Russia launched a major cyberattack on the main database of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission shortly before the country’s May 25 elections, according to a former U.S. lawmaker and ambassador.
A U.S. State Department official said Ukraine’s Security Service announced hackers using servers in Russia orchestrated a distributed denial-of-service attack against the election commission website and posted false results. The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record and requested anonymity, said hackers also jammed phone lines to prevent regional election data from reaching the central facility.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly warned that the U.S. would level tougher sanctions against Russian economic sectors if Moscow tried to disrupt or destabilize the vote. In that case, Obama said in Washington on May 2, “We will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions.” He repeated the threat of sanctions against Russia’s energy and banking sectors again today in Brussels.
The Russian attack failed, Mark Green, president of the International Republican Institute, a non-partisan pro-democracy group based in Washington, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today. Even so, he said, the cyber assault highlighted the extent to which Ukraine’s infrastructure has been infiltrated, how weak it is, and how crucial its restoration is to democracy and governance.
Pretense for Mischief
“Had it succeeded,” Green said of the attack, “the elections would have failed and perhaps given Ukraine’s opponents further pretense for mischief, aggression and destabilizing activities.” Green, a former congressman, said he was told of the attack by the current U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, while he was in the country to help monitor the vote. He offered no further details on the attack or how it was foiled.
An article in the Kiev Post newspaper quoted Central Election Commission chairman Mykhailo Okhendovsky saying that a May 22 attack on the commission’s systems “were caused by a computer program, quite sophisticated, so sophisticated that it definitely could not have been developed by one person.”
Okhendovsky said Ukrainian officials think the attack came from “one of the developed countries,” according to the Post.
The Russian embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The revelation emerged as Obama, meeting with other Group of Seven leaders in Brussels, warned again that they are ready to “impose additional costs on Russia” if Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t take concrete action “over the next two, three, four weeks.”
U.S. and European Union sanctions have hit officials, individuals and companies linked to Putin. The next step would be action against sectors of the Russian economy, including banking and energy. Those penalties would have tougher repercussions for the 28-member EU, which has closer trade and financial ties to Russia than the U.S. does.
The steps Russia will have to take include withdrawing all its troops from the Ukrainian border and working constructively with President-elect Petro Poroshenko, British Prime Minister David Cameron said today in Brussels.
A U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said Poroshenko will soon present Russia with a “peace plan.” Poroshenko, Obama, and EU leaders will join Putin tomorrow in Normandy, France, where they’ll mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day allied landings in World War II.
With Russia’s close ties to Ukraine, it’s important that Moscow is drawn to become “part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told the Senate committee.
Pifer, Green and others stressed the need to help Ukraine build its infrastructure, its ability to govern and its ability to connect to citizens in the eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have mounted an insurgency.
There was unanimous consent on the need to proceed with sanctions, particularly as the Russian economy has been struggling, said Pifer, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group.
Putin’s implicit social contract with Russians is that in exchange for curtailed freedoms, he will provide economic stability and an increasing standard of living, Pifer said.
Noting that U.S. and EU sanctions are already biting into the Russian economy, Pifer said that “last year, some Russian economists were saying even the projected growth in 2014 of 2 percent would not be enough for Mr. Putin to hold up his end of the bargain, so we need to try to increase that pressure.”