War Can Both Help and Hurt Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Efforts
Since the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014, Ukraine has made substantial progress against corruption, in my view. With the help of international donors and non-government groups, Ukrainian authorities have established anti-corruption infrastructure, adopted crucial legislation and taken measures to ensure transparency in public procurement and politicians’ asset ownership. Nonetheless, significant room for improvement clearly remains: In Transparency International’s annual corruption index, for instance, Ukraine has moved up 20 spots since 2014, but remains in the bottom third of countries—from 142nd of 175 in 2014 to 122nd of 180 in 2021. Given the strong public support President Zelensky and his team enjoy post-March 2022 and the need to plan for the country’s reconstruction in a transparent and accountable institutional setting, Ukraine may now have a historic chance to break out of a vicious circle of corruption.
With billions of dollars in Western aid pouring into Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February, corruption there has raised new questions, spurring Western analysts to convene working groups and float proposals to build anti-corruption measures into reconstruction efforts. Concerns over potential corruption have prompted some Republican legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives to call for greater oversight of America’s aid to Ukraine and caused the EU leadership to tie the bloc’s new 18 billion euro aid package to progress in fighting graft and fraud. In addition, the U.S. and some of its allies have been working to prevent the smuggling of weapons supplied to Ukraine. U.S. authorities were reportedly racing to stop such smuggling, but so far, monitors have inspected only 10% of so-called high-risk weapons requiring special oversight, such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles and Javelin antitank missiles, as of this month.
Thus far, two opposing hypotheses have emerged about corruption trends in wartime Ukraine: One posits that the war has stoked corruption by reducing transparency and oversight while opening new doors for illicit activities like bribery and smuggling; the other contends that corruption has declined thanks to patriotic fervor and fears of undermining the war effort, as well as shrunken coffers and government efforts. For now, the evidence has been mixed, hard to gather and full of conflicting accounts that are often difficult to verify. Whichever assessment turns out to be closer to the truth, two things are clear: first, that, for now, unusually high public trust in the government (e.g., 94% of Ukrainians strongly approve or somewhat approve of Zelensky’s performance)gives Kyiv a chance to implement far-reaching reforms; and second, that oversight of reconstruction funds will pose a major challenge.
Hypothesis 1: Corruption Has Grown During the War
In this scenario, the main drivers behind increased corruption in Ukraine include emergency legislation that has reduced transparency, weaker oversight more generally and new opportunities for corruption born of the war.
A study I published this month with the U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute found that the war has given a boost to illicit markets for various goods and services, creating new opportunities for rent-seeking. Smugglers, for example, are guaranteed higher profit margins for supplying sought-after goods amid wartime shortages or taking military-aged men out of Ukraine. This also means new opportunities for bribery among border police and customs officials. Since the start of the war, there have been 280 documented attempts to bribe border guards—likely only a small fraction of a much larger problem, since most corruption cases go unreported and undetected.
Decreased oversight has also raised the risk of corruption. Martial law has damaged transparency and accountability mechanisms in various sectors—for example, by suspending competitive bidding for public procurement contracts and background checks on public-sector appointments. Meanwhile, combat and official emergency measures have created barriers for the monitoring of corruption by civil society and journalists. (The lack of journalistic reporting on corruption also stems in part from self-censorship and concerns that corruption allegations, especially when unproven, can harm Ukraine's war effort, whether by undermining Western aid or providing ammunition for the enemy.)
Moreover, there have been reports that political actors charged with corruption before the invasion are using the war as a legitimation tool and an opportunity to increase their political capital. Their alleged transformation into brave defenders of the nation can be traded for impunity or a greater share in the pie of corruption.
State capture in Ukraine by criminal and corrupt interests is an ingrained problem that still needs to be tackled. State-embedded groups were important players in regional smuggling and trafficking before the war, blurring the boundaries between corruption and organized crime, and these networks will not turn into law-abiding actors overnight.
Hypothesis 2: Corruption Has Decreased During the War
According to this hypothesis, wartime in Ukraine has seen a decline in corruption largely because of patriotism, rally-around-the-flag sentiment and a sense that corruption may undermine the war effort.
Additionally, opportunities for graft of public funds have shrunk both as the war has slashed revenues to the state budget, now suffering a multibillion dollar deficit, and, ostensibly, as the Zelensky government has been trying to clean house. Since the start of the invasion, new anti-corruption laws have been adopted and well-known anti-corruption activists have been appointed to the High Council of Justice. The administration has also shown a willingness to weed out corrupt officials. The prosecutor general was fired for inaction on corruption cases. In April, 125 senior customs officials were sacked for complacency and complicity with smuggling. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Security Service have successfully investigated several major cases, most recently uncovering a nationwide network of State Emergency Service officials making hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit profit by turning a blind eye to mandatory checks and inspections. Yet in another case, Ukraine’s ex-central bank chief was declared a wanted man in an embezzlement case.
While all these cases highlight the elevated risk of illicit profiteering in the fog of war, they also suggest that corruption might be less tolerated in this existential moment for the country. Patriotism and determination to prevail in an unjust war may also account for Russia’s current lack of success in using “strategic corruption,” which was deployed against Ukraine before with much greater effect. And martial law—adverse impacts on accountability notwithstanding—also promises strict punishment for certain types of corruption, such as illicit diversion of arms. This partly explains why there have been no major confirmed cases of illegal sales of heavy weaponry supplied by the West—although, as an inevitable consequence of any major war, small arms trafficking is already a reality.
Importantly, with the war, the balance of power has shifted against those who would obstruct reform. Anti-oligarchic legislation has started bearing fruit, with major actors giving up their media holdings in favor of the state and others disengaging from politics. Oligarchs still maintain major influence via sectoral monopolies (energy, transport, etc.), but their capacity to undermine reform has been weakened amid the massive public support enjoyed by President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team. According to surveys by political scientist Marc Berenson and the Razumkov Center, the share of Ukrainians who say they would “trust the government to do what is right” has grown from 9% in 2020 to 54% in 2022.1 This public trust can be successfully leveraged to implement sweeping anti-corruption reforms. Ukraine’s anti-corruption success would be an important showcase of Western-backed transformation and a model of cleaner governance in the Eurasian region, primarily for Russia.
The major challenge, though, will be to provide transparency and oversight for post-war reconstruction funds. As corruption scholar Alina Mingiu-Pippidi has argued, in Ukraine, transparency is great but accountability is missing. The existing anti-corruption institutions need to be strengthened, provided with permanent leadership and the necessary tools to monitor the risks of embezzlement in government, as well as theft of resources by the private oligopolies of post-war Ukraine. There are positive signs that the country’s leadership may be committed to strengthening anti-corruption infrastructure and that international donors may adopt anti-corruption measures as a conditionality mechanism to incentivize even greater reform.
- Marc P. Berenson, “Taxes and Trust: From Coercion to Compliance in Poland, Russia and Ukraine” (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Marc P. Berenson and Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, “Trust, Governance and Citizenship in Wartime Ukraine” public opinion survey, August 2022 (not yet published).
Alexander Kupatadze is a senior lecturer at King's Russia Institute at King's College London.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by President.gov.ua shared under a Creative Commons license.