Ukraine is locked in a war with corruption as well as Putin – it can’t afford to lose either | Orysia Lutsevych
FROMSince 2014, it has been assumed that Ukraine is actually fighting two enemies: Russia and corruption. The horribly destructive Russian invasion poses a real threat to Ukrainian statehood, but corruption undermines effective resistance in the war and undermines Ukraine’s desire for closer ties with Europe. Rooting out corruption is now literally a matter of life and death.
Undermining international confidence in the government of Ukraine is one of Russia’s key goals, in the hope that it could slow down or reduce material and political aid from the West. The narrative that Ukraine is a goofy, unreformable, and utterly corrupt country has long been a Kremlin propaganda narrative. In his speech before the invasion, Putin said that despite the efforts of Ukraine’s anti-corruption authorities, “corruption has flourished and is still flourishing like never before.”
The high-profile corruption scandal that erupted last week, the first since a full-scale Russian invasion, was not commonplace. Leaked official documents revealed a grossly inflated $350 million food procurement contract signed by the Department of Defense. In another office, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Vasily Lozinsky was accused of siphoning money from the aid budget for the winter.
Now all attention in Ukraine and abroad is focused on the reaction of the team of President Volodymyr Zelensky and law enforcement agencies. The resignation of Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov was a good start and unprecedented, given that he was unlikely to be personally involved in the corrupt deal. The mid-level official responsible for the contract was fired. Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov spoke at parliamentary hearings. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) began investigating the case even before it became public knowledge. If the allegations are confirmed, the case will be sent to the Supreme Anti-Corruption Court (VAAC) for consideration.
Reznikov’s subsequent public reaction was less encouraging. Investigative journalist Yuri Nikolov, who exposed the corrupt deal, says he contacted both the presidential administration and the defense ministry in early January but received no response. As soon as the information became public, Reznikov wrote a Facebook post in which he spoke of “technical errors” and said that the leak undermined the unity within the country and the trust of international partners. Some in the media community are concerned that the security service may be investigating whether the leak is treason.
Zelenskiy assured Ukrainians that the case would be investigated to send a clear message to everyone. But Ukraine and its partners should follow actions, not declarations. A country must show that it can prevent the misuse of funds if it is to sustain its war effort. Any notion that Ukraine is returning to the bad old days of widespread corruption would jeopardize the provision of both economic and military aid.
The good news is that even during the war, Ukrainian independent media and civil society are working to expose corruption. We can be sure that they will follow the progress of the investigation and court decisions.
As part of the anti-corruption reforms launched after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, new independent agencies such as NABU and VASS were created in Ukraine, headed by professionals appointed independently of the executive branch. Since then, Ukraine’s pro-reform coalition has worked hard to shield these agencies from undue influence. Loopholes in the Ministry of Health system were closed and the ProZorro digital public procurement system was created, allowing anti-corruption teams to see all contracts. Most importantly, Ukraine has stopped buying Russian gas through private intermediaries, which have long been a major source of high-level corruption.
The Achilles’ heel of the fight against corruption has always been and remains the unreformed judicial system. The creation of an anti-corruption court has improved the situation: in 2022, it issued 33 convictions and transferred more than 1.22 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (£27m) of returned funds and seized assets to support the armed forces.
But the war also creates new challenges for corruption fighters. Martial law limits access to public information, and the government has temporarily canceled procurement tenders. Secrecy has increased in all parts of the government, undermining transparency efforts. Since about 50% of the budget goes to defense and security, the risk of funds being misused has increased.
So far, Ukrainians trust Zelensky to lead the fight against Russia, but they also support external conditions and oversight of relief and recovery funds. A poll conducted in November showed that 55% of Ukrainians believe that reconstruction projects should be controlled by external sponsors. A whistleblower protection system should also be put in place to help expose and prevent corruption schemes. Officials accustomed to the old order must be replaced by new civil servants who will be impersonal and strict in following the rules, sincerely devoted to the public good.
Ukraine’s fight against corruption is far from over. However, just as many underestimated the country’s ability to resist Russian invasion, many today misjudge the strength of their own anti-corruption movement and the magnitude of the changes that have taken place over the past eight years. War-hardened citizens who resist invasion, donate to the military, and rebuild their communities have zero tolerance for corruption. They simply cannot afford to waste state resources on enriching immoral officials. They will cheer for the government officials who are fighting this.