Ukraine is locked in a war with corruption as well as Putin – it can’t afford to lose either

Orysia Lutsevych

Since 2014, it has been a maxim that Ukraine is in fact fighting two enemies: Russia and corruption. The horrifically destructive Russian invasion is an existential threat to Ukrainian statehood, but corruption both undermines effective resistance in the war and derails Ukraine’s ambitions for closer ties with Europe. Eradicating corruption is now literally a matter of life and death.
Eroding international trust in Ukraine’s government is one of Russia’s key objectives, in the hope that it could slow or reduce western material and political assistance. The narrative that Ukraine is a basket case, unreformable and utterly corrupted, has long been a Kremlin propaganda narrative. In his speech ahead of the invasion, Putin said that, despite the efforts of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies, “Corruption has been in full bloom, and it is still in full bloom, more than ever.”
The high-profile corruption scandal that erupted last week, the first since Russia’s full-fledged invasion, was no ordinary affair. Leaked official documents exposed a wildly inflated $350m food-procurement contract signed by the ministry of defence. In another office a deputy minister of infrastructure, Vasyl Lozinskyi, was accused of siphoning money out of a winter aid budget. Now all eyes in Ukraine and abroad are on the response of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s team and the law-enforcement agencies. The resignation of the deputy defence minister, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, was a good start, and unprecedented, considering he was unlikely to be personally involved in the corrupt deal. The mid-level official in charge of the contract was fired. The defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, spoke at a parliamentary hearing. The national anti-corruption bureau (NABU) started investigating the case before it became public knowledge. If the allegations are substantiated, the case will be sent to the high anti-corruption court (HACC) for trial.
Reznikov’s subsequent public response was less encouraging. The investigative journalist Yuri Nikolov, who exposed the corrupt deal, says he contacted both the office of the president and the defence ministry in early January, but received no answer. Once the information became public, Reznikov wrote a Facebook post talking about “technical errors” and claiming the leak was undermining unity at home and the trust of international partners. Some in the media community are worried the security service may be looking into whether the leak constitutes state treason. Zelenskiy reassured Ukrainians that this case would be investigated to send a clear signal to all. But Ukraine and its partners should watch for actions, not declarations. The country must show it can prevent misuse of funds if it wants to sustain its war effort. Any perception that Ukraine is returning to the bad old days of widespread corruption will threaten supply of both economic and military aid.
The good news is that, even in a time of war, Ukrainian independent media and civil society are working to expose corruption. We can be sure they will monitor the progress of the investigation and court rulings. As part of anti-corruption reforms launched after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Ukraine created new, independent agencies such as NABU and HACC, led by professionals appointed independently of the executive. Since then, Ukraine’s pro-reform coalition has worked hard to safeguard these agencies from undue influence. Loopholes in the health ministry system were eliminated and the ProZorro digital public procurement system was created to allow anti-corruption groups to see all contracts. Most significantly, Ukraine stopped buying Russian gas using private intermediaries, long a major source of high-level corruption.
The achilles heel of anti-corruption efforts was always, and remains, the unreformed court system. The creation of an anti-corruption court improved the situation: in 2022, it issued 33 guilty verdicts and transferred more than 1.22bn Ukrainian hryvnia (£27m) of recovered funds and seized assets to support the armed forces. But the war also presents new constraints for anti-corruption crusaders. Martial law limits access to public information, and the government has temporarily cancelled procurement tenders. Secrecy has increased across all parts of government, undermining transparency efforts. With about 50% of the budget directed to defence and security, the risk of misappropriation of funds has increased.
So far, Ukrainians trust Zelenskiy to lead the fight against Russia, but they also support outside conditionality and oversight over aid and reconstruction funds. A poll conducted in November showed that 55% of Ukrainians felt that rebuilding projects should be monitored by the outside funders. A system to protect whistleblowers should also be set up to help expose and prevent corrupt schemes. Officials accustomed to the old ways must be replaced with new civil servants who will be impersonal and strict in following the rules, and are genuinely committed to the public good. Ukraine’s battle with corruption is far from over. However, just as many people underestimated the country’s ability to resist the Russian invasion, many today miscalculate the strength of its own anti-corruption movement and the scale of change in the last eight years. War-hardened citizens who resist the invasion, donate to the armed forces and rebuild their communities have zero tolerance for corruption. They simply cannot afford public resources to be wasted for the enrichment of immoral officials. They will cheer government officials who combat it.