The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Zelensky takes on Ukraine’s top internal enemy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 21, 2022. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)
6 min

Ukraine is widely assumed to be preparing a spring offensive to take back lost territory from Russian invaders. In the meantime, President Volodymyr Zelensky has already launched another offensive of great importance to the country’s future. He is battling what Andrii Borovyk, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, described to me, in a telephone interview from Kyiv, as “our internal enemy number one: corruption.”

The enemy might be internal, but the issue has serious implications for Ukraine’s international relations. In the United States, for example, Republican critics of Ukraine often cite corruption as a reason not to give Kyiv a “blank check.” Ukrainian leaders realize they are almost totally dependent on foreign aid and are keenly aware of the damage that any scandal could do to their country’s future.

In recent weeks, the Zelensky government has taken action against a number of senior officials who were accused of wrongdoing. Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov was fired and arrested after a Ukrainian news site reported that the armed forces were paying double and triple the market prices for foods such as eggs and potatoes. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov’s job was also in jeopardy from the scandal — he was accused of lax management, rather than corruption — although he seems to have survived for now.

A deputy infrastructure minister, Vasyl Lozynsky, was fired and put under house arrest after prosecutors claimed he had taken a $400,000 bribe in connection with the purchase of electrical generators that Ukraine desperately needs to recover from Russian attacks on its electrical infrastructure.

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Even more significant — because it hit closer to home — was the forced resignation of Zelensky’s own deputy chief of staff, Kyrylo Tymoshenko. He was reported to have commandeered an SUV that had been donated by General Motors for humanitarian purposes for his personal use, and he had been spotted driving a new Porsche, costing about $100,000, which belonged to a prominent businessman. Several regional governors close to Tymoshenko, who oversaw regional policy, were also sacked.

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Perhaps the most significant move of all was the raid that Ukrainian security forces conducted on Feb. 1 at the home of billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Zelensky’s most influential backers and the owner of the television network that made Zelensky a star by airing his comedy series, “Servant of the People.” A former regional governor, Kolomoisky had been placed under U.S. sanctions in 2021 because of his alleged involvement in “significant corruption,” but he had been considered untouchable in Ukraine — until now. It remains unclear, however, whether he will be charged with any crimes.

Corruption remains a serious problem in Ukraine, but Transparency International reports that real progress has been made in recent years. Ukraine is still assessed as more corrupt than neighbors such as Poland and Romania, but it is considerably less corrupt than Russia — whose badly led and badly equipped army is paying the price for so much high-level peculation. Surveys show that the number of Ukrainians who reported paying a bribe in the previous year fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2021.

Borovyk told me that progress has continued since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022; Ukraine is one of the few countries in the world to improve its corruption score in the past year. He marveled that even in the first few months of the war — when Kyiv was in danger of falling — the anti-corruption courts continued to function in the capital. “Even for me, it sounds weird,” Borovyk acknowledged. “I was in Kyiv all the time, and I remembered what it was like, but they continued working.”

Ironically, Ukrainian attempts to root out corruption only serve to elevate the issue in the West and provide further fodder for Republican critics of U.S. aid to Ukraine. In fact, U.S. and European officials say they have found no evidence of any foreign aid being siphoned off in Ukraine, but the United States does have painful experience in the recent past with how U.S. aid for an embattled ally can be misused.

In Afghanistan, as Sarah Chayes detailed in her book “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” pervasive corruption fueled by U.S. spending helped to undermine popular support for the Kabul regime. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself in Ukraine, and so far it isn’t.

In Afghanistan, corruption was a product of tribalism. In Ukraine, it is a legacy of the old Soviet system. In most of the former Soviet republics, the end of communism created a new class of oligarchs who became fabulously wealthy by appropriating state assets and utilizing the power of the state against their rivals. Russian President Vladimir Putin has fueled corruption by spreading around vast numbers of rubles to buy influence in Kyiv, among many other places.

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The fight against graft in Ukraine began in earnest in 2014 after the Revolution of Dignity toppled a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian parliament established corruption-fighting institutions — the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the High Anti-Corruption Court — with help from Western governments. By one count, Ukraine has passed 127 laws against corruption since 2015.

“Ukraine has the most intrusive asset-declaration policy in the world,” William B. Taylor Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me. “Government officials must list assets — cars, apartments, watches, cash — owned by them or members of their families. And the declarations are available online for aggressive journalists to compare to the officials’ salaries.”

Of course, it’s one thing to have institutions in place to fight corruption; it’s another thing to utilize them. John Herbst, another former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me that “there were serious steps taken against corruption” in the first year of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency (2014-2015) and the first year of Zelensky’s presidency (2019-2020). Then, in both cases, the anti-corruption fight lagged behind other priorities, and there was a return to business as usual.

Now, Zelensky seems to be making the battle against graft a priority once again. He is aided by a free press and civil society organizations that uncover official wrongdoing in ways that would never be permitted in Russia. There is less tolerance now for officials lining their own pockets when Ukraine is fighting for its very survival and tens of thousands of Ukrainians have given their lives for the country.

Ultimately, Herbst told me, the “big blow against corruption” will be struck only if Ukraine wins the war and makes real progress toward European Union membership. The lure of joining the E.U. made it possible to overcome entrenched interests and clean up corruption in other Eastern European states that were once under Moscow’s thumb, and it will be no different in Ukraine. But in the meantime, Zelensky is showing that he is serious about preventing corruption from undermining the Ukrainian war effort.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.