‘Double War’ Weakens Ukraine; Unending Russia Conflict, Corruption Within Military Ranks Hurting Zelensky

President Volodymyr Zelensky seems now to be fighting two wars simultaneously. One war is on the battlefield against Russia. The other, which, in a way, has gained more urgency, happens to be the war on corruption inside Ukraine. 

In a sense, both wars are interrelated because corruption inside the country is now having an adverse impact on the war against Russia.

When Zelensky assumed office in 2019, fighting domestic corruption was his principal electoral pledge. And corruption-fights at that time meant finding out economic and administrative lapses and punishing those who benefitted in the process.

However, the invasion of Russia has made the Ukrainian economy principally oriented towards the war efforts. So, any corruption here means that it is interlinked to the war efforts and weakening them, thus raising the anger and intolerance of the Ukrainian people to a higher level. 

In fact, if Ukraine has been in the headlines in the last fortnight, then it has not been due to its occasional but spectacular drone attacks on Russian ships in the Black Sea. Ukraine is in the news these days for its Security Service (SBU) discovering a mass corruption scheme in the purchase of weapons by the country’s military amounting to nearly $40 million (1.5 billion Ukrainian hryvnia).

The SBU said the embezzlement involved the purchase of 100,000 mortar rounds for Ukraine’s Armed Forces in August 2022. Five senior people in the defense ministry and arms supplier Lviv Arsenal are now under investigation. According to the SBU, payment was made in advance, with some funds transferred abroad, but no arms were ever provided.

“Not a single artillery shell” was ever sent, it said.

Apparently, the investigation found that former and current high-ranking defense officials, the head and chief commercial of Lviv Arsenal, and a representative of a foreign commercial group were involved in the fraud.

It may also be noted that Ukraine’s new defense minister Rustem Umerov, who had assumed office in September last year after his predecessor Oleksii Reznikov had to reign over scandals, revealed last month (January 9) that an audit had uncovered corruption connected to military procurement worth 10 billion hryvnia ($262 million) in only the four months he had been in post.

These cases included the dismissal of two senior officials over allegations the ministry had inflated contracts for food supplied to troops, including eggs. 

Similarly, last August saw outrage in Ukraine over inflated prices for an order of 233,000 jackets for $20m from Turkish firm Vector Avia that were too light and thus useless for the impending winter.

This controversy arose amid corruption in the recruitment into the armed forces. So much so that Zelensky had to fire all regional military recruitment bosses.

Zelensky had revealed then that many officials across multiple departments and Ukrainian regions were involved in illegal activities, including illegal enrichment. “Some took cash, some took cryptocurrency. That’s the only difference,” he said. “The cynicism is the same everywhere.” 

However, it seems Zelensky’s efforts have not led to the intended effects, particularly when he and his commander-in-chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, are widely reported not to see eye to eye on how to carry forward the war against Russia.

The General is apparently convinced that the President is responsible for the failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive to score any significant battlefield successes. 

Apparently, Zelensky is said to have asked Zaluzhny to quit his active military role and assume a new role as a defense adviser, which the military chief is understood to have refused. It is speculated that  Zaluzhny might enter politics and stand against Zelensky for the Presidency. After all, a poll in December found that while 62% of Ukrainians said they trusted Zelensky, 88% said they trusted Zaluzhny.

The debate that is ongoing in Ukraine is whether an “incompetent and corrupt civilian government” can fight a war or whether the country should be run by “a charismatic general.” And here, Zelensky’s perceived poor record in fighting corruption has not helped matters

Of course, as EurAsian Times has already pointed out, corruption has been a long problem with Ukraine, for which its membership in the European Union(EU) is facing a major hurdle.

Though the situation has improved over the last few years, the fact remains that apart from Russia and Azerbaijan, no other European country is perceived as more corrupt than Ukraine, according to the 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index.

It may be noted that a senior adviser to Zelensky is now under allegations that he was involved in corruption schemes involving Ukrbud Development LLC, one of the largest construction firms in the country. Tatarov has been the President’s adviser on law enforcement and security agencies since 2020.   

In fact, Zelensky’s own integrity is also being questioned now. There are allegations that he had used offshore companies to manage his wealth and that shortly before his election, he had transferred a stake in a British Virgin Islands firm to an associate. This associate, Sergey Shefir, later became a top aide to Zelensky, working in a voluntary unpaid capacity

Russia Ukraine war
File Image: Russia-Ukraine War

Incidentally, Zelensky answered this by telling the Ukrainian television network ICTV in October 2021 that the offshore arrangement was to protect his TV production business from political pressure by the Yanukovych government.

Be that as it may, allegations of graft, even if unfounded, have tarnished the reputation of the Zelensky government, particularly in ensuring the flow of economic and military assistance from the United States and leading European countries.

Every scam is making the policymakers in these countries talk about the importance of oversight of the arms and other help that these are being properly utilized. In other words, doubts over the proper utilization of funds and arms are making it harder for Ukraine’s international supporters to win the argument for continued support. 

It may be noted that on December 27, 2023, the US officially stated that “to date, we have provided approximately $44.2 billion in military assistance” alone since the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. And now the US Congress is contemplating an amendment to ensure transparency to the US arms aid to “partners and allies.”

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Incidentally, Congress has already appropriated a total of $42 million to support oversight of US assistance to Ukraine for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Offices of the Inspectors General (OIG) for the Departments of State, Defense, and USAID. The three OIGs have collaborated closely, issuing a “Joint Strategic Oversight Plan for FY 2023″ outlining their planned workstreams for the fiscal year.

In order to further improve the oversight efforts, Congress has even asked the Department of State to increase the cap on US government personnel authorized to be in Ukraine and dedicate additional slots to the OIGs. Legislation has also been introduced in both the House and the Senate to establish a Special Inspector General for Ukraine, similar to those set up for Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Similarly, as has been pointed out above, the EU has made it clear that the Ukrainian government will have to prove that it is carrying out sectoral and institutional reforms, including anti-corruption and judicial reforms, respecting the rule of law, showing commitment to good governance and modernization of the national and local institutions.

Likewise, in a report in June last year, the International Monetary Fund said that donors and foreign investors needed to see reforms to improve governance and transparency and tackle corruption “without delay.” 

There have also been stories of how weapons delivered by Western countries to Ukraine to counter the Russian offensive had been advertised for sale in the Middle East and North Africa.

The EurAsian Times had reported not long ago that Ukraine had a bad reputation as a hub of smuggled arms and ammunition, even before the Russian invasion. And after the invasion, this image has further worsened. 

Considering all this, when experts say that corruption and the perception of corruption in Ukraine appear to undermine critical domestic and Western support for its war efforts, that makes sense.  

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com