By Michael Liebegott
Five years after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in which the Ukrainian people demanded a democratic, Euro-Atlantic future, they headed to the polls to choose their president for the next five years. Actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy, known for his popular television series “Servant of the People,” emerged as the winner, surpassing incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the April 21 runoff, after a record 39 candidates vied for the presidency in the first round of elections that took place, March 31, requiring a 31-inch-long ballot. Recognizing the importance of these elections to Ukraine’s continued Euro-Atlantic integration, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine worked round-the-clock with local stakeholders to promote free, fair and safe elections.
In the lead-up to voting, U.S. support for the Ukrainian elections came in various forms and through multiple channels to ensure that the Ukrainian people felt confident in their country’s electoral processes. The United States provided equipment and training for the Central Election Commission (CEC) to fortify its cybersecurity infrastructure, supported public outreach campaigns and facilitated public-private partnerships to thwart cybersecurity threats. “Cyberthreats have been at the top of the agenda in recent years, not just in Ukraine, but globally,” said Ann Hopper, a USAID officer at Embassy Kyiv working on this initiative. “Our work with the CEC not only provided tangible benefits in the form of enhanced electoral security but also gives Ukrainians peace of mind that the votes they cast really matter and the contentious elections did reflect the will of the people.”
Meanwhile, the embassy team worked with Ukrainian civil society organizations, such as the Civil Network OPORA, which is focused on transparency in the elections process, political party training and voter education initiatives that help ensure the integrity of their own elections. As election day approached, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie L. Yovanovitch and the Political Section of Embassy Kyiv, proactively met with leading candidates and their teams to help the U.S. government obtain a better understanding of its potential future partners’ plans. Yovanovitch and the team also traveled throughout the country to communicate directly with Ukrainian civil society and local leaders in different regions to listen to their views. These engagements offered an opportunity to reiterate the United States’ shared interest with the Ukrainian people in advancing democratic reforms and anti-corruption efforts that began during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.
Recognizing that the Ukrainian public had the most critical role to play in the elections, Embassy Kyiv, through its public outreach programs, encouraged the public to be thoughtful consumers of news and social media. “Our ‘Learn to Discern’ program helps Ukrainian secondary school students gain critical thinking and media consumption skills, so we adapted some of our program materials to be relevant to Ukrainian voters, who are targeted by disinformation from Russia and other sources,” said Cultural Affairs Officer Sean O’Hara. An embassy-organized “Learn to Discern” forum in March, which reached more than 8,000 potential voters at 400 locations across Ukraine, taught participants how to recognize misleading headlines, emotional triggers and statistical manipulations in media. Meanwhile, the embassy shared similar tips with social media users in advance of the elections to help combat disinformation from malign actors.
While the embassy intensively prepared for the elections, voting on March 31 and April 21 offered a unique challenge. Embassy Kyiv deployed more than 20 officially registered election observation teams of American staff and local staff all across Ukraine. More than 100 total staff members were deployed—from Lviv in the West to Mariupol in the East—for both rounds of voting to help monitor the integrity of the presidential elections. In advance of the elections, observers received training on how to identify voting irregularities, such as group voting; how to note the security environment, such as the presence of police officers or agitators; and how to observe general atmospherics, such as whether a location is calm or if there are prohibitively long lines.
The high-stakes elections and large contingent of embassy observers in the field required a robust team back in Kyiv. On the two voting days, the deputy chief of mission and representatives of the political, public affairs, Diplomatic Security, USAID, management, Information and Resource Management, defense attaché and Peace Corps offices gathered in the embassy command center, along with British and Canadian counterparts, to monitor the situation in real time. Everyone had a crucial role to play, whether tracking the latest election activity, translating candidates’ press conferences, tweeting about embassy observation efforts or reporting all the developments back to Washington, D.C.
Embassy Kyiv’s John McCain Conference Room was transformed into a full-scale, high-tech command center to support the embassy-based teams, in addition to accommodating the British and Canadian embassies and even hosting NGO representatives. More than 15 OpenNet workstations and 30 dedicated internet network connections, multiple printers, three televisions with live feeds, simultaneous translation with headsets for all and five telephone hotlines provided the embassy monitoring team with the resources necessary for tracking and reporting in real time as the elections unfolded. The centerpiece of the command center was the projection of the real time map of Ukraine that the regional security office used to track every observer team.
Monitoring the security situation was a key priority, given the importance of informing U.S. citizens in Ukraine about security concerns and ensuring the safety of embassy observation teams spread across many cities and towns. Prior to the elections, far-right organizations such as the National Corps had taken to the streets to protest against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko; during a clash in March, police officers were injured. Through its American Citizens Services (ACS) Office, Embassy Kyiv provided timely updates to the embassy community and American citizens within Ukraine in advance of demonstrations, helping individuals stay safe during potentially volatile situations. ACS also worked with consular officials in Washington to update Ukraine’s travel advisory to reflect information about the elections.
Keeping embassy observers safe on election day was a high priority and a high-tech endeavor. Each observer team was equipped with a handheld, radio-sized tracking device, allowing the embassy control room to track each team’s location in real time on the large projected map. “If any election observer felt they were in danger, they could’ve just pressed the emergency button on their tracking device, and we would have instantly responded,” said Regional Security Officer Nick Collura. “Thankfully, everything went smoothly and safely, but we had a full team in place to react if needed and safe havens prepositioned in each district.”
Now that Ukrainian elections have concluded peacefully and the will of the Ukrainian people has been expressed, Embassy Kyiv is focused on continuing to support the strong U.S.-Ukraine partnership and advancing the two nations’ mutual political, economic and security interests.
Michael Liebegott was a spring 2019 political intern at Embassy Kyiv