Corruption in Kyiv: how Zelenskyy is taking on Ukraine's other big enemy

Ukranian president has purged his Ministry of Defence as Kyiv looks to shore up support in the West

Illustration of a snake wrapped around an anti-tank barrier
A series of corruption scandals threaten to choke off Western spending on military aid for Ukraine
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images / Shutterstock)

Ukraine’s ongoing conflict against Russia is being waged alongside an internal battle against corruption undermining Kyiv's war effort.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy appears to be "wresting back the initiative on reform" amid growing outrage over allegations of graft within his government's ranks, said The Economist. The president sacked his defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, two weeks ago following "months of corruption scandals at his department". 

And this week Zelenskyy removed all six deputy defence ministers, in a further crackdown on alleged corruption and financial mismanagement within the military. 

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One of Ukraine's "most notorious oligarchs", Ihor Kolomoisky, has also been detained on allegations of fraud and money laundering, said The Guardian's Kyiv-based correspondent Shaun Walker. But "stories of a return to familiar corrupt schemes and the old way of doing business" continue to dominate Ukraine's front pages.

Why is Zelenskyy cracking down now?

After more than 18 months of full-scale war with Russia, Ukraine is largely reliant on assistance from Western partners for military aid. So Zelenskyy is "keen to demonstrate" to Western leaders that his "government is not squandering" the "billions of dollars" sent to Ukraine, said The New York Times (NYT). His efforts to "shore up support" include addressing the UN General Assembly in New York and the US Congress in Washington this week. 

Much is riding on his confidence-building push, as US "critics of spending on Ukraine" point to the corruption reports as "reason to place stricter limits on military aid".

Pressure for a crackdown has also been building within Ukraine, where the media and anti-corruption activists have continued to expose scandals. 

Such scandals threaten to cost Zelenskyy not only votes but also membership in Nato and in the EU, warned David DeBatto, a retired US army counterintelligence special agent, in the Kyiv Post. Without "demonstrable evidence of success in stemming the tide of public corruption", DeBatto wrote, "achieving membership in either organisation becomes much more difficult".

What are the corruption allegations?

Corruption is a long-running problem in Ukraine. In 2021, before the full-scale Russian invasion, the country was ranked 122 out of 180 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Fewer instances of corruption have been reported since the conflict began, with Ukraine ranking at 116 in the 2022 index.

But high-profile corruption cases have attracted widespread attention in recent months. 

Although sacked defence minister Reznikov was not implicated in any corruption, activist groups have "singled out lower-level officials" over "mismanagement in military contracting" and for "failing to tackle corruption", said the NYT.

And Reznikov, said The Economist, will be "remembered" chiefly for two scandals, "involving eggs and winter coats". In February, an investigative journalist revealed that his ministry was for paying well over the odds for eggs to a military supplier. Reznikov "survived" that scandal "only to be hit by another in August", when his ministry was revealed to have bought military coats from Turkey, "also apparently at a huge mark-up". 

The rows followed the sacking of the deputy infrastructure minister, Vasyl Lozinskyi, in January for allegedly stealing $400,000 (£320,000) allocated for purchasing aid, including generators.

More recently, Kolomoisky – "one of the richest men in Ukraine as well a friend and key supporter" of Zelenskyy – has been "caught up" in the president's crackdown, said DeBatto in the Kyiv Post. The oligarch is being held in custody on suspicion of fraud and money laundering following his arrest earlier this month.

A senior aide to Zelenskyy is also facing corruption allegations. Reuters this week reported claims that Oleh Tatarov "organised" bribes and acted as a "go-between" for a construction company and public officials between 2014 and 2019.

Tatarov has denied the accusations and has so far survived Zelenskyy's corruption crackdown.

What next?

For the countries committing to funding Ukraine's war effort and subsequent rebuilding, the "fight against corruption is almost as important as the fight on the battlefield", said Walker in The Guardian.

Ukraine "obviously" has an ongoing problem with corruption, said historian and political scientist Alexander J. Motyl on The Hill. But that does not "entitle Western countries to wag their fingers with self-serving braggadocio". 

Ukraine is not "not uniquely corrupt", he argued, pointing to current EU members Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, who are "roughly in the same neighbourhood" in terms of corruption levels. And having long been "largely ignored" by the EU and Nato, Ukraine is now "fully committed to reducing corruption" as the country strives for membership in both. 

Membership of Western institutions "is no guarantee of full-scale honesty", Motyl added, but even the most corrupt "will be inclined" to "abandon" their dodgy dealings "if they know there’s a good material reason to do so".

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