the National Police, the Security Service of Ukraine, the State Security Service, the courts, the prosecutor’s office will ensure the equality and legitimacy of the expression of citizens’ will and the establishment of election results. And any attempts to win over the functions of the state, including through aggressive or hooligan actions, will be harshly stopped. ”
The responsibility of everyone
Opinion asked the well-known Ukrainians: what should be done to conduct an election campaign safely?
Hennadii Druzenko, the chairman of the Supervisory Board of the First Volunteer Mobile Hospital named after Mykola Pyrohov:
“It should be remembered that the preservation of state institutions and their continuity is more important than the name of the next President. In other words, to hold the elections so that nobody has any temptation or reason to question that their legitimacy is more important than the one, who will win. It should become an axiom for all the true patriots of Ukraine. On the other hand, responsibility for conducting honest, transparent elections always lies first of all on the authorities, because they have resources, special institutions, and powers for it. Therefore, all authorities and officials should clearly remember that their task is to ensure legitimate elections, and not the victory of a particular candidate.”
Irma Vitovska-Vantsa, the actress of the theater and cinema:
“To be very vigilant and not to succumb to incitement or provocation. Do not keep silent if you witness bribes or agitation on sites.”
Stepan Protsyuk, the writer:
“First of all, everyone needs to recall the heroes, who died for Ukraine once again, realizing that we, representatives of any political sympathies, are facing the threat of losing statehood one more time. The dead are looking into our eyes. May the shame in front of the deceased warriors, blood and memory, shame for our corruption, mutual struggle, disgusting petty narcissism, sober our heads and with God’s assistance help us further develop our, unfortunately, too weak statehood.”
Tetyana Katrychenko, the journalist:
“From the very beginning of the campaign, the experts were saying about the fact that on Election Day the provocations like mining are possible. Some see this as a Russian trace. However, in my opinion, this dirty technology will be used because of the fact that law enforcement officers do not know how to react to them. Most likely, provocations cannot be avoided, but their number can be reduced. The police can do this. For example, on polling day, one should expect pseudo-mining of polling stations or the presence of “titushkas” (instigators and mercenaries for the organization of provocations, fights, and other actions with the use of physical force – translator’s note). Therefore, law enforcement officers should know how to resume work and avoid chaos. The presence of international observers can reduce the level of danger.”
Text by Viktor Tsvilihovsky