What a defense ministry shake-up may say about Ukraine’s corruption problem

Volodymyr Zelenskyy sitting at a desk in the UN General Assembly with a sign that reads “Ukraine” in front of his microphone.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 19, 2023 in New York City. World heads of state and representatives of government will attend amid multiple global crises such as Russia’s war against Ukraine and the climate emergency. | Adam Gray/Getty Images

The removals come two weeks after the removal of the defense ministry and as Ukraine seeks to shore up global support.

Ukraine is shaking up its defense ministry, removing all six deputy ministers, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy travels to the United Nations and Washington to shore up support and aid.

The purge comes after Zelenskyy replaced Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov earlier this month. That was a very visible upheaval, arriving in the middle of Kyiv’s ongoing counteroffensive, and came amid ongoing allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement within the military.

The latest Ministry of Defense dismissals are likely a continuation of that attempt to clean house, although the ministry did not give a reason for the removals, nor did it directly connect it back to Reznikov’s dismissal. (Reznikov himself was not directly implicated in any scandals.) Some outlets have pointed out that staff changeovers are not unusual when a top official leaves; the new Minister of Defense was likely going to put in his own team anyway.

Still, these latest shake-ups are likely a message that Ukraine is taking any hint of corruption or mismanagement seriously and wants to signal renewed leadership at the defense ministry. The removal also comes at an inauspicious time: as Zelenskyy seeks to assure partners, including in the United States, that Kyiv is responsibly managing billions in military, security, and economic assistance.

The graft allegations previously swirling around the defense ministry shake-up haven’t directly implicated misuse of Western aid, and past oversight hasn’t found any evidence of misuse. But Ukraine has previously struggled to root out high-level corruption and bolster the rule of law, despite Zelenskyy promising to do so when he was elected in 2019. Ukraine’s backers in the United States and Europe had put pressure on Kyiv for nearly a decade to deal with these issues, especially as a condition for Ukraine’s invitation into Western institutions.

Russia’s full-scale attack last year shunted some of those corruption concerns aside as the urgency of Ukraine’s war effort consumed Zelenskyy’s government, its Western backers, and even some of Ukraine’s watchdog organizations.

The problem of systemic graft, however, never fully dissipated. And as the war goes on — and it may go on much, much longer — it is a reputation that Ukraine is very much trying to avoid, especially as it relies on uninterrupted Western aid and as it continues to make the case that it belongs in institutions like the EU and maybe even NATO.

This shake-up sends a message, but Ukraine’s corruption issues are still a challenge

This is not the first major personnel change since the war began, and graft accusations had lingered around the defense department for some time before the departure of Minister Reznikov earlier in September.

Back in January, allegations that the Ministry of Defense had overseen inflated prices for food contracts led to a major personnel shake-up and arrests. In August, Zelenskyy fired the heads of the military recruitment offices over allegations that these officials had taken bribes to enable draft dodgers. Ukrainian media and anti-corruption activists have continued to expose scandals related to the military procurement processes, including a recent investigation from ZN.UA that the Ministry of Defense ordered overpriced jackets for the troops from a company tied to a member of parliament’s nephew.

But the departure of these deputy defense ministers comes as Ukraine is at a bit of a crossroads militarily and diplomatically.

Ukraine is waging its counteroffensive, which is making slow progress. Kyiv has made some key gains in recent days, though the operation is largely still an attritional battle. A breakthrough could still happen, but Ukraine will continue to need sustained military, security, economic, and humanitarian support.

The United States and many of its Western partners have continued to provide, but there are some quiet cracks in that assistance. The US has maintained bipartisan backing from Ukraine, but a very vocal wing of the Republican Party — including some running for president — has questioned that level of aid and investment in Ukraine. Some US Republicans have used examples of past corruption to challenge the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv. European support for Kyiv is very strong, but divisions over things like the transport of Ukrainian grain could also threaten its solidarity. This is why President Zelenskyy is making the rounds at the United Nations — and making an essential pit stop in Congress.

Along the way, Kyiv wants to make it very clear that aid is being allocated effectively, responsibly, and appropriately. It wants to make the case that as countries continue to invest in Ukraine — including putting resources into ramping up production for weapons and artillery — this is also a long-term downpayment on a democratic Ukraine.

This is a case to make to outsiders but also to those within Ukraine. Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, said that across Ukrainian society, support is high to expose corruption, even if it poses a risk of breaking trust with Ukraine’s partners. “People believe in and [are] encouraging the exposing of corruption even during wartime. People have very low tolerance to corruption. People see Ukraine as an EU and NATO member — and this is what we’re fighting for.”

As Kaleniuk pointed out, the Ministry of Defense will oversee the procurement of lethal and nonlethal aid as this war continues, and it needs to be able to make effective and sound decisions. The military operations run through Zelenskyy, so any personnel changes shouldn’t affect the day-to-day operations of the counteroffensive, but ministry responsibilities — like buying food and supplies and equipment — can influence the battle. Those jackets for Ukrainian troops did not just have inflated prices, they were also apparently supposed to be for cold-weather wear, but ended up being lightweight coats, according to Ukrainian media reports.

So yes, Ukraine wants to make it clear that it is stamping out corruption. But there are still a lot of questions about exactly how Ukraine is approaching its anti-corruption campaign. Firing or replacing officials is one thing, but Zelenskyy has proposed making wartime corruption a treasonous offense. This would put more power in Ukraine’s security forces, which some critics and watchdogs fear will diminish the authority of the independent investigative bodies. This could potentially backfire, undermining the rule of law and independent judiciary, and create lasting damage to the institutions that Ukraine (and the West) sought to build up. The president’s office also oversees the security services, which could lead to Zelenskyy consolidating power, with the security services potentially used to shield the president’s allies and tamp down scandals that may be embarrassing for Zelenskyy.

War, no matter who is doing the fighting, tends to be fertile ground for corruption. The chaos of conflict — lots of rapid procurements, an influx of funds, and supplies moving through many hands — increases the potential for graft. Ukraine is no exception, but it faces the additional challenge that corruption permeated its government institutions even before Russia’s invasion.

There’s still a lot unclear from these shake-ups, but it does hint that Ukraine’s corruption problem — and the perception of that corruption problem — still threatens to undermine Kyiv’s war efforts, within Ukraine and without.

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