As corruption costs lives on battlefield, Ukrainians demand change

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As corruption costs lives on battlefield, Ukrainians demand change

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For many Ukrainians, the war they are currently fighting involves two foes. One is Russia. The other is their country’s chronic corruption, which can be deadly. But while war usually grows corruption, Ukraine is making headway against it.

The tourniquets Artem applied to the wounds he suffered could have saved his life. But they were cheap, Chinese-made items and broke on the spot. Fellow soldiers stepped in to replace them, but he died while being evacuated.

“How can we spend millions of hryvnia on roads when our sons are dying on the front line without proper tourniquets?” says Ms. Olyanska. “It’s both corruption and mismanagement. We want the government to know that we do not agree with current procurement dynamics. We want them to get their priorities straight. We are at war now.”

Tolerance for corruption has waned in Ukraine. With so many lives at stake, national and local spending priorities are under the magnifying glass of regular civilians, corruption watchdogs, and investigative journalists. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has tried to address corruption scandals head-on, even if it means firing allies and reshuffling the entire Defense Ministry to appease the public and reassure international partners.

“Society became very intolerant towards any defense-related corruption,” says Olena Trehub, executive director of the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission and member of a public anti-corruption council within the Ministry of Defense. “The Defense Ministry today is the biggest manager of public funds in the country. Their budget increased tenfold due to the war. People of course are much more sensitive to this particular matter.”

Corruption or betrayal?

Combat application tourniquets – the same ones used by the U.S. Army – and drones fill several boxes in a run-down warehouse used as the base of Corporation of Monsters, a charity foundation that helps supply brigades on the front.

“Every day we receive dozens of requests for these items,” says charity founder Kateryna Nozhevnikova. “Every day I hear about a soldier losing his life because he didn’t have four tourniquets like he is supposed to.”

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Ms. Nozhevnikova organized protests outside the Odesa City Council in August and September against a project to renovate the Kyiv District Court to the tune of 106 million hryvnia ($2.9 million) just a few years after it finished another renovation. She was joined by dozens of like-minded citizens who want their tax money directed to benefit Ukrainian troops rather than superfluous projects.

“The government is unable to fulfill even 50% of the demands of the army. At the same time, we see a lot of government spending and procurement on irrelevant things,” Ms. Nozhevnikova says. “When your house is on fire, you buy a fire extinguisher, not curtains for the windows. … Why buy cheap Chinese tourniquets over good quality U.S. ones? It is either high-level corruption or high-level betrayal. It is scary to think that, but such thoughts crawl into your head. They [officials] have years of experience in this.”

This year started with corruption scandals related to war profiteering. One, exposed by the Nashi Groshi (Our Money) investigative website, concerned a military catering deal to deliver food – including eggs sold per piece at three times the usual market price – to units well removed from front-line areas that could have supply line issues. Overpriced generators were another purchase that sparked outrage in a winter marked by darkness due to Russian attacks on energy facilities.

August marked a tipping point. Investigators brought to light the purchases of overpriced winter jackets and multiformat corruption schemes to avoid military conscription. This set the stage for the removal of the entire top brass of the Ministry of Defense, including Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, as well as all the country’s regional recruitment heads. In recent months, despite martial law, anti-corruption protests have been held in many Ukrainian cities.

“The scandals became an activator”

Such upheaval is less than ideal during an active war, but it is a requirement for a country vying for membership in the European Union, as Ukraine is.

Ukraine ranked 116th out of 180 countries in the 2022 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). That is not a score to boast about, but it did mark a 6-point improvement relative to the previous year. And Ukraine stood out among 15 countries that had made the biggest progress.

“Our CPI shows that countries in wartime conditions drop their score. We as Ukraine improved our score,” says Oleksandr Kalitenko, legal adviser at the Kyiv office of Transparency International. “Even in wartime conditions, we have the best score of the last 10 years. And we have seen some positive changes in the public procurement system.”

Mr. Kalitenko is one of several experts to say that the fight against corruption has gained urgency not in spite of the war, but because of it. Positive signs include the adoption of the State Anti-Corruption Program for 2023-25 that includes over 1,000 anti-corruption strategies complete with a timeline and key performance indicators.

Ukraine has five specialized anti-corruption bodies, but their track record is checkered. “Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies have been persistently challenged by the lack of independently selected, permanent leadership,” notes the U.S. State Department. But even here, there is progress. When the war broke out, only two of them had independently selected leaders; now four do.

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In March, Ukraine launched a unified whistleblowing portal. Lawmakers in September agreed to restore asset-declaration obligations that had been lifted due to security considerations after the start of the war. The Ministry of Defense in April announced the creation of a new procurement agency tasked with reforming the systems in place relating to nonlethal purchases.

“The scandals became an activator,” says Yulia Marushevska, head of the Change Support Office at the Ministry of Defense. “The temptation of corruption exists in every sphere. The question is how we can build systems that protect us from corruption as much as possible.” One answer, she says, is digitized payment systems with clear control mechanisms.

Anti-corruption efforts are also underway at the level of institutions and companies. At Ukroboronprom, a state-owned manufacturer of weapons and military hardware, the recruitment process of top management has been overhauled. Candidates are screened by committees of 15 people and asked to take part in a polygraph test designed to flag a history of, or amenability toward, corrupt behavior.

“We ask about 50 questions about corruption,” says a representative of a Ukroboronprom facility who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Examples include: Have you ever been given money in an envelope? Did you ever take bribes? Do you have income other than your official one? Have you ever done anything that resulted in other people receiving bribes?

What they want to avoid is people bribing their way into high-level posts – such as director of a specific plant – and then using that role to steal money or to make deals for overpriced goods in exchange for a kickback. “What we do, we try to change the system to take these risks away, so there will be no such possibilities,” he says. “And so that the appointment of these positions will not rely just on the decision of one person.”

A bigger threat than nukes

The key is leadership, according to Daria Kaleniuk, executive director and co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center nongovernmental organization. “The largest risk to corruption in Ukraine is associated with the failure of President Zelenskyy to build a proper recruitment system for top positions in the government,” she says. “He appoints usually loyal people and not necessarily professional people; sometimes these people are low integrity. That is a big mistake … [because they] are taking very high positions and are in charge of very important, crucial state resources.”

All the dismissals this year suggest that Mr. Zelenskyy read the room. An opinion poll commissioned by Transparency International found that 77% of Ukrainians see corruption as a major concern. Another poll found that Ukrainians see corruption as a high security threat – even higher than the threat of a nuclear strike by Russia.

“The reason is the following: The war reached every family in Ukraine,” says Ms. Kaleniuk. Every family has either a family member or friend fighting in the trenches. Everybody has a relative or friend who was either wounded or killed in action. About half the population faced the need for relocation as a result of the war or had relatives who had to move because of the war.

At the same time, Ukrainians are emptying their pockets to donate to charity foundations and raise funds for specific brigades or units in the army. Ukrainians understand that if a soldier on the front line does not have tactical or medical equipment, she says, a reason for that is the failure of proper, timely procurement.

And Ukrainians pay taxes. When the Ministry of Defense cannot properly arrange the procurement of food for the army, it means money was wasted on overpriced eggs rather than spent on much-needed equipment. All of that is blamed on inefficiency, poor leadership, and corruption.

“We understand that during the wartime, the inefficiency of the Defense Ministry kills people,” she says. “The absolute majority of Ukrainians understand that in order to win, we need to be managed better; our army and our security and defense resources need to be managed better than those of our enemy.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.


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