A war on two fronts

Recent corruption scandals are being used as arguments against further Western military aid for Ukraine

A war on two fronts

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a visit to Riga, Latvia on January 11. Photo: EPA-EFE/TOMS KALNINS

A scandal has engulfed the Ukrainian Defence Ministry, where 100,000 mortar shells worth about €37 million were paid for but never delivered. But within days of this story emerging, Ukraine achieved its best-ever ranking in the annual corruption perceptions index compiled by Transparency International (TI).

The improved standing in the TI index demonstrates that efforts by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to crack down on corruption — including in his inner circle — have led to some improvements. On the other hand, the ammunition scandal is a clear indication of how pervasive and normalised corruption has become when senior defence officials and managers of an arms supplier collude to deprive their country of vital military supplies at a time when it faces an existential crisis.

Corruption has long been a problem in Ukraine. But over the past 10 years, since annual corruption perceptions scores have been collated, the country has steadily improved. Yet, with the exception of Russia and Azerbaijan, no other European country is perceived as more corrupt than Ukraine.

Despite this endemic corruption, Ukraine has survived two years of bitter conflict, and has shown remarkable resilience in the face of Russian aggression. But these high-profile scandals — and the general perception that Ukraine still battles everyday corruption — have become more existential threats at a time when Ukraine’s survival has, to a large extent, become dependent on the continued supply of Western military and financial aid.

Sceptics in the EU — above all Hungary and Slovakia, but also influential right-wing populists currently in opposition like Germany’s AfD — have used the undeniable corruption in Ukraine as an argument against providing further aid. Similarly, in the United States, Republicans have argued that a lack of oversight could mean that US aid is diverted to line the pockets of corrupt officials.

As this debate becomes more heated and increasingly entangled with election campaigns for the European parliament and the US presidency, any alleged evidence of the misuse of funds makes it harder for Kyiv’s international supporters to win the argument for continued support. Moreover, it becomes less attractive to even make the argument.

This is likely to feed further into the sense of defeatism that has surrounded public debates on Ukraine since Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield in 2023 failed to live up to either Kyiv’s aspirations or the West’s expectations.

Zelensky’s vulnerabilities

Beyond the precariousness of continued western support, Zelensky has also become more vulnerable domestically. Repeated high-profile corruption scandals have undermined one of his key election promises back in 2019 that he would root out graft.

While the Ukrainian president has strengthened anti-corruption agencies and been open about the problems Ukraine continues to face, his continued crackdown can now also be framed as politically motivated by his domestic detractors. This will only serve to deepen and entrench political divides in Ukraine. And that’s the last thing Zelensky needs at a time when there is already a highly divisive debate over war strategy and when disagreements between the country’s political and military leaderships have become increasingly public.

On that front, it still remains unclear whether Zelensky will replace his commander-in-chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, as has been widely reported, or if he lacks the political capital to do so. The Ukrainian president is said to have offered Zaluzhnyi a new role as a defence adviser, which the military chief is understood to have refused. Relations between the two have soured in recent months, partly as a result of the failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive to score any significant battlefield successes.

In November, the president castigated his top general for publicly saying that the war was in a “stalemate”. There has also been speculation that Zaluzhnyi might enter politics and stand against Zelensky for the presidency. A poll in December found that while 62% of Ukrainians said they trusted Zelensky, 88% said they trusted Zaluzhnyi.

Taken together, the corruption scandal and the reported rift at the top of Ukraine’s power structure will do nothing to restore or sustain Western confidence in Ukraine having a credible pathway to avoiding defeat, let alone to achieving victory. Without such confidence, more aid looks increasingly doubtful.

Without real headway being made in the fight against corruption, the broadly pro-Western and pro-European constituency from which Zelensky draws most of his support is also likely to weaken. A European future will look less attractive to people who see western support as simply propping up a corrupt elite.

And even if, as is likely, support for European and transatlantic integration will remain high, Zelensky may no longer be seen as its only or most likely champion.

Corruption, therefore, remains central to Ukraine’s existential crisis. It is not the only problem that the country faces, and objectively it may not even be the biggest one. What makes it so critical for Ukraine to fight corruption more effectively, and to be seen to do so, is that corruption and the perception of corruption exacerbates other problems and undermines critical domestic and international support.

On its own, corruption is unlikely to break Ukraine. But in the midst of a war, it may be the final straw that breaks the country because of the knock-on effects at home and abroad.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of Novaya Gazeta Europe.

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