Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office announced on January 28 that Ukraine has begun a criminal investigation into attempts to interfere with the American 2020 presidential election. The announcement comes following the State Department’s January 11 sanctions on Ukrainian individuals and organizations; among them Ukrainian Parliamentarian (and member of President Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People Party) Oleksandr Dubinsky. The targeted individuals and organizations were sanctioned for their roles in interfering with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, especially in attempting to find or create compromising material, kompromat, on Hunter Biden, son of President Biden. While Mr. Dubinsky denies wrongdoing, the Servant of the People Party voted on February 2 to expel Mr. Dubinsky from its ranks.
The investigation launched by Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is the latest chapter of Russia’s disinformation campaign against the United States and Europe; a saga in which Ukraine features prominently. The narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, is responsible for the disinformation campaign and election interference is itself a goal of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy.
Former senior White House official Dr. Fiona Hill testified to this in November 2019 during the House Impeachment hearings. The U.S. intelligence community has largely agreed with Dr. Hill’s assessment, stating that Russia has engaged in a years-long attempt to frame Ukraine for its hacking of the 2016 elections and subsequent disinformation and election interference. This strategy of falsely accusing other groups and countries of doing what it itself had done fits within Russia’s history, dating from the earliest days of the Soviet Union.
While Russia is the primary disinformation peddler, Ukrainians too have been involved in the disinformation campaigns against the West. But those who did, like the Ukrainian-born oligarch Oleg Deripaska, almost always have close ties to Russian President Putin and the Kremlin. Beyond Mr. Deripaska (who held close ties with Paul Manafort) and Mr. Dubinsky, the other major Ukrainian figure involved in U.S. election interference is Andrii Derkach, a close associate of Rudy Giuliani. In September 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Mr. Derkach for attempting to interfere with the 2020 election, describing him as a decade-long Russian agent within Ukraine. Like Mr. Dubinsky, Mr. Derkach also attempted to find kompromat on Hunter Biden.
The majority of Russian social and regular media disinformation comes from Russia in the guise of Moscow-based think tanks such as Katehon and news organizations like RT and Tass. However, Russia has used the conflicts it created in Ukraine to create additional fake news proxies. Among the most prominent organizations was News Front, which according to the U.S. State Department is a Crimea-based disinformation outlet that had ties to the Kremlin and Russian security services. The organization was registered with Roskomnadzor (Russia’s governmental body that oversees mass media) in June 2015. Operating with multiple languages, the organization trafficked disinformation and conspiracy theories ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic being a U.S. bioweapon to Ukraine becoming a colony of the International Monetary Fund. Due to widespread disinformation practices, Twitter banned the organization’s accounts and Facebook took down all but three of its pages.
Russia only gains from U.S. officials and Western populations seeing Ukraine as the source of the disinformation campaign. The most obvious benefit is that the blame is deflected from Russia onto Ukraine, with Kyiv appearing at best as unable to control nefarious oligarchic forces within its borders and at worst as an enemy of the West.
Another benefit is cultural. President Putin and other Russian nationalists have long argued that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian (or, for that matter, Belarusian) people distinct from the Russian nation. For the Russian nationalists both in and out of the Russian government, Ukraine belongs to the ‘Russian World.’ From the Kremlin towers, they see the dispute with Kyiv as a domestic, not an international, matter. By clothing Russian disinformation in Ukrainian garb, Moscow subtly influences Western audiences into believing this ‘Russian World’ narrative, where Ukraine aligns with Moscow, instead of pursuing a path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.
As Kyiv investigates Ukrainian sources of interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election, it is important to guard against Russian attempts to use this investigation to deflect blame. But even more importantly, the United States needs to bolster its own defenses against misinformation and resecure the election process.
Image Source: NBC News