A corruption scandal rocks the Ukrainian government, with top officials stepping down as Kyiv appears keen to assure Western partners of their responsible handling of billions in military and economic aid.
Among the most publicized departures are Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and a deputy in the Ministry of Defense, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who was responsible for overseeing the supply and food of the troops. A deputy attorney general was also sacked, along with a handful of regional governors and a few other government ministers.
The actual details of what caused the upheaval are a bit hazy, and all the resignations and oustings seem unrelated, but it comes after at least one report in Ukrainian media that the Ministry of Defense had bought food for the troops at extra-high prices. The Ministry of Defense said the allegations were a deliberate attempt to mislead, but said it would conduct an internal audit. Other media reports last week interviewed officials, including Tymoshenko, who appeared to enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
This is the most publicized redesign since the Russian invasion last year. More details on the alleged corruption are likely to emerge, but it seems clear that Zelenskyy’s government moved quickly to quash any allegations of widespread corruption, particularly from international donors who provide tens of billions. of aid dollars on which Ukraine depends in its struggle. against Russia. Some critics have also suggested that the reshuffle was more of a political move than a genuine anti-corruption effort.
In his Tuesday evening speech, posted on Telegram, Zelenskyy acknowledged the personnel changes and said that all internal issues “that are hampering the state are being cleaned up and will be. It’s right, it’s necessary for our defense and it helps our rapprochement with the European institutions.
Ukraine has previously struggled to root out high-level corruption and strengthen the rule of law, despite Zelenskyy promising to do so when he was elected in 2019. Ukraine supporters in the United States and in Europe had long pressed Kyiv to address these issues. , including as a condition for Ukraine’s invitation to Western institutions, including perhaps one day joining the European Union. The full-scale attack on Russia last year brushed aside some of these corruption issues, as Western governments rushed to support Ukraine and Ukraine itself became a global symbol of corruption. democratic resistance.
In Ukraine, some civil society groups and anti-corruption forces that had long been critical of the Ukrainian government and Zelenskyy suspended some of their activism as Ukrainian society fully mobilized in the war effort. According to a report on war and corruption in Ukraine published last summer, around 84% of anti-corruption experts have abandoned their activities because of the conflict.
Yet concerns about Ukraine’s approach to corruption never fully dissipated. The chaos of conflict – lots of quick purchases, an influx of funds and supplies going through many hands – tends to be breeding grounds for potential corruption and can exacerbate existing problems. This is true no matter where the war is or who is fighting. Ukraine is no exception.
What we know about the Ukrainian government reshuffles
The recent reshuffle appears to be tied to a few different scandals. Perhaps the most publicized is this allegation, first reported in Ukrainian media ZN.UA, that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense signed a contract paying two to three times more for food than retail prices at Kyiv. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov dismissed the allegations, saying it was a “technical error” and suggesting the leak had been timed for a meeting of Western donors, with the aim of undermining the Ukraine. “Reports about the content of foodservice shoppers who have occupied public space are spreading with signs of deliberate manipulation and induction,” the ministry said in a statement. The ministry said it was opening an investigation into the “intentional dissemination of false information”, although it was also conducting an internal audit.
In response to the sourcing allegations, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) publicly announced its own investigation. On Tuesday, Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov reportedly asked to be removed from his post, in order “not to pose a threat to the stable supply of the Ukrainian armed forces following a campaign of accusations related to the ‘purchase of food services’.
But the Ukrainian government reshuffle goes beyond that. Tuesday, Tymoshenko, a close associate of Zelenskyy, announced his resignation, saying it was of his “own volition”. Tymoshenko played a fairly public role during the war, and Ukrainian media reported last year that he drove a donated SUV for his own personal use (he denied this). In December, another investigation suggested that Tymoshenko drove an expensive sports car and rented a mansion owned by a prominent businessman – flashy props for a wartime government official. Tymoshenko said he was renting the house because his was in an area targeted by airstrikes.
Oleksiy Symonenko, deputy prosecutor general, was also ousted, following reports in Ukrainian media last month that he had gone on a 10-day vacation to Spain during the war. On Monday, Zelenskyy banned all government officials from leaving the country on anything other than official business.
In addition to these high-profile ousters, a few other deputy ministers and regional governors — including those from Kyiv and Kherson oblasts — were also fired. According to the Kyiv Independent, some of those officials were involved in bribes, while others appear to have been caught up in the reshuffle.
The turmoil also comes days after Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister Vasyl Lozinskyi was sacked following allegations by Ukrainian prosecutors that he stole $400,000 (£320,000) intended for the purchasing aid, including generators, to help Ukrainians weather the winter after Russian attacks severely damaged energy infrastructure. He did not comment on the allegations.
Corruption in Ukraine is again in focus, a year after the start of the war
A few firings and resignations will not solve Ukraine’s endemic corruption or rule of law problems, just as Ukraine’s resistance to Moscow will not erase all of its underlying governance weaknesses. A bigger question is what the extent of these latest instances of corruption are, and whether the ousters and resignations now represent a real and sustained effort to suppress or are more of a political reshuffle and public spectacle to reassure Western partners. and the Ukrainian public.
An aide to Zelenskyy tweeted that the measures show the government will do nothing “blind eyes” to misdeeds. Still, some critics suggested it was more of a political upheaval and other politicians accused of corruption remained in office.
In 2021, Transparency International ranked Ukraine 122nd out of 180 countries for corruption, making it one of the worst offenders. Even on the eve of the Russian invasion, the United States and its European partners had continued to pressure Zelensky to implement anti-corruption and rule of law reforms. These calls did not stop once the war started, but the focus was, with legitimate reasons, on supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russia and on providing military, humanitarian and economy in Kyiv.
In Ukraine, too, some of the government’s biggest critics have shifted their energies to the broader war effort, according to a survey of 169 anti-corruption experts who responded in April 2022. About 47% said they felt unsafe if they continued to fight corruption during the conflict.
This is of course the reason why war and conflict can aggravate corruption. Ukraine is fighting for its existence as a state, so naturally this is the priority above all else. Government resources, attention and funding are all devoted to mobilizing for this, which means anti-corruption efforts and rule of law reforms are being abandoned. On top of that, war creates many opportunities for corruption, with less time and attention for accountability and oversight.
The recent allegations come nearly a year into the war as the West again prepares to send in massive rounds of Ukrainian weaponry – including, now, advanced US tanks. The United States alone has contributed approximately $100 billion to Ukraine, including military, security, and economic aid. In November, European countries and EU institutions pledged more than 51 billion euros in aid to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. As the war drags on, some Western lawmakers are questioning the amount of aid flowing to Ukraine – and calling for more accountability over where it all is headed. This includes part of the newly sworn in Republican majority in the US House. Kyiv relies on foreign support in its fight against Russia, and repeated hints of abuse can jeopardize this, so it’s no surprise that Kyiv is responding quickly.
And that’s perhaps one of the big questions: how much of that is for the optics, and how much of that reflects a deeper engagement on those corrupt promises? The United States commended Ukraine for taking these steps, but much will depend on how the investigations unfold and what they find. Yet Ukraine’s efforts to signal to the world — and a domestic audience that has sacrificed so much for the war — still carries a warning to other officials.