View from London: Ukrainian corruption is a System

10:35 07.10.2023 •

Head of Ukraine's Supreme Court (photo) detained with stacks of cash piled on sofa.
Photo: Reuters

Ukrainian corruption is systemic: it is not people; it is a system. Moreover, this system was built into all aspects of society, including the judiciary, defense, law enforcement, banking, health care, and, of course, the economy, and perpetuates itself, writes from London Alexander Markovsky, a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, a think tank that examines national security, energy, risk analysis, and other public policy issues.

So, what went wrong in Ukraine? To understand the present, we have to look at Ukraine’s past. Created on the land of the former Russian Empire in 1919 and governed by Moscow until its independence in 1991, it found itself without adult supervision. Its leaders’ understanding of geopolitics, management of risk, and the ability to formulate short and long-term national interests and make meaningful economic and political choices proved beyond their experience and analytical skills.

Ukraine inherited one of the world's largest agricultural and industrial bases from the Soviet Union. Ukraine manufactured tractors, airplanes, ships, locomotives, turbines for hydropower plants, electrical motors and transformers, and a huge assortment of consumer goods. It also manufactured a variety of military hardware, including tanks, missiles, and jet fighters. Its steel mills produced millions of tons of steel, and its coal mines were a major supplier for the Soviet Union’s steel mills and power plants. Having a well-educated population, Ukraine could have become one of Europe's economic powers. Regrettably, inept Ukrainian leaders have plundered most of the Soviet inheritance into disrepair while the ravages of war further erode what remains of this once-thriving legacy.

In April 2019, Ukraine was brimming with optimism as it elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a candidate who promised peace, an end to government corruption, and economic prosperity.

When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, its national debt was $0.4 billion; in 2018, before Zelensky was inaugurated, it was $76 billion, and by 2023, it had reached $120 billion and kept growing. The country survives on international assistance, and people who four years ago promised “Вільна та незалежна Україна” (‘Free and independent Ukraine’) proved to be liars and hypocrites.

Zelensky understood that corruption was the cancer eating at Ukraine's core, and after his inauguration, he moved swiftly to replace corrupt bureaucrats and enact anti-corruption legislation.

What he did not understand was that Ukrainian corruption is systemic: it is not people; it is a system. Moreover, this system was built into all aspects of society, including the judiciary, defense, law enforcement, banking, health care, and, of course, the economy, and perpetuates itself.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter how many officials are replaced and how many new anticorruption agencies are created. New appointees immediately begin filling their pockets, and new agencies add more layers of corruption.

As Zelensky grappled with the formidable challenge of rooting out corruption, he realized that it requires more than election oratory but governance skills, subtly, and political ruthlessness. Hence, he did not just accept the system; he did the unthinkable. He ushered Ukraine into a new corruption era by replacing its raison d'état – calculable principles of national interests – with calculable principles of personal interest. As they say in Ukraine, if you live with wolves, you should howl like a wolf.

Nowadays, every government decision, whether it is the economy, social programs, or foreign affairs (including the issues of war and peace), is guided by consideration of corruption.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine got its borders within which it achieved independence, and millions of Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians were trapped in a newly created country exposing ethnic incompatibilities. Zelensky had the opportunity to pursue a conciliatory approach, offering limited autonomy for the belligerent East that it demanded from the outset, avoiding a bloody conflict altogether. Instead, he decided to continue the policy of his predecessor, resolving ethnic conflicts by force. The reason for the continuation of combat was primarily financial.

Depicting Ukraine as ‘a victim of Russian aggression,’ Zelensky, just like his predecessor, claimed that Ukraine was about to be defeated by a superior force and traveled the world to raise military and economic aid. For Zelensky and his cronies, war and corruption are inseparable.

It was, therefore, inevitable that the quest for cash would drive Zelensky & Co. into war with Russia. Inevitably, before leading his country into a disastrous and ultimately self-destructive war, Zelensky must have known that his country was expendable in the geopolitical struggle between the US/ NATO and Russia.

He could have avoided military conflict by forgoing NATO membership. Instead, prior to the Russian military operation, Zelensky worked hard to ensure that no third party would step in to prevent the impending calamity.

For him ‘the invasion’ was not a threat – it was an opportunity!

According to Zelensky’s logic, since Ukraine defends Europe from ‘Russian imperialism,’ Europe has to pay for it. Never mind that, at the same time, he wants Ukraine to become a member of NATO so that NATO would protect Ukraine.

The virtuosity of his strategy is that while Ukraine burns in death and destruction, the conflict has led to an unlimited influx of funds that line the pockets of Zelensky and the political and military elites.

In the annals of history, it would be difficult to name another case when a nation's elected leader has frittered away so much political capital, betrayed the people's trust, and traded his dazzling ambition for personal enrichment, Alexander Markovsky stresses.


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