Weaponizing Corruption: How Longstanding Issues Complicate U.S.-Ukraine Relations

Corruption has been a longstanding theme in independent Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. Since 2014, the government has slowly addressed these systemic issues, but questions about corruption and graft have persisted. In 2019, President Zelenskyy ran on an anti-corruption platform and implemented significant reforms. Still, he has not had a spotless record: he left the position of anti-corruption prosecutor vacant for almost two years. Zelenskyy has been a stellar wartime leader, but Ukraine’s legacy of corruption and his shortcomings have given his critics an easy avenue to undermine the U.S.’s continued support for Ukraine.

A Legacy of Corruption

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, many of the 15 post-Soviet countries have struggled with systemic corruption. Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia have been the most notable examples. During the Soviet Union, bribery and favors became commonplace; these practices survived and evolved into independent Ukraine. In 2013, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an E.U. trade agreement. For many this represented a distancing of Ukraine from the west. Many young Ukrainians were unhappy with this and took to the streets from 2013 to 2014 to protest Yanukovych’s decision. As a result, Yanukovych resigned and fled to Russia. The newly elected government signed an association agreement with the European Union and began implementing broad institutional reforms, many of which focused on addressing the endemic corruption within Ukraine.

Reforms have been slow, but there has been progress. Prosecutors, judges, the police, and the military have become pillars of the reform efforts that are possible. However, concerns over enduring corruption led Ukrainians to elect Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who ran on an anti-corruption platform. Zelenskyy initially implemented some reforms by ending political immunity for politicians and reforming ownership of the banking sector, but questions persist about his administration’s commitment to rooting out these problems.

New Reforms but Enduring Concerns: War Can’t Hide Everything

Zelenskyy’s predecessor, Viktor Poroshenko, created the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office in 2015 to help prove Ukraine’s commitment to rooting out fraudulence. However, special prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky resigned in August 2020 and the Zelenskyy administration did not fill the position until July 28th, 2022⎯almost two years later.

As recently as October 2021, the U.S. and E.U. publicly admonished the Zelenskyy administration for their delay in appointing a new special prosecutor. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv said, “We urge the selection commission to resume its work without further delays. Failure to move forward in the selection process undermines the work of anti-corruption agencies, established by Ukraine and its international partners.” 

The war pushed some of the corruption issues aside, but these concerns came to the forefront again on July 17th when Zelenskyy fired Ukraine’s prosecutor general and head of national security. Zelenskyy cited their inability to investigate and prosecute officials for collaborating with Russian forces. The Biden administration said Zelenskyy may appoint and fire officials at will, but cracks in support for Ukraine have started to appear. Ukrainian-born, U.S. congresswoman Victoria Spartz has been vocal over the last several weeks concerning corruption in Zelenskyy’s administration.  

Moving Forward

Zelenskyy made some progress this week when he appointed a new prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, who immediately appointed a new special corruption prosecutor. Kostin said appointing a new special prosecutor was a priority requirement for Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy status. 

As inflation puts a strain on the global economy and the war drags on, critics of the Zelenskyy regime will be able to weaponize the legacy of corruption to raise doubts about the U.S.’s continued support of Ukraine.


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