At the headquarters of Ukraine’s SBU security service more than a dozen local and Western security experts watch a simulated foreign cyber attack on several big screens ahead of this month’s presidential vote.
During the joint EU-Ukraine cyber security drills the Westerners pretend to be hackers attacking the country’s central election commission, while the Ukrainians seek to neutralise them.
The exercises held in Kiev last week involved around a hundred experts and were part of efforts to prevent arch-foe Russia from interfering in the crucial March 31 election.
Ukrainian security officials said they had registered a growing number of distributed denial-of-service attacks and phishing attempts to gain access to computers of the country’s ministries and other state structures in recent months.
“Russia is carrying out cyber attacks to inflict maximum damage,” said Oleksandr Klymchuk, a senior counter-intelligence official at the SBU.
Russia has been accused of interfering in elections in the United States and the European Union and suspicions are rife in the West that Moscow will seek to sway the Ukraine vote by resorting to disinformation campaigns in the media, social bots and other tools.
Moscow has denied claims of hacking and meddling, thought to be championed by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.
Jakub Kalensky of the recently-created Ukrainian Election Task Force suggested that the Kremlin did not support a specific candidate but sought to discredit the upcoming election altogether.
“It’s like a husband who can’t get used to the fact that his wife has decided that she doesn’t want to live with him any more — OK so I’ll just beat you,” he told AFP. “That’s Vladimir Putin”.
Ties between Kiev and its Soviet-era master Moscow were shredded after a popular uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014 and Russia retaliated by annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist uprising in the east of the country.
The conflict has claimed some 13,000 lives so far.
– ‘Attempts to weaken Poroshenko’ –
The SBU security agency has said that several Russian cyber attacks against the central election commission had recently taken place and more were expected.
The election commission has acquired new equipment and software to protect itself against possible Russian meddling efforts.
The Ukrainian Election Task Force, a group set up with the help of the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank, to expose foreign interference attempts, said Russians might also target critical infrastructure such as power grids, telephone networks or airports.
Russia will do so “in order to suggest that the authorities are not in control and to undermine the integrity of the electoral count,” the group said.
US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker said that Russian interference was “already happening” through the media and disinformation attempts.
“What they are trying to do is attack (President Petro) Poroshenko and weaken Poroshenko,” he told AFP last month.
“They very much want to see him removed from power and I think they’re hoping that they will be able to cut some kind of deal that favours Russia with a new government.”
The 53-year-old’s victory is far from assured, with actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, leading opinion polls and Poroshenko trailing.
– ‘Ready to repel attacks’ –
The SBU’s Klymchuk said that many botnets — networks of computers infected with malicious software — aimed to sow hostility and panic among Ukrainians.
Facebook, accused of not doing enough to fight alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, said it was trying to do a better job ahead of the Ukraine vote by cooperating with the local government and NGOs.
The social media giant said it had last month expanded efforts to not allow foreign electoral ads in Ukraine.
“We recently removed a network of Facebook and Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour as part of a network that originated in Russia and operated in Ukraine,” it said in a statement to AFP.
Klymchuk said that Facebook had blocked around 2,000 accounts in recent months at the demand of the SBU.
He said Ukraine’s cyber security experts have been trained by NATO and global companies and were now better prepared to deal with Russian hackers than in 2014.
“They will try to break us but we are ready to repel these cyber attacks,” Klymchuk said.