THE BIG IDEA: The Russians could use the looming Ukrainian elections as a proving ground to test innovative forms of interference that might, if successful, be weaponized against the United States during the 2020 presidential campaign.
“I consider Ukraine ground zero when it comes to foreign meddling in elections because a lot is at stake for Russia,” former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview. “We don’t know in advance which technologies Russia will use. We do know that they will come up with more and more sophisticated methods. That’s why we need to be at the forefront by witnessing what they are actually doing.”
Rasmussen runs a group called the Alliance of Democracies. Its flagship initiative is the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, whose co-chairs include former vice president Joe Biden and former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff.
The Alliance is deploying seven observers to monitor the Ukrainian elections. The first round of voting is March 31. Assuming no presidential candidate in the crowded field gets more than 50 percent, a runoff will be held on April 21.
The group’s goal is to draw attention to disinformation and to work with the private sector to combat the proliferation of new technologies that keep intelligence professionals up at night, especially “deep fake” audio and video files. These are doctored but appear amazingly authentic and can go viral on social media.
Rasmussen, who also formerly served as the prime minister of Denmark, led NATO in 2014 when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Five years later, Russian forces are still on the peninsula and Ukraine’s deadly conflict with Russian-backed separatists drags on.
“No doubt about it, we were taken by surprise when he attacked Ukraine,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t think we underestimate Russia any longer.”
We met for lunch at Sonoma on Capitol Hill after he testified before the House Intelligence Committee recently. Over hamburgers, he outlined machinations by Moscow that he worries are still going on under the radar and expressed hope that Washington elites can avoid viewing the response through a partisan lens.
“The whole purpose is not to strengthen left wings or right wings, but it’s just to sow mistrust and lack of confidence in our democratic institutions and our democratic process,” Rasmussen said. “That would be true whether it was President Trump in the White House or someone else.” clash between Ukraine and Russia, explained
There is strong evidence that the Russians have interfered to varying degrees during elections abroad by using traditional propaganda, manipulating social media platforms and in some cases illicitly funding allies. Rasmussen pointed to a recent report by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs that found Russia is responsible for 80 percent of disinformation activities in Europe and highlighted Microsoft’s recent announcement that it detected efforts by Moscow to phish the servers of European think tanks.
In Ukraine, the Transatlantic Commission has partnered with the Atlantic Council and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation to stand up an elections task force. It’s led by David Kramer, the former president of Freedom House and an assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush. The operation includes a rapid-response war room aimed at identifying evidence of interference in real-time by using sophisticated new software tools.
“We should not forget that in many Eastern European countries people say, ‘We did not get rid of communism just to replace Moscow with Brussels,’ so we have to carefully consider how we speak up,” Rasmussen explained.
Officials are on edge that agents of the Kremlin could try to hack into the networks of the various candidates or disable phones, electrical grids and maybe even airport control systems. Their intent could range from suppressing get-out-the-vote operations to making the government look incompetent at the most inopportune moments to simply creating mass chaos.
Western observers are also nervous that Russia will try to hack into the Ukrainian elections website to publish false results in a bid to cast doubts on the validity of the real results. This isn’t academic. It happened during their last presidential election. A pro-Russian hacking group called CyberBerkut deleted vote-tallying system files and leaked private emails from the Central Election Commission. The public-facing results website was also hacked. It falsely identified a far-right candidate as the winner until authorities could regain control of their servers.
Unlike in U.S. elections, the Ukrainians must also worry about the real possibility of Russia using conventional military force, whether harassing their ships in the Sea of Azov or massing troops along the border or activating sleeper cells inside Kiev to conduct sabotage and foment violence in the streets.
“We need to pay more immediate attention to Ukraine because it is not part of NATO … and they are in many ways a symbol of some of the things going on,” said former secretary of state Madeline Albright, who testified alongside Rasmussen before the House Intelligence Committee. “We are still underestimating Russia. Putin is just a flat-out dictator. I used to be a Soviet expert and I kind of look at my library and I think it’s archaeology. Nope! They are trying to rebuild the system, and they’re using these asymmetrical tools.”s stations jets in Crimea amid Ukraine tensions
—After reading an op-ed Biden wrote that called for a 9/11-style commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Rasmussen reached out to him about partnering on something more global. Last March, they unveiled the transatlantic initiative together. It has already monitored 10 referendums and elections, including the U.S. midterms.
They were especially alarmed to see what happened last September in Macedonia during a referendum on changing the country’s name, which might have sped up the country’s entry into NATO — a development Russia strongly opposes. There was a surge in new Facebook and Twitter bot accounts during the month before the vote that urged people to boycott, abstain and stay home. Rasmussen believes the Russians were trying to keep turnout rates below 50 percent so that the results would be invalid. Ultimately, turnout was only 37 percent.
Correctly attributing who is behind disinformation campaigns is not as easy as you might assume, especially because the Russians always deny that they had anything to do with these disinformation campaigns and often try to cover their tracks. Rasmussen said his group monitored Senate elections in four states last fall, for instance, but declined to name them on the record.
“We detected some unusual activity on social media, but it was a bit difficult for us to identify the origin, and this is the reason why we didn’t make it public,” he said. “But we reported our results to the local authorities, the state authorities, so it’s for them to look into whether it was domestic meddling or whether foreign actors intervened. In general, the state of the midterm elections was much, much better than in 2016. But we also know that the Russians have become much more sophisticated so we have to keep up the pace.”