THE BIG IDEA: The Russians could use the loomingUkrainian elections as a proving ground to test innovative forms ofinterference that might, if successful, be weaponized against theUnited States during the 2020 presidential campaign.

“I consider Ukraine ground zero when it comes to foreignmeddling in elections because a lot is at stake for Russia,” formerNATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview.“We don't know in advance which technologies Russia will use. We doknow 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 areactually doing.”

Rasmussen runs a group called the Alliance of Democracies. Itsflagship initiative is the Transatlantic Commission on ElectionIntegrity, whose co-chairs include former vice president Joe Bidenand former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff.

The Alliance is deploying seven observers to monitor the Ukrainianelections. The first round of voting is March 31. Assuming nopresidential candidate in the crowded field gets more than 50percent, a runoff will be held on April 21.

The group’s goal is to draw attention to disinformation and towork with the private sector to combat the proliferation of newtechnologies that keep intelligence professionals up at night,especially “deep fake” audio and video files. These are doctoredbut appear amazingly authentic and can go viral on social media.

Rasmussen, who also formerly served as the prime ministerof Denmark, led NATO in 2014 when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine andannexed Crimea. Fiveyears later, Russian forces are still on the peninsula andUkraine’s deadly conflict with Russian-backed separatists drags on.

“No doubt about it, we were taken by surprise when he attackedUkraine,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t think we underestimateRussia any longer.”

We met for lunch at Sonoma on Capitol Hill after hetestified before the House Intelligence Committee recently. Overhamburgers, he outlined machinations by Moscow that he worries arestill going on under the radar and expressed hope that Washingtonelites can avoid viewing the response through a partisan lens.

“The whole purpose is not to strengthen left wings or rightwings, but it's just to sow mistrust and lack of confidence in ourdemocratic institutions and our democratic process,” Rasmussensaid. “That would be true whether it was President Trump in theWhite House or someone else.”

There is strong evidence that the Russians have interferedto varyingdegrees during elections abroad by using traditionalpropaganda, manipulatingsocial media platforms and in some cases illicitly fundingallies. Rasmussen pointed to a recent report by the French Ministryof Foreign Affairs that found Russia is responsible for 80percent of disinformation activities in Europe andhighlighted Microsoft’s recent announcement that it detectedefforts by Moscow to phish the servers of European think tanks.

In Ukraine, the Transatlantic Commission has partneredwith the Atlantic Council and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation to standup an elections task force. It’s led by David Kramer, theformer president of Freedom House and an assistant secretary of stateunder George W. Bush. The operation includes a rapid-response warroom aimed at identifying evidence of interference inreal-time by using sophisticated new software tools.

“We should not forget that in many Eastern European countriespeople say, ‘We did not get rid of communism just to replace Moscowwith Brussels,’ so we have to carefully consider how we speak up,”Rasmussen explained.

Officials are on edge that agents of the Kremlin could tryto hack into the networks of the various candidates or disablephones, electrical grids and maybe even airport control systems.Their intent could range from suppressing get-out-the-vote operationsto making the government look incompetent at the most inopportunemoments to simply creating mass chaos.

Western observers are also nervous that Russia will try tohack into the Ukrainian elections website to publish false results ina bid to cast doubts on the validity of the real results.This isn’t academic. Ithappened during their last presidential election. A pro-Russianhacking group called CyberBerkut deleted vote-tallying system filesand leaked private emails from the Central Election Commission. Thepublic-facing results website was also hacked. It falsely identifieda far-right candidate as the winner until authorities could regaincontrol of their servers.

Unlike in U.S. elections, the Ukrainians must also worryabout the real possibility of Russia using conventional militaryforce, whether harassing their ships in the Sea of Azov ormassing troops along the border or activating sleeper cells insideKiev to conduct sabotage and foment violence in the streets.

“We need to pay more immediate attention to Ukrainebecause it is not part of NATO … and they are in many ways a symbolof some of the things going on,” said former secretary of stateMadeline Albright, who testified alongside Rasmussen beforethe House Intelligence Committee. “We are still underestimatingRussia. Putin is just a flat-out dictator. I used to be a Sovietexpert and I kind of look at my library and I think it’sarchaeology. Nope! They are trying to rebuild the system, and they’reusing these asymmetrical tools.”

-- After reading an op-ed Biden wrote that called for a9/11-style commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016presidential election, Rasmussen reached out to him about partneringon something more global. Last March, they unveiled thetransatlantic initiative together. It has already monitored 10referendums and elections, including the U.S. midterms.

They were especially alarmed to see what happened last Septemberin Macedonia during a referendumon changing the country’s name, which might have sped up thecountry’s entry into NATO — a development Russia stronglyopposes.There was a surge in new Facebook and Twitter bot accounts during themonth before the vote that urged people to boycott, abstain and stayhome. Rasmussen believes the Russians were trying to keep turnoutrates below 50 percent so that the results would be invalid.Ultimately, turnout was only 37 percent.

Correctly attributing who is behind disinformationcampaigns is not as easy as you might assume, especiallybecause the Russians always deny that they had anything to do withthese disinformation campaigns and often try to cover their tracks.Rasmussen said his group monitored Senate elections in four stateslast fall, for instance, but declined to name them on the record.

“We detected some unusual activity on social media, but it was abit difficult for us to identify the origin, and this is the reasonwhy we didn't make it public,” he said. “But we reported ourresults to the local authorities, the state authorities, so it’sfor them to look into whether it was domestic meddling or whetherforeign actors intervened. In general, the state of the midtermelections was much, much better than in 2016. But we also know thatthe Russians have become much more sophisticated so we have to keepup the pace.”

-- Don’t forget: One of the crimes Paul Manafort will besentenced for by a federal judge in Washington today is hisundisclosed work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.Special counsel Bob Mueller’s team alleged last month thatthe former Trump campaign chairman was stillworking on Ukrainian political matters in 2018, even after hisindictment. Manafort purportedly met with Konstantin Kilimnik todiscuss a peace plan for Ukraine on morethan one occasion, including in August 2016. This has long been atop foreign policy goal for Putin because a settlement is aprerequisite to the West to relax stiff sanctions on Russia.Prosecutors have also said that Manafort worked with Kilimnik on apoll of Ukraine just last year.

-- If you haven’t been following the Ukrainianpresidential election, the front-runner is a comedian who plays therole of a president on a popular sitcom. The show is called “Servantof the People,” and Volodymyr Zelensky is running as the leader ofan independent party called Servant of the People. OurMoscow bureau chief, Anton Troianovski, profiledthe 41-year-old political neophyte on the front page of Sunday’snewspaper: “Just like his character in Season 2, Zelensky, thereal-life candidate, has taken to addressing voters in selfie videosand recording himself talking to regular Ukrainians. Zelensky’scampaign videos on his YouTube channel include clips from ‘Servantof the People’ interspersed amid footage from Zelensky’s actualcampaign. ‘People are voting for the plot of the show,’ saidUkrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. ‘They want to bringthe plot of the show to life.’

Five years after the country’s pro-Westernrevolution, its people still thirst for change. Streetprotests in 2014 marked a decisive turn away from Moscow, but theydid far less to modernize the economy or root out corruption.President Petro Poroshenko’s government and administration havebeen beset by infighting and state spending scandals. The economy,suffering from weak investor confidence and the war in the heavilyindustrial east, still hasn’t recovered from its near-collapse fiveyears ago. The most prominent candidates heading into the electioncampaign represented the old guard: the incumbent Poroshenko, who isalso a chocolate tycoon and one of Ukraine’s richest men, and theformer prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Zelensky’s true politics are a mystery. Hesays he’s in favor of Ukraine seeking to join [NATO] and theEuropean Union, but that those moves should be endorsed by the publicin a referendum. He says he’s ready to negotiate with [Putin] toend the war in eastern Ukraine, but he’s offered few specifics onhow he would accomplish that without ceding any territory to Russia.… Some Western diplomats in Kiev say they worry Zelensky’sinexperience will be a particular risk when dealing with Putin. …Zelensky is a rare candidate who has managed to transcend the dividebetween East and West and Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers inthe country. His image is as that of a young, pro-Western actor andentrepreneur, but he hails from Ukraine’s largely Russian-speakingsoutheast.”

“We’re living in a parallel universe,” said a senior Westerndiplomat in Kiev, who has been catching up on the show. “People areconfusing what’s real and what’s fiction.”

Source: The Washington Post

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