How the war in Ukraine obscured an uncomfortable truth

Michael Bociurkiw

What a difference a year – and a war – makes. Around this time last year – with Russia on the brink of launching its full-scale invasion – Ukrainians’ confidence in their president to handle the military threat massing on their doorstep was low. Former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky’s popularity ratings were tanking as he battled allegations of unmet campaign promises to tackle endemic corruption. At the time, one of the major complaints against Zelensky was that he’d let pledges to reform the judicial system slide – a delay that threatened to derail Ukraine’s aspirations of joining the European Union. For Ukrainians, it was an emotive issue. It is worth recalling that becoming part of the bloc was the main motivation of thousands of protesters taking to the streets in freezing temperatures during the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity – also known as the Maidan.
Then on February 24, Russia’s total invasion blasted these concerns into the background. Almost overnight, that dark cloud over Zelensky vanished as he defied critics, and miraculously pivoted into the role of heroic wartime president and global symbol of defender of the free world. His popularity ratings surged – and have stayed high ever since – currently hovering at around 84%. But even a war, it seems, cannot galvanize a nation to the point where the most greedy cease their dirty deeds. Since the start of February, serious allegations have surfaced of senior officials either profiting off of the war or conducting themselves with gross incompetence.
In one case, defense ministry officials reportedly allowed foodstuffs for the military to be purchased at heavily inflated prices (a well-known ploy to skim off money). In another, a deputy prosecutor general was sacked after being spotted holidaying with his family in Marbella, Spain. He reportedly drove there in a Mercedes owned by a wealthy businessman. The scandals couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Zelensky administration, which is reportedly grappling with a monthly budget deficit of $5 billion. It could also raise eyebrows among skeptical Republican legislators on Capitol Hill who’ve been questioning the more than $100 billion in aid pledged to Ukraine’s war effort. They are not alone, with recent polling in the US suggesting an increasing percentage of Americans think Washington is providing too much aid to Ukraine. Little wonder then that the Ukrainian government’s sweeping crackdown on corruption was swift and harsh. Raids were ordered on a wide range of officials on the national, regional and local levels. It even targeted one of Zelensky’s former backers, the once-untouchable billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, who earlier stood accused of bilking a major Ukrainian bank of billions of dollars. (Kolomoisky, who has previously denied any wrongdoing, has not publicly commented on the recent raid.) But as some Ukrainian commentators have noted, many officials were allowed to gracefully resign rather than face sacking and further punishment. Anastasia Bolshedvor, who has gained a large social media following as an unofficial government watchdog, questioned whether the shakeup – coming almost a year into the war – was a show or a genuine step in the war against corruption.
Similarly, Yevhen Hlibovytsky, former political journalist and founder of the Kyiv-based think tank and consultancy, pro.mova, told me: “Zelensky’s fight with corruption would have been more convincing if it was started at his own stables and followed with the institutional changes.” That said, he also added that no battle with corruption should be allowed to disrupt the war effort. In the recent crackdown, Zelensky may also be opening himself up to accusations of overreach. When a member of the Zelensky faction in Parliament was discovered sunning himself on a Thai beach while his country is in the midst of a war, the government responded by promptly booting the lawmaker from the ruling party. But it also took the extreme step of banning lawmakers from traveling overseas, and just at a time when they should be seen to be ambassadors for the country, amplifying Zelensky’s call for more military aid. Odesa member of parliament, Oleksiy Goncharenko, went so far to call it an illegal move that violated the Ukrainian constitution. “The rights of MPs cannot be limited, even in the time of martial law,” he told me. “The decision was made in reaction to some MPs that were found on the beaches of warm countries. They should be the ones to pay the political price. “It is a bad decision for the interests of the country. Many of us are doing frontline work and building up support for Ukraine,” he said, adding that he just came back from the US where he gave several talks at universities and met with senators and member of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Luckily for Goncharenko, the trip took place before the ban came into effect. Reports of corruption at the highest level of government are nothing new to most Ukrainians. But the new allegations come at a time when millions of them have fled Ukraine for safe haven abroad – and could act as a deterrent for them coming back anytime soon. Many young Ukrainians I’ve spoken to agree that the government should not see the war as a pass to suspend the battle against corruption – even with the economy in shambles. “I’m 100% against turning a blind eye against corruption and finding excuses such as the state of the economy or the war. We should continue investigating, prosecuting and fighting corruption,” Olga Kearley, a 29-year-old Kyiv-based Ukrainian entrepreneur told me. “I haven’t stopped recycling because the war started. It’s my fundamental belief and moral standard. As a country, we are fighting the outside demons, but at the same time, we should continue fighting our inner demons – and corruption is one of the big ones,” she added. “We have a lot to rebuild. We expect a lot of transformation. It is the rebirth of our nation. It’s the Ukraine that my generation wants to see. I do hope that all those young people that left will see that Ukraine is changing. They should come back and be part of it,” Kearley said. Expecting Zelensky, especially during a time of war, to launch a full-scale fight against corruption would be naive. But with billions in aid flowing into the country and with millions in exile closely watching events back home, the administration has very little wiggle room cleaning house. At a minimum, Zelensky needs to respond to allegations of wrongdoing with the same determination that Ukrainian servicemen have demonstrated on the battlefield. This is an opportunity to create a nation where corruption is not tolerated, and where oligarchs no longer have a free hand to rape and pillage the economy.