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The writer is co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center
Ukraine has been resisting unprovoked Russian aggression for more than 500 days. Today the world’s attention is on the progress of its counteroffensive, launched in June. At the same time, there is growing global interest in the internal politics of Ukraine and in the workings of its democracy.
Sometimes this interest is politicised and potentially harmful to the war effort — discussion of corruption in Ukraine could become a bargaining chip when its allies are weighing their future support for the resistance to Russia. And all this comes at a time when we Ukrainians need unconditional military assistance from our American partners and other Nato countries.
Russian propaganda contends that Ukraine is a corrupt state not worth investing political and financial capital in. Yet at this decisive moment in its recent history, one of maximum jeopardy, the country is also managing to make progress in the fight against corruption at home.
Consider some recent developments. A petition launched by a soldier calling on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to allow open access to the asset declarations of government officials attracted more than 80,000 signatures in 24 hours.
Meanwhile investigative journalists, operating under the constraints of martial law, have exposed graft in defence procurement. Defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov was replaced by the president after sharp criticism of his handling of these allegations.
In May, Vsevolod Kniaziev, chief justice of Ukraine’s Supreme Court, was arrested on corruption charges by an independent law enforcement agency — at the same time as Russian troops were targeting civilians, schools and hospitals. Finally, a few days ago the same agency froze the assets of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky as part of an embezzlement investigation.
A poll taken in June shows that nearly 34 per cent of Ukrainians consider government corruption to be a significant security threat in the coming months, against almost 31 per cent who mention the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons. Tolerance of corruption is falling now that it is rightly considered a danger to national security.
The Kremlin has long considered Ukraine’s anti-corruption agencies to be an obstacle to taking over the country from inside — as Russia arguably did with Belarus by penetrating corrupt and authoritarian state security and defence institutions.
It is hardly surprising that President Vladimir Putin cited anti-corruption institutions and judicial reform in his speech on February 21 last year, just ahead of the invasion. Having failed to establish control over the country from the inside, Putin decided to destroy it by military means.
Recent corruption scandals in Ukraine should be seen as a sign that internal checks and balances are functioning well in a society that faces existential challenges. Such episodes should not be regarded as a reason for ceasing to assist Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression.
On the contrary, by exposing and dealing with corruption in wartime, Ukraine shows its gratitude for the financial and military assistance it is receiving from the international community. Government officials who do not show such respect will lose their posts sooner or later under pressure from wider society.
Over the coming months, there will be efforts, backed and sometimes fomented by the Kremlin, to undermine Ukraine’s international reputation and to portray it as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. I fear that we could become a political football in the next American presidential election. But I also believe that most Americans support us in our struggle for fundamental democratic values against the Russian Goliath.