7 February 2019

Ukraine’s lessons for the West

By Jamila Mammadova

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others”, goes a famous line from Otto von Bismarck.

As the Paris protests have recently exposed, European societies currently face a twin threat – the inability of their own elites to deal with internal crises and external agents using those same crises to stoke unrest.

Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) has claimed that the Russian secret service has trained the “radicals” involved in disturbances not only in France, but Germany, Belgium, Spain and Bulgaria. What does this mean for Britain, being at the crossroads of its own history as it prepares to leave the European Union?

Clearly, the UK does not face the same level of interference as Ukraine, which for five years has been dealing with sabotage and disinformation efforts backed by the Russian state, while simultaneously engaged in a military conflict with Kremlin-backed separatists. Western Europe is nowhere close – yet. Things may change though, if those in power do not start learning from the experiences of their not-so-distant-neighbours.

Ukraine is holding presidential elections in March and its security services have already raised the alarm about what to expect from Russian saboteurs. Hacking of the electoral system to sway the results, as well as escalating military clashes in the eastern region of Donbass are only part of the problem. The Russian secret services also use a network of agents of influence, working to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty without the authorities being aware of its true extent. Some in Kyiv fear the Kremlin may intervene by throwing its support behind a “convenient candidate”.

The SBU recently exposed a spy, Colonel Serhiy Lazarev, who had been working for Russian military intelligence for three years. Lazarev reported to the GRU about Ukraine’s military capabilities and was going to sell the Ukrainian drones to the Russians. Other instances included stealing information related to Ukraine’s foreign and naval affairs, which may explain Russia’s recent boldness in the Kerch Strait. To protect itself, Ukraine’s top energy companies have recently agreed to exchange information with the SBU, while the Ukrainian Parliament is currently considering creating new criminal offence for cyber-attacks against government computers.

Social networks in Ukraine are being monitored as part of the defence against Russian interference. There are websites and TV shows broadcast in Ukrainian, Russian and English that successfully tackle Russian propaganda. If Russia Today is largely free to broadcast in the West, why is it that the British public is not allowed to have an alternative view of the world delivered by experts from the former Soviet Union? The West have achieved a lot in supporting human rights in faraway parts of the world. What happened to our own right to objective information?

While the UK Parliament has acknowledged that corrupt Russian money “strengthens the Kremlin’s grip on its domestic elites” in 2017, little was said about a similar grip on British bureaucrats or their assistants. In their recent report, National Cyber Security Centre exposed Russia’s military intelligence attempts to compromise the Foreign Office and to steal information from computers of the Ministry of Defence.

To protect the electoral system means not only ensuring the integrity of the voting process, but protecting voters from the nefarious activities of hostile actors. The next general election in the UK may happen earlier than expected. Is the Government doing enough to prevent disinformation and intolerance from spreading online before they come to the streets? Action designed to interfere or disrupt an electronic system with an eye to influence the government or advance a political, religious or ideological cause is considered a terrorist act under the UK law. Britain may well face more of such challenges in the future – it should learn the lessons from Ukraine if it wants to deal with them effectively.

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Jamila Mammadova is a Research Assistant at the Henry Jackson Society