KYIV, UKRAINE - Russia is trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine by stirring up division and amplifying negative news stories, according to several analysts who have been monitoring Kremlin propaganda surrounding the March 31 poll.
The first round of voting is set for Sunday, with 39 candidates on the ballot. The second-round runoff will be held three weeks later.
With no overtly pro-Russian candidates taking part in the poll, analysts warn the Kremlin has resorted to using social media and covert influence on Ukrainian media outlets to try to disrupt the election.
Since the revolution of 2014, Ukraine has turned decisively to the West, as Kyiv seeks European Union and NATO membership. However, Moscow isn't giving up and sees the election as just the latest in a series of strategic battles, said analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow Center for Post-Industrial Studies and author of a recent report, Kremlin-linked Forces in Ukraine's 2019 Elections.
"In 2004, in 2005, it was the first defeat," Inozemtsev told VOA in a recent interview. "They got some kind of revenge in 2010 when [Viktor] Yanukovich was elected. Then of course there was nothing to do actually in 2014, because it was absolutely sure that the pro-European forces will win. And now we have a kind of second revenge which can be achieved if the Kremlin's politics is quite wise and comprehensive."
Ukraine has ejected many Russian television channels and Kremlin-linked political figures, and has blocked pro-Moscow propaganda sites on the internet and social media. Yevgen Fedchenko, co-founder of the organization Stopfake.org, which was set up to highlight disinformation coming from Russia, said the Kremlin has looked for new channels of influence.
"They are looking more and more to find new outlets that can be used, including Facebook, as one of the platforms, but also trying to influence the Ukrainian media, through just buying them or influencing their editorial policies or influencing just individual journalists," he said.
The head of Information Security at Ukraine's Security Service, Oleksandr Klymchuk, said the government has been proactive in countering that influence.
"We provided Facebook with information about 2,000 fake accounts and bots. They have already been blocked. Within the last two weeks we have provided information about 40,000 more bots," Klymchuk said.
Objective seen as division
Fedchenko said Moscow's strategy was no longer to support a single candidate, but to sow division.
"For them, the most important thing is that anyone but [Petro] Poroshenko can be president," he said. "So they used to endorse some candidates, including those who will be running against Poroshenko — the closest ones, like [Yulia] Tymoshenko, like [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy — during different periods of time. But also they try to create the atmosphere of chaos, and try to portray Ukraine as a kind of chaotic place where you just cannot have elections."
The rise of comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy has taken Russia by surprise, Inozemtsev said.
"[The] Zelenskiy factor shows that Ukrainian politics now asks for new names," he said. "And on the Kremlin side there is none, because the people in Moscow used to work and collaborate only with the existing politicians."
The Kremlin denies trying to interfere in the election and says the accusations are part of a political campaign designed to win votes.