Corruption Is an Existential Threat to Ukraine, and Ukrainians Know It

President Biden talks of the world being divided into autocracies and democracies. But a more important division exists: between kleptocracies, where leaders treat their nations like personal piggy banks, and places where corruption is the exception rather than the rule.

Since 2014, Ukrainians have been fighting to drag their country into that second category. The Maidan revolution, which sent a pro-Russian president packing, wasn’t just about freeing Ukraine from Russian influence. It was also about breaking the stranglehold of oligarchs who — as in so many former Soviet republics — controlled everything from television stations to the politicians on ballots. The fight against corruption amounts to a second front in Ukraine’s war against Russia.

Ukraine is making progress, no small feat in the middle of a hot war. But it is still ranked the second most corrupt country in Europe, after Russia, according to Transparency International. Since the February 2022 Russian invasion, a host of characters — from arms dealers to suppliers of soldiers’ meals — has stood to reap big profits, creating vested interests in prolonging the conflict.

Corruption has been the elephant in the room since the invasion — an unpopular subject in Washington, since it risks undermining the American support that Ukraine desperately needs.

But guess who hasn’t shied away from calling out corruption in Ukraine? Ukrainians. No one knows better what an existential threat corruption can be, sapping the public trust and the legitimacy of the state. Ukrainians consider corruption the country’s second-most-serious problem, behind only the Russian invasion, according to a poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology this year. They know that they must root out money laundering and the influence of oligarchs as a condition of joining the European Union. Since the war started, the percentage of Ukrainians who say they are willing to stand up for their rights when they interact with bureaucrats doubled — from 26 percent in 2021 to 52 percent this year. That raises hopes that Ukrainians are starting to resist corruption with the same can-do spirit that repelled the Russian invasion.

Yuriy Nikolov, a founder of theonline news platform Nashi Groshi (Our Money), broke stories about the Ukrainian Defense Ministry paying huge markups for supplies — 46 cents for eggs that should have cost five cents, $86 for winter coats that were worth just $29. A week ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed his defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, who, although not personally implicated, had been tarnished by the scandal.

Another Ukrainian platform, Bihus, exposes expensive cars and luxury vacations purchased by politicians since the invasion. It took aim at Bohdan Torokhtiy, a lawmaker whose wife, Alina Levchenko, documented high-end stays at resorts and villas across Europe and the Middle East on Instagram in the early days of the Russian invasion while other Ukrainians were fending off the attack. It also reported that she had been hired as an adviser to an executive at Antonov, a state-owned aircraft company, despite having no experience in the industry. She didn’t reply to my request for comment on social media. Her Instagram account has since become private.

Ukrainian lawmakers are pushing back against the scrutiny. For more than a year, Ukrainian watchdog groups and the international agencies that fund them have been encouraging the government to reinstate wealth declarations by politicians, a requirement that was suspended in the early days of the invasion. Last week, lawmakers in Kyiv passed a bill that would reinstate the obligation to declare but keep the information closed to the public for a year or longer. In less than 24 hours, more than 83,000 people signed a petition asking Mr. Zelensky to veto the bill. “Many Ukrainians are unhappy with this decision of the Parliament,” Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, told me. “Attention is very big.”

Vitalii Shabunin, the chairman of the board of the nonprofit Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv, wrote a scathing column about the decision in Ukrainian Pravda, an online newspaper based in Kyiv. Access to declarations has helped expose “top corrupt people,” he wrote. Now lawmakers “want to keep the ‘war fortunes’ of officials a secret and absolve themselves of crime.”

Mr. Zelensky has been on a mission to convince Ukrainians and donor countries that he has things under control. In May the chief of Ukraine’s Supreme Court was arrested on bribery charges. In June another judge, who hid $150,000 worth of bribes in pickle jars and fled the country to Moldova, received a 10-year sentence after a bizarre incident in which he was forcibly returned to Ukraine. This month, Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who once served as a governor, was arrested in Ukraine nearly two years after the U.S. Department of Justice accused him of embezzling billions of dollars from a private Ukrainian bank that he owned and laundering the money by buying real estate in Cleveland and other American cities.

His arrest will boost the Ukrainian public’s confidence that the war on corruption can be won. But anti-corruption watchdogs in Ukraine aren’t thrilled with how he was taken into custody. The security services grabbed Mr. Kolomoisky before the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, which is seen as more independent, got the chance. The bureau had been preparing to prosecute him on far more serious charges.

The Ukrainian people should be applauded — and supported — for battling corruption. In one sign of support, the White House recently met with a delegation of anti-corruption groups.

But there’s a danger that these arrests will weaken American enthusiasm for the war. Some Republicans are pushing for the appointment of a special inspector general for Ukraine, like the office that was created for Afghanistan. Before we spend a fortune on a new inspector general, we should make sure that we’re staffing the inspector generals that already exist. (The State Department’s inspector general post, for instance, has been vacant for three years.) We should also boost our support for Ukrainian investigators who can demand accountability from their government in perpetuity rather than create an American agency that will disappear over time.

That’s perhaps the biggest lesson of Afghanistan. We didn’t fail in Afghanistan because we couldn’t stop corruption. We failed because we didn’t foster Afghan institutions that could withstand a U.S. withdrawal. Americans were so worried about stamping out corruption that they micromanaged everything, creating a shadow government — staffed by temporary, highly paid consultants that answered to Washington. They wrote beautiful reports but weren’t accountable to the people who mattered most: Afghans. The special inspector general of Afghanistan reconstruction acknowledged as much in a report released this year: “In order to control for corruption,” it read, Americans took control of more and more processes, “which in turn led to a lack of Afghan mission and logistics ownership.”

It would have been better to spend far less money in Afghanistan but in a way that empowered local leaders. Instead, we spent more than a trillion dollars on a war that ended disastrously. Does it matter that we had a special inspector general perfectly documenting the disaster?

Ukraine is a different place, of course. U.S. boots aren’t on the ground there — yet. Pallets of cash aren’t being delivered to military leaders and politicians, as far as we can tell. Corruption scandals seem to involve Ukrainian funds, not U.S. money. But the lessons of Afghanistan are not lost on Ukrainians. Last year an article in Foreign Affairs by Tymofii Brik, the rector of the Kyiv School of Economics, and Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili of the University of Pittsburgh argued that donor countries should work with local Ukrainian government entities to rebuild the country instead of using “vast armies” of foreign contractors and nongovernmental organizations.

Such methods “undermine local governance institutions, not just by sweeping up the best talent from them but by giving foreigners a greater say in what happens in communities than the people who live there,” they wrote. When the war in Ukraine finally ends, the money to rebuild the country will most likely dwarf anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. That’s when the real feeding frenzy will begin. Ukrainian institutions and watchdogs had better be ready.

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