Ukraine’s Election Is a Mess—and That’s Exactly What Putin Wants

A chaotic campaign, feuding oligarchs, and Russian disinformation efforts have combined to shake public faith in the electoral process.

A boy points at cardboard cutouts depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin  and presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko and Oleksandr Shevchenko during a protest in Kiev on March 29. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy points at cardboard cutouts depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko and Oleksandr Shevchenko during a protest in Kiev on March 29. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

KIEV, Ukraine—Eight days before Ukraine’s unpredictable presidential elections, a mob of men wearing black coats huddled outside of the Zhitnii Market in Kiev. Most in the crowd, a few hundred strong, wore black hats and scarves to shield their identities. They silently hovered to a corner of the Zhitnii Market—a hulking, Soviet-gray structure—where a protest was taking place against Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for re-election. On one banner, a pig that represented Poroshenko, one of the richest men in the country, was being suckled by ministers and affluent Ukrainians. The smell of pig shit wafted through the cold air.

“In Ukraine there are no rules, everything is bad,” Victoria Bashlykova, one of the protest leaders, told me.

From the back of a truck, squealing pigs covered in feces were unleashed and weaved through the crowd. The pigs escaped. The cloaked men looked on with bleary-eyed indifference, as if they had taken sleeping pills before the march. It was the most unenthusiastic political protest I’d ever seen, but it made sense after talking with the men with covered faces, who insinuated that they were being paid to attend. A man in a small, black car pulled up to the protest and rolled down his window—seconding the point.

“Everything is fake,” the man shouted. “This is a fake protest. I don’t trust it.”

So goes election season in Ukraine, which will hold its first round of voting in the upcoming presidential election on March 31, with an expected runoff in late April. Only two of the three major candidates—Poroshenko, the actor Volodymyr Zelensky, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—will advance to the second round. It is anyone’s guess who will move on. Ukraine is a case study of post-Soviet transitions in a world of Putinism—a Kremlin that rejects globalization.

Since Ukrainians took to the streets to overthrow the Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, the country has become the front line of the West’s new cold war with the Kremlin. Ukraine is considered Russia’s biggest foreign policy priority, and Moscow-backed separatists have sliced off two separate parts of this former Soviet appendage: the Crimean Peninsula and a chunk of Eastern Ukraine. Three days before election day there were reports of mass armed searches and arrests targeting Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities. But Western countries, led by the United States, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Ukraine and sent advisors to mentor the armed forces to stop the Russian advance. Ukraine is flirting with NATO and European Union membership, which would irrevocably alter both institutions. All of this means that Ukraine’s elections are an inflection point for a country that is literally split between East and West. But the presidential vote in Ukraine is shrouded with mystery, much like the porcine protest at Zhitnii Market.

The biggest risk to Ukraine’s vote is perception. Russia may attempt to hack the preliminary, projected results that appear on election day in an attempt to make Ukrainians doubt the final, verified vote that comes out days later, experts and election officials say. The idea is to torpedo trust in the winner in a cunning blitz of psychological warfare. The polling places outside major cities are particularly at risk of cyberattack, an election official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “You don’t even need to change the result—just by messing with the data, people will doubt the vote,” said Kenneth Geers, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “If having the Ukrainian vote lose legitimacy is your goal, that would be a powerful way to do it,” he added.

At times, it feels like Russia will not have to do much to portray Ukraine’s election as chaotic. Allegations of vote buying, wiretapping, and oligarchs funding candidates have already fueled doubts. More than 80 percent of Ukrainians believe that the elections will be rigged, one expert told a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty subsidiary. Even the United States has not been immune to the mudslinging.

Less than two weeks before election day, the country’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, alleged in an interview with the Hill that the U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, gave him a do-not-prosecute list in their first meeting. Lutsenko added that he was investigating whether anyone in Ukraine’s government leaked financial records about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in order to support Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. (The State Department did not respond to questions, but the embassy has previously denied the story.)

Although the story has zipped through the U.S. rightwing media, with the help of a tweet from President Donald Trump, experts view it with skepticism. Lutsenko offered no evidence to support his claim. Rather, it looks like an attempt from Poroshenko, the president, to convince senior Trump administration officials that he is an ally in case the elections are disputed. The logic is bizarre but relies on senior Trump administration officials backing Poroshenko because of his interest in investigating the Manafort leaks. If anything, the gambit has backfired already—a U.S. official told FP the embassy was “very angry.” A spokesperson for Lutsenko said he was not available for interviews until after election day.

Yet this chaotic sentiment should not be cause for alarm, explained Liubov Tsybulska, the head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group, which analyzes Russian disinformation campaigns. “I like that it’s real democracy,” she wrote in a text message. “Russians call it mess, but that’s how free society does election.” In fact, Ukraine’s elections could not be any more different than Russia’s, because current polls show the outcome is almost completely unpredictable.

Of the three major candidates, Zelensky has consistently received the biggest vote in pre-election opinion surveys, but he has no political experience. He is the star of a popular TV show called Servant of the People, which is about a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine. His politics are a mystery. Instead of traveling across Ukraine to give policy speeches, he has chosen to tour the country with stars from his production company. What is most suspect about Zelensky is that he models his candidacy on his television personality. Actors know that to make their character real they must draw on personal experiences. Zelensky has reversed this phenomenon.

“To some degree, maybe people really do have the feeling that the guy on screen and the guy in real life are one and the same person,” Zelensky told reporters, according to the Washington Post. “This might even be true, to some extent.” But no one knows how Zelensky will react when he encounters problems that lie outside the boundaries of a TV sitcom, like if Russia launches a cyberattack against the country’s banks. Perhaps a scriptwriter will advise him. The other two major candidates—Poroshenko and Tymoshenko—do not share such an apolitical past.

Even Poroshenko’s supporters admit that he has not done enough as president to fight corruption. His campaign is plagued by an investigative report that found Poroshenko’s allies were smuggling spare military parts from Russia and selling them at inflated prices to the Ukrainian military. For a country at war with Russia, the allegations have sparked ire. But Peter Dickinson, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that the claims may not be significant. “He has almost zero credibility as an anti-corruption crusader and therefore this issue is not an important part of his re-election bid,” Dickinson wrote. “Poroshenko’s electoral appeal is rooted in the notion of ‘better the devil you know’ and his presidential campaign rests on his ability to convince voters that he is the lesser of all available evils.”

U.S. officials are skeptical of Tymoshenko, the country’s former prime minister, and fear that she has a pro-Russian outlook. They point to a 2009 deal that Tymoshenko signed with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to supply Ukraine with Russian gas. Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton administration, said Tymoshenko could also simply be a pragmatic politician who saw a personal political advantage in working with Putin. “She is pro-Tymoshenko,” Pifer said. “She is also smart enough as a politician to know that anyone who gets elected and moves in a dramatically pro-Russian way is going to lose the country’s support very quickly. Her views are flexible.” Pifer argued that what is most worrying about Tymoshenko is her populist campaign to cut gas prices and raise pensions that would bankrupt the country and lead to the loss of crucial IMF funding.

But Ukraine’s next president may be at the mercy of larger forces. Parliamentary elections that take place this fall could thwart the president’s agenda. The next president will be tasked with immediately renegotiating a gas deal with Russia and trying to end the war in the east. The success of both initiatives will depend on Moscow’s willingness to negotiate. And Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs could shackle the future president. The oligarchs support different candidates in this election. Perhaps the two most influential—Poroshenko himself and the billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky—have feuded during this campaign. If the oligarchs don’t come to a consensus and compromise on a presidential candidate, then there will be political gridlock, according to Victor Andrusiv, the head of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future think tank. Currently, there is little indication the country’s richest men will come together.

“This is the first election where the oligarchs do not have a common candidate,” Andrusiv said. “If there is no consensus, nobody can get power.”

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

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