Ukraine’s Parallel War: Corruption
As the West approved tanks for Ukraine, President Zelensky dismissed several top government officials, including “four deputy ministers and five regional governors.” There is also speculation that the Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, may be replaced by the Ministry of Intelligence director Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, raising concerns about corruption in the highest echelons of power. Ukraine’s struggle with corruption since its independence in 1991, and its relatively ineffective anti-corruption reforms after the 2004 Orange and the 2014 Euromaidan revolutions, should concern the West. However, Western leaders seemed willfully amnesiac of these concerns after the invasion began. President Zelensky, with EU and NATO bids on his mind, is demonstrating his capacity to fight corruption. These recent firings, just ahead of the EU delegation’s visit to Kyiv, are no coincidence. For Ukraine to come out of the war as a stronger country and a more viable prospect for EU and NATO expansion, it must continue eliminating corruption long after Zelensky leaves power.
In the 1990s, Ukraine struggled to adapt to a free-market and global economy. A kleptocracy ensued, with organized crime and oligarchs taking control of the infant government. The fraudulent election of Viktor Yanukovych and previous years of scandals involving election intimidation and journalist murders catalyzed the Orange revolution. In the revolution’s wake, Ukraine shifted away from Russia and toward the West, but corruption still plagued the country. Just six years later, in 2010, Yanukovych was reelected as president, this time legitimately. In his four years as president, before the Euromaidan revolution ousted him, he enriched himself and his cronies through the embezzlement of public funds, emboldened oligarchs, and welcomed closer ties with Russia.
Transparency International’s annual corruption index categorizes Ukraine as a significantly corrupt state. In 2022, Ukraine ranked 116th out of 180 countries, in descending order. The U.S. and other Western supporters should be concerned with these statistics because corruption during wartime directly affects Ukraine’s ability to fight. Indeed, Zelensky’s firings showed evidence of corrupted officials through inappropriate usage of humanitarian vehicles, luxury vacations, and purchase of materials at inflated prices. Concerns over U.S. assistance being stolen, embezzled, or used irresponsibly were emphasized by Defense, State, and USAID officials visiting Ukraine in late January. During this visit, they encouraged Ukraine to keep well-organized accounts of all materials and continue vigorous anti-corruption efforts. Through these firings, Zelensky demonstrates a commitment to combating corruption during the war, but the long-term challenges of corruption should also concern the West.
There is growing sentiment among Ukrainians that corruption is especially heinous now because it betrays Western trust, deters further aid, and detracts from resources meant for the war effort. A Ukrainian victory will be a chance for Ukraine to learn from its previous failures at wrangling corruption after a revolution. But post-war reconstruction will be astronomically more expensive in terms of money, manpower, and willpower than Ukraine’s independence or revolutions. Rather than just rebuilding politically, Ukraine will be reviving its economy, infrastructure, civil society, and the rule of law—all while attempting to join the EU and NATO. If Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts do not intensely continue after the war, the country risks erasing its wartime gains in legitimacy and anti-corruption efforts. Previous revolutions’ passion led to reform attempts, but decreasing enthusiasm and lack of institutional change gave way to corrupting forces just years later. A corrupt post-war Ukraine risks this same fate because a weakened state will make joining the EU and NATO difficult and leave avenues for future malign Russian influence.
A Ukrainian victory would mark the fourth significant “watershed moment” since its independence. This moment is Ukraine’s opportunity to construct a robust relationship with the West, snub Russian influence, build a vibrant economy, and become the country for which its revolutions yearned. Zelensky is combatting corruption using the reforms implemented after Euromaidan, like the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the High Anti-Corruption Court. However, these institutions are only as healthy as the culture behind them. A lingering culture of corruption compromises institutional means of fighting, mitigating, and enforcing penalties. Zelensky is changing this endemic culture of corruption by prioritizing anti-corruption during the war and framing corrupt officials as anti-Ukraine. Combatting corruption parallels the fight against the Russian invasion, but anti-corruption efforts must persist after the fighting ends. Just as George Washington did for the United States through his presidency and farewell address, Zelensky must set an example that will be followed long after the war. Ukraine stands to emerge from the rubble as a stronger nation, but corruption will dash these ambitions if left unchecked.