The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A shakeup in Ukraine masks deeper problems

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers remarks to European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday. (Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

The procurement of eggs and pickles for Ukrainian soldiers defending their country amid the carnage of Russia’s invasion is not the gravest problem confronting President Volodymyr Zelensky. Still, recent reports that officials in his government were profiteering from wildly inflated prices for those goods were a useful reminder — for the Ukrainian leader and public alike — that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions are not the only peril facing their country. Another is the threat posed by scandal or misuse of funds, particularly involving the billions of dollars of Western aid that have enabled Ukraine to defend itself, to what has been solid U.S. and European support of Kyiv.

The corruption scandal that broke at the end of January has burgeoned, with 10 high-level officials having been fired or forced to resign, including the president’s deputy chief of staff. Separately, the authorities raided the property of a media mogul who was a key backer of Mr. Zelensky’s 2019 presidential campaign.

Not all the alleged malfeasance is related to the original news that a deputy defense minister was implicated in the scheme to overpay for food to feed the troops. Other reports implicated a senior official in the presidential office who had been using an SUV — donated by General Motors to help evacuate Ukrainian civilians — and a deputy prosecutor who borrowed a Mercedes-Benz from a wealthy businessman to take his family on vacation in Spain. Both lost their jobs, and the government banned officials from leaving the country except for business trips under the martial law that has been in place since the start of the war.

There has been no suggestion that Western military assistance to Ukraine has been diverted or misappropriated. But Mr. Zelensky is shrewd not to ignore graft, sweetheart deals and the vestiges of oligarch capitalism that were a stain on the country’s reputation long before Moscow launched its full-scale invasion a year ago. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, for 2022, Transparency International ranked Ukraine No. 116 among 180 countries — an improvement over the previous year but still second-worst in Eastern Europe, behind only Russia. On Capitol Hill, where some Republicans in Congress have threatened to challenge aid for Ukraine, Kyiv should expect lawmakers to demand accountability for the funds flowing from Washington.

Skip to end of carousel
  • D.C. Council reverses itself on school resource officers. Good.
  • Virginia makes a mistake by pulling out of an election fraud detection group.
  • Vietnam sentences another democracy activist.
  • Biden has a new border plan.
The D.C. Council voted on Tuesday to stop pulling police officers out of schools, a big win for student safety. Parents and principals overwhelmingly support keeping school resource officers around because they help de-escalate violent situations. D.C. joins a growing number of jurisdictions, from Montgomery County, Md., to Denver, in reversing course after withdrawing officers from school grounds following George Floyd’s murder. Read our recent editorial on why D.C. needs SROs.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) just withdrew Virginia from a data-sharing consortium, ERIC, that made the commonwealth’s elections more secure, following Republicans in seven other states in falling prey to disinformation peddled by election deniers. Former GOP governor Robert F. McDonnell made Virginia a founding member of ERIC in 2012, and until recently conservatives touted the group as a tool to combat voter fraud. D.C. and Maryland plan to remain. Read our recent editorial on ERIC.
In Vietnam, a one-party state, democracy activist Tran Van Bang was sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison and three years probation for writing 39 Facebook posts. The court claimed he had defamed the state in his writings, according to Radio Free Asia. In the past six years, at least 60 bloggers and activists have been sentenced to between 4 and 15 years in prison under the law, Human Rights Watch found. Read more of the Editorial Board’s coverage on autocracy and Vietnam.
The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system.


End of carousel

By most accounts, the economic distortions and drain on Ukraine’s resources — caused by billionaire oligarchs who control television stations, industry and much else — have been tamped down. That has occurred partly because of the war itself, as Russian attacks over the past year have leveled swaths of Ukraine’s industrial base. It was also given a push by a law limiting oligarchs’ political influence, passed in 2021 in partial fulfillment of Mr. Zelensky’s campaign promise to root out corruption and influence-peddling.

That’s a step in the right direction, not least in furtherance of Ukraine’s hopes for eventual membership in the European Union, for which it became an official candidate last year. But even if the war were to end soon, which is unlikely, Kyiv would face a lengthy reform agenda before it could join the E.U. — in which it would be by far the poorest member state — and become as fully European as most Ukrainians want the country to be.

Ukraine has made some improvements in terms of transparency, especially in tracking and accounting for foreign economic and military assistance. The country also has developed a vibrant civil society, the skein of citizen-run, nongovernmental organizations and associations that infuse a healthy democracy with pluralism, participation and political vigor. However, it has mostly failed to establish a system that guarantees the rule of law, a key shortcoming in surmounting its Soviet legacy.

Central to that problem is the ongoing resistance to judicial reform among Ukrainian judges, who have been repeatedly cited by Western experts as corrupt, overtly political and, too often, in thrall to Russia. Last fall, Ukraine’s Supreme Court fired the senior judge on its Commercial Court of Cassation, the country’s top court for economic and property disputes, after it was revealed he held Russian as well as Ukrainian citizenship. Judges are not allowed dual citizenship under Ukrainian law.

Skip to end of carousel
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


End of carousel

A major international conference of donor countries devoted to helping Ukraine last summer concluded with a statement urging that the rule of law in the country be “systematically strengthened.” A raft of reforms has been proposed by outside experts, including vetting judicial nominees for competence, integrity and political independence.

Mr. Zelensky has been an advocate for judicial reform, but he lacks the power on his own to implement it. The push, if one is to materialize, will have to come from Ukraine’s Western allies, whose influence is enormous — but who might be reluctant to divert attention from the overarching international priority to help Ukraine fight the war.

It might be the case that a country struggling for its survival is poorly positioned, and too distracted, to carry out systemic reforms. But Ukraine’s day of reckoning cannot be delayed indefinitely. Kyiv’s own aspirations depend on establishing the rule of law. It has work to do.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).