Prominent Ukrainian anti-corruption campaigners say they have seen no signs that their armed forces are misusing Western military supplies in the three months since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a country long perceived as among the world’s most corrupt.
The head of the Ukrainian government’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), Oleksandr Novikov, told VOA in a May 17 interview that his counterparts at the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), a sister agency, had not opened any new investigations into high level corruption in the Ukrainian military since the full-scale Russian invasion started on February 24.
Novikov’s NACP, one of Ukraine’s three main official anti-corruption bodies, develops regulations aimed at preventing corruption and seeks to ensure compliance. NABU investigates corruption and prepares cases for prosecution, while the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO) charges and prosecutes suspects.
Novikov appointed NABU’s last chief, Artem Sytnyk, as his deputy earlier this month. Asked if there have been any recent government investigations of high-level corruption in the military, Novikov said, “I know NABU did not have any new cases since February 24.”
Asked for a comment, NABU emailed VOA to say that its acting director, Gizo Uglava, who replaced Sytnyk last month, could not discuss the matter “due to its sensitivity.”
Novikov said each delivery of Western military aid is monitored by a separate intelligence officer of the Security Service of Ukraine. He said the SSU monitoring is part of Kyiv’s “rigorous process that guarantees the integrity” of those supplies.
Ukraine’s handling of the Western military aid is under increasing scrutiny in the U.S., which last week approved sending more weapons and equipment to Kyiv after supplying several billion dollars’ worth of security assistance in recent months to help it repel the Russian invaders.
Corruption had been rampant in the Ukrainian defense industry until 2014, leaving the military unable to function effectively that year as Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and helped pro-Russian separatists seize parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
U.S. Ambassador Kurt Volker, who served as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017 to 2019, told VOA there was an improvement after 2014 as the U.S., Canada and other nations advised Kyiv in fighting corruption within its defense establishment.
But Ukraine still had much work to do to improve its global reputation prior to February 24. It ranked a lowly 122 out of 180 countries in the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, a Berlin-based research group whose annual corruption rankings are among the world’s most influential. Ukraine’s CPI ranking had been even lower at 144 in 2013.
In an article published last month, CNN cited U.S. defense officials and analysts as saying the lack of U.S. military personnel inside Ukraine means Washington has few ways to track how Kyiv uses Western military supplies, which they fear could be trafficked in the long run.
There are no indications of Western military supplies in Ukraine being diverted in recent months, according to a former U.S. official involved in training and equipping Ukraine’s armed forces after 2014. The source spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.
The executive director of Transparency International’s Ukraine branch, Andrii Borovyk, told VOA that he also has not seen any concrete reports of recent corruption in the Ukrainian military.
His group had appealed to Ukrainians in an April 29 statement to report such activity to relevant authorities.
Speaking via Zoom on May 18, Borovyk said one reason for the lack of corruption reporting is Ukraine’s martial law, under which the government has stopped publishing details about what it is buying and for what prices. “I’m not saying there is no corruption. In this uncertain situation, I’m sure there are people who want to profit from government procurement processes,” he said.
The SSU reported on May 19 that it busted a scheme by local officials to illegally sell more than 1,000 bulletproof vests that had been produced by a Ukrainian company for provision to Ukrainian security personnel at no cost. The SSU said the vests were worth $407,000.
The rarity of such public reporting about military-related corruption, Borovyk said, also reflects a shift in priorities for Ukraine’s independent and governmental anti-corruption campaigners.
“We all work only toward one aim, which is for a victory against Russia,” Borovyk said. “If we will not have a country, where are we going to fight corruption? We want to build up the rule of law here in Ukraine.”
Yuri Nikolov, another Ukrainian anti-corruption researcher who co-founded independent group Nashi Groshi (Our Money), told VOA in a May 19 interview that he believes Russia’s full-scale invasion has effectively forced corrupt actors in the Ukrainian military to stop illicit behavior.
“That [Western] military hardware is the only thing that will protect our lives,” Nikolov said. “That’s why we are not interested in stealing it. It is more needed in the battlefields.”
Volker, now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said theft of Western military supplies under such circumstances would be viewed by many Ukrainians as treason, a much more serious offense than the petty or systemic corruption that existed before.
The assertion that wartime pressures have stamped out military corruption in Ukraine is viewed skeptically by former U.S. diplomat James Wasserstrom, who served as an anticorruption advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and led a U.S. government oversight team that reported on corruption in Afghanistan.
Wasserstrom later worked in Ukraine from 2016 to 2019 as an international expert for an independent committee monitoring defense sector corruption. That committee evolved into Ukraine’s Independent Anti-Corruption Commission, known by its Ukrainian acronym NAKO, and is a partner organization of Transparency International.
Speaking to VOA on May 18, Wasserstrom was unimpressed by NACP chief Novikov’s assertion that SSU intelligence agents were safeguarding Western military supplies. He noted a 2017 NAKO study citing Ukrainian media accusations that Ukrainian security service personnel were involved in illegal trading of goods between government-controlled territory and regions run by pro-Russian separatists.
“I've heard nothing that would indicate any change in SSU behavior in the last three years,” Wasserstrom said, adding that assigning the agency to monitor Western military aid is “like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.”
Wasserstrom also was skeptical about independent campaigner Borovyk’s assertion that Ukraine’s anti-corruption organizations have been so pre-occupied with helping their armed forces to fight Russian invaders that investigating corruption within those Ukrainian forces is not a priority. He noted that his former investigative committee had worked in Kyiv while the Ukrainian military was fighting pro-Russian separatists in the east.
“Just because you're fighting a war does not mean that you have to tolerate corruption. You don't need to. It's a false choice,” he said.
Wasserstrom said he believes the lack of public reporting about corruption in Ukraine’s military is a result of many Ukrainians feeling that speaking out about corrupt activity would be as treasonous to their nation’s war effort as engaging in the activity itself. “So I'd be shocked if you found anybody who would admit to any of this,” he said.
Borovyk said whoever may have engaged in corruption in the past three months will be investigated eventually. “These people should understand that when we get the victory against Russia, we will find all of them.”
He also vowed that his group will keep pressing the Ukrainian government for stronger reforms, including the appointment of a credible new leader for the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office. “Regarding those who are against these reforms or are trying to slow them down, how else can I describe them as internal enemies,” he said.