The upcoming March 31 Ukrainian presidential election will likely lead to a higher potential for security-related disruptions during the campaign period over the coming weeks, and potentially beyond. A second round of elections could occur April 21 if no candidate has secured 50 percent of the vote in the first round. The Ukrainian electorate remains polarized over various domestic and regional issues, which could encourage frequent protests in city centers and clashes between rival groups in the separatist regions of the Donbas. Security forces in border regions and at international transportation hubs are likely to heavily screen all travelers. Military buildups are likely around international land and maritime borders, as well as along the contact line between the separatist-controlled regions in the Donbas. Ukrainian government agencies and private companies are also expected to implement increased cybersecurity measures.
- The prevalence of protests and the likelihood of sporadic violent incidents in city centers and near polling stations remain high during the election campaign and after the publication of the results.
- Ukrainian authorities will maintain high surveillance of all land and maritime borders to mitigate foreign military and other adversarial threats to disrupt public order.
- Ukrainian government agencies, as well as private sector businesses operating in Ukraine, are likely to implement additional cybersecurity measures to safeguard company information and the operations of critical infrastructure.
Public Opinion and Leading Candidates
Independent polling agencies in Ukraine forecast a high voter turnout, though the electorate remains polarized over the candidate choices and their stances on key domestic and foreign policy issues. Political issues include upholding democratic institutions by implementing anti-corruption initiatives and passing legislation to boost the economy and overall living standards, as well as deterring military aggression from Russia and potentially ending the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region.
There are 44 presidential candidates registered as of March 2. The three front-runners are the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and comedy show host Volodymyr Zelensky. Several independent pollsters have ranked Zelensky as a potential front-runner, with Poroshenko and Tymoshenko tied for second place. Zelensky has portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate who is committed to eliminating government corruption. He also claims he will end the conflict in the Donbas, though he has not provided details. Zelensky's critics argue that he lacks the foreign policy expertise necessary to deter military provocations from Russia, saying he is vulnerable to manipulation by the Kremlin.
President Poroshenko could be re-elected as he is perceived to be the most capable of preventing Russia improving its geostrategic position to the detriment of Ukraine while maintaining strong relations with the EU and the US. However, voters remain dissatisfied with his reluctance to create an anti-corruption court and his administration's lack of progress in improving the economy. Citizens also criticize Poroshenko's failure to articulate a clear plan to end the Donbas conflict, and the consequent unnecessary extension of the violence.
Tymoshenko's campaign aims to attract broad support for her domestic policies, such as improving social welfare and lowering utility prices. However, her critics claim that she is less likely to end Russian aggression since she has previously entered unfavorable business deals with the Kremlin. Tymoshenko has been distancing herself from a scandal around gas contracts with Russia, in which Ukraine agreed to pay more than it would have through a deal with the EU, hurting the Ukrainian budget during her tenure in 2009-2011. Voters remain suspicious as to whether Tymoshenko would avoid another poor deal with Russia when it comes to other security and economic agreements.
Civil Unrest in Ukraine
Protests related to the election campaign are likely to increase; although widespread unrest is less likely, isolated clashes or individual acts of violence carried out by hooligans, criminals, or extremists could cause short-term disruptions.
Activists are likely to demonstrate in support of candidates; since the beginning of the campaign period, anonymous perpetrators, including some believed to be automated social media "bots," have bribed citizens to rally in support of specific candidates, even nonexistent ones. Ukrainian civil society and nationalist groups are also likely to demonstrate to draw attention to specific grievances. Anti-corruption rallies; protests demanding transparent elections; pickets denouncing suspected government involvement in politically motivated attacks against civil activists; and demonstrations condemning Russian aggression, the occupation of Crimea, and the ongoing war in the Donbas, are likely. Such gatherings have occurred near government buildings and in central squares of large urban centers since February and have prompted counterdemonstrations. Participation in demonstrations can typically range from several dozen to several hundred, though political rallies during the election campaign could be significantly higher. Protests are likely to become more violent following any perception of electoral fraud or interference with the voting procedures after the preliminary or secondary results. Recent protests have occurred without significant incidents, though police have not hesitated to use force when rallies have become disruptive. Vandalism by pro-Russia activists targeting Ukrainian nationalist headquarters, or campaign headquarters of candidates with a strong anti-Russian stance, is possible. Ukrainian nationalists have also vandalized entrances of Russian banks and, in some cases, Russian-registered freight vehicles.
Armed Conflict and Militant Activity
Elections will take place in areas of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions that remain under control of the Ukrainian government, though the prevalence of isolated fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists is likely to remain high during the election campaign. Although international monitoring bodies note that violence in the Donbas has decreased overall since 2014, there is still evidence that both Ukraine and the separatist forces are building up their military capabilities and moving them closer to the contact line that separates the belligerents. Observers affiliated with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have noted frequent ceasefire violations and exchanges of fire that have resulted in military and civilian casualties. Grenade explosions and skirmishes are most common in rural areas and areas near the contact line. Criminals, or individuals attempting to disrupt the vote, could plant bombs near polling stations or local campaign headquarters to discourage voters in the government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The possibility of a direct military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces cannot be ruled out in border areas, or in disputed waters, such as those around the Kerch Strait or surrounding the Crimean Peninsula. The Kerch Strait incident in November 2018, in which Russian forces seized three Ukrainian Navy ships, illustrated the tensions regarding disputed maritime and land borders between the two countries. An overt Russian invasion of Ukraine is very unlikely, though a latent threat of armed confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian forces cannot be ruled out.
As a precaution, authorities will certainly maintain heightened border security over the coming months. The State Border Guard Service (SBGS) will continue to conduct searches at all international points of entry, particularly at airports, sea terminals, and in areas where the November-December 2018 martial law was in effect: the provinces bordering Russia, Crimea, and Moldova's Transnistria region. Increased checks of non-Ukrainian nationals, particularly on male Russian citizens aged 16-60, will remain in place at all international points of entry. During the martial law period, Russian males were barred from entering Ukraine. Although the martial law expired in December, border authorities have since denied entry to more than 900 Russian men. Heightened security measures, including extensive screening of passengers, luggage, and cargo, could prompt processing delays at international transport hubs. Vehicle searches could cause intermittent delays at some border crossings, potentially affecting commercial truck traffic. There will undoubtedly be a visible security presence, including military deployments in aid of the police, around vital installations, including airports, train stations, bus terminals, and critical utility infrastructure.
The threat from hacking and potential cyberattacks targeting networks utilized by Ukrainian government bodies, military installations, key industries, and critical infrastructure remains high during the election campaign period. Individuals and state-sponsored groups could attempt to carry out such attacks during the election period for financial gain, to cause chaos nationwide, or to obstruct voting and ballot-counting process to raise doubts over the legitimacy of the voting process.
Cybercriminals have been able to infiltrate vulnerable networks by sending malware through email attachments or links in the body of an email. Such emails purport to be from another employee of a government agency or a firm. In recent months, Ukrainian authorities have noted an increase in hacking attempts on government officials and attorneys. In the May 2014 presidential election, hackers disabled parts of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission (CEC)'s network with cyberespionage software. Hackers also disabled the CEC's website ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. Cyberattacks, such as the 2017 WannaCry and Petya viruses, prompted shutdowns in energy production, transport, shipping, banking, and other critical services in Ukraine and other countries around the world.
Ukrainian authorities will certainly increase their security posture in city centers, near polling stations, at transportation hubs, within the separatist regions, and at international borders to mitigate significant business disruptions and violence in the coming weeks. Although widespread unrest or large-scale military conflict is unlikely, isolated violent incidents are likely during protests and election rallies, as are slight escalations of confrontations between government and separatist-controlled forces in the Donbas. A high-profile, though limited, military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian military forces, similar to the Kerch Strait incident, cannot be ruled out. Short-term business disruptions within networks operated by the Ukrainian government, banks, or key industries are possible if officials detect a hacking attempt or a security breach and need to disable certain online services. Prolonged security measures are likely to persist nationwide in Ukraine potentially through May if the second round of voting takes place and even through October when parliamentary elections are slated to occur.
Advice for Operating in the Area
Avoid all demonstrations. Exercise caution around potential protest venues and leave the area at the first sign of crowds or security forces beginning to gather.
- Carry identification and relevant visa documentation at all times.
- Remain courteous and cooperative when dealing with security personnel.
- Allow additional time to transit airports, railway stations, and border crossings.
- Do not attempt to pass through any roadblocks set up by police or protesters; find an alternative route or defer travel until the route has cleared.
- Where possible, travel with a trusted local who has Ukrainian and Russian language capabilities. Consider traveling with an accredited security provider.
- Do not attempt to photograph security forces, critical infrastructure, or demonstrations. Avoid military sites.
- Immediately report any suspicious communications or activity to corporate information security departments. Do not open email attachments from unfamiliar or untrustworthy sources. Ensure that computers and mobile devices are running the latest available operating system and have the latest security patches installed.
- If there is a disturbance outside your hotel, keep your drapes closed, and stay away from the windows. Extinguish all lights. Assemble traveling companions in one room.
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