The removal came two weeks after the Ministry of Defense was removed, and Ukraine is struggling to gain global support.
Ukraine is shaking up its Ministry of Defense, dismissal of all six deputy ministersas President Volodymyr Zelenskyy travels to the United Nations and Washington to drum up support and aid.
The purge comes after Zelenskyy replaced Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov earlier this month. It was a highly visible upheaval that came in the midst of an ongoing Kiev counteroffensive and came in the midst of an ongoing allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement in the military.
The Defense Department’s latest layoffs are likely a continuation of this attempt to clean house, though the department did not give a reason for the removal or directly link it to Reznikov’s dismissal. (Reznikov himself was not directly involved in any scandals.) Some shops were poked out that staff changes are not uncommon when a top official leaves; and the new Minister of Defense he probably installed his own team anyway.
Still, these latest shake-ups are likely a message that Ukraine is taking any hint of corruption or mismanagement seriously and wants to signal renewed leadership at the Defense Ministry. The removal also comes at an inauspicious time: Zelenskyy is trying to reassure partners, including in the United Statesthat Kiev responsibly manages billions in military, security and economic aid.
The graft allegations that previously swirled around the Defense Department shakeup did not directly involve the misuse of Western aid and past surveillance found no evidence of abuse. But Ukraine has previously struggled to root out high-level corruption and strengthen the rule of law, despite Zelenskyy promising to do so when he was elected in 2019. Ukraine’s supporters in the United States and Europe exerted pressure on Kiev for almost ten years address these issues, especially as a condition for inviting Ukraine to Western institutions.
Russia’s sweeping offensive last year put some of the corruption fears aside as the urgency of Ukraine’s war effort engulfed Zelensky’s government, its Western backers and even some of them. Ukrainian watchdog organization.
However, the problem of systemic graft never completely disappeared. And as the war continues—and may go on for much, much longer—it’s a reputation Ukraine is trying hard to avoid, especially as it relies on continued Western aid and still claims to belong to institutions like the EU and possibly NATO.
This shake-up sends a message, but Ukraine’s corruption problems are still a challenge
This is not the first major personnel change since the start of the war, and before Minister Reznikov’s departure in early September, allegations of graft surrounded the Defense Ministry.
As recently as January, allegations that the Defense Department oversaw inflated prices on food contracts led to a major personnel shakeup and arrests. In August, Zelenskyy fired the heads of military recruitment offices over allegations that the officials took bribes for enabling fraudsters. Ukrainian media and anti-corruption activists continue to expose scandals related to military procurement processes, including a recent investigation from ZN.UA that the Ministry of Defense ordered overpriced jackets for soldiers from a company linked to the MP’s nephew.
However, the departure of these deputy defense ministers comes at a time when Ukraine is at a bit of a crossroads militarily and diplomatically.
Ukraine is leading its counter-offensive, which is progressing slowly. Kyiv did some key gains in recent days, although the operation is largely still a struggle of attrition. There may still be a breakthrough, but Ukraine will continue to need sustained military, security, economic and humanitarian support.
The United States and many of its Western partners have continued to provide aid, but some silent cracks are emerging in that aid. The US maintained bipartisan support for Ukraine, but a very vocal wing of the Republican Party— including some presidential candidates — questioned this level of aid and investment in Ukraine. Some American Republicans have used examples of corruption in the past challenge the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv. European support for Kyiv is very strongbut the division into things like transportation of Ukrainian grain it can also threaten its solidarity. That’s the reason why President Zelenskyy goes around the UN — and making a major pit stop in Congress.
At the same time, Kyiv wants to make it very clear that aid is allocated efficiently, responsibly and adequately. He wants to prove that countries will continue to invest in Ukraine – including pouring resources increasing the production of weapons and artillery — this is also a long-term advance on a democratic Ukraine.
This is a case that needs to be presented to foreigners, but also to those in Ukraine. Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, said that across Ukrainian society, support for exposing corruption is high, even if it risks eroding trust with Ukrainian partners. “People believe in and support exposing corruption even during war. People have a very low tolerance for corruption. People see Ukraine as a member of the EU and NATO – and we are fighting for that.
As Kaleniuk emphasized, the Department of Defense will oversee the procurement of lethal and non-lethal aid throughout this war and must be able to make effective and sound decisions. Military operations are conducted through Zelenskyi, so any personnel changes should not affect the day-to-day operations of the counteroffensive, but the ministry’s responsibilities – such as purchasing food, supplies and equipment – may affect the battle. Those jackets for Ukrainian soldiers were not only overpriced, but apparently they were meant to be worn in cold weather, but in the end they were light coats, according to Ukrainian media reports.
So yes, Ukraine wants to make it clear that it is cracking down on corruption. But there are still plenty of questions about exactly how Ukraine is approaching its anti-corruption campaign. Dismissing or replacing officials is one thing, but Zelenskyy proposed making wartime corruption a treasonous act. That would give more power to Ukraine’s security forces, which some critics and watchdogs fear will reduce the authority of independent investigative bodies. This could potentially backfire, undermining the rule of law and an independent judiciary and creating a permanent damage to institutions which Ukraine (and the West) tried to build. The presidential office also oversees the security services, which could lead to Zelenskyi consolidating power, with the security services being used to protect the president’s allies and suppress scandals that might be embarrassing for Zelenskyi.
War, regardless of who is fighting, tends to be fertile ground for corruption. The chaos of conflict—lots of quick deals, an influx of funds and supplies moving through many hands—increases the potential for fission. Ukraine is no exception, but faces the additional challenge that corruption permeated its government institutions even before the Russian invasion.
Much remains unclear from these upheavals, but they indicate that Ukraine’s corruption problem — and the perception of that corruption problem — still threatens to undermine Kiev’s war effort, both inside and outside Ukraine.