Almost one year into the Russia-Ukraine war, hundreds of thousands have died and nearly 17.6 million have been left in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
While the Ukrainian government remained steadfast in the fight against Russia, Kyiv has also been confronting another enemy that has been gnawing within the country for years: corruption.
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During the last few weeks, Ukrainian authorities raided the home of the country’s former interior minister and sacked several senior government officials accused of bribery. Oleksii Reznikov, the country’s defence minister, is also set to be replaced after journalists and activists uncovered that the Ministry of Defence bought food for soldiers at vastly inflated prices.
While the United States, European Union and NATO have pledged to continue assisting Ukraine, some politicians and military officials in the West have pointed to corruption in the country and questioned whether Ukraine was a good steward of the assistance it has received.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – hyper-aware of both the criticism from the West and the importance of keeping aid flowing – tackled corruption during an address in January. “I want this to be clear: there will be no return to what used to be in the past,” he said.
“There is definitely a connection between the anti-corruption moves and Zelenskyy’s desire to keep Western military aid flowing,” Volodymyr Dubovyk, professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odesa, Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.
“Zelenskyy understood that he should address this issue quickly and resolutely without a delay, and he understands there are people in the US and the West who are calling Ukraine too corrupt,” Dubovyk said.
“Ukraine’s worst fear is that the US and West will abandon them and that the flow of weapons will stop,” he added.
Anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the West?
In 2022, the US gave Ukraine $48bn in military, financial and humanitarian aid combined. Far-right Republicans in the US have increasingly questioned sending aid to the country.
In January, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene called Ukraine “one of the most corrupt countries in the world” in a tweet and questioned whether “American’s hard earned tax dollars are being stolen.”
In November last year, Greene also introduced a resolution in US Congress calling for an audit of all aid sent to Ukraine.
Donald Trump Jr, former US President Donald Trump’s eldest son, tweeted in December 2022: “Zelenskyy is basically an ungrateful international welfare queen.”
It is clear Zelenskyy’s government has been closely following US politics.
“There is worry about the Trump wing of the Republican Party taking power and then pulling support from Ukraine,” Dubovyk said.
Jordan Gans-Morse, a professor of political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, agreed.
“The Ukrainians are very savvy about the politics and culture of donor countries. They are definitely getting the message that there could come a turn in American politics that could threaten the support they are getting,” Gans-Morse said.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the EU has remained unwavering in its commitment to support Ukraine, with the 27-member bloc having pledged approximately 67 billion euros ($72bn) for Ukraine and its civilians since the war began.
Witold Waszczykowski, Polish politician and chair of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee at the European Parliament, told Al Jazeera that, right now, “other issues have a secondary meaning and the most important thing for Ukraine is to win the war with Russia”.
“Here in Europe, it is our duty and obligation to help Ukraine to win the war. Equally important is to help Ukraine to survive the winter without electricity, heat, or water,” he said.
However, fighting corruption is also a cornerstone for Ukraine to gain EU membership.
In June 2022, the EU granted Ukraine the status of “candidate country” – an official move that would allow Kyiv to become a member of the EU. But before membership, candidate countries are required to undertake several political, economic and rule-of-law reforms to match EU standards.
Lukas Andriukaitis, non-resident fellow at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Al Jazeera that Kyiv’s current anti-corruption crackdown was on top of the agenda when it comes to discussing Ukraine’s future membership into the EU and was likely a political statement before the EU-Ukraine Summit which took place in Kyiv in early February.
“As the EU talks are gaining speed together with financial support from the West, Ukraine needs to show that corruption will not be tolerated, even if the individuals are high-ranking officials in Ukraine,” he said.
After the EU-Ukraine Summit in Kyiv, EU Council chief Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issued a joint statement acknowledging “the considerable efforts” Ukraine had undertaken to meet the objectives for EU membership, but did not signal that the accession process would be fast-tracked.
Broader anti-corruption push within Ukraine
Moreover, while Ukraine’s anti-corruption campaign has grabbed the global limelight, for civilians in and from the country, the recent firing of corrupt officials displayed the progress of an anti-corruption movement that has been years in the making.
According to Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index, in 2022 Ukraine ranked 116 out of 180 countries. The report noted that Ukraine has made significant improvements in tackling corruption during the last eight years.
In 2014, after the deaths of hundreds of anti-corruption protesters, Ukraine’s parliament deposed pro-Russian Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich in what came to be known as the Maidan Revolution or Revolution of Dignity.
In the wake of the revolution, in an effort to meet the demands of civilians eager for Ukraine to become a member of the EU, the government set up a National Anti-Corruption Bureau, a High Anti-Corruption Court and other such agencies to prosecute corrupt officials, according to Oksana Nesterenko, lawyer and executive director of the Anti-corruption Research and Education Centre at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
“Ukraine has achieved significant progress in anti-corruption reforms. But the civil society is considered as a key actor in this process,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Then, the war started in 2022 and we made the decision to hold back on our push until the situation improved.”
“At this time, the government also realised how Russia was using corruption in Ukraine to display it as a failed state to the West. So the political will to fight corruption increased. The National Anti-Corruption Strategy was launched in 2022 and as anti-corruption experts, we got back to our pre-war task of fighting corruption,” she added.
While tackling corruption was also one of Zelenskyy’s election campaign strategies during his 2019 campaign for president, he had minimal success at first, and his constituents noticed.
On the eve of the war, his approval rating stood at 27 percent according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.
But since the war began, Zelenskyy’s popularity has increased and now stands close to 84 percent.
Today, the Ukrainian government looks like “a seriously responsible government doing what you would hope any government would do,” Gans-Morse said.
“He [Zelenskyy] has more power to tackle corruption now than ever before,” he added.
As Ukraine’s fight with corruption has intensified, its fight with Russia has continued to rage.
Andriukaitis highlighted how pro-Kremlin social media users, bots and trolls have brought the war online after Ukraine’s recent anti-corruption actions, by surfacing videos of the arrest of corrupt Ukrainian officials to discredit Ukraine.
“The idea is to sow distrust in Western societies about the support of Ukraine, to try and shake Western governments’ unwavering support with a bottom-up approach,” Andriukaitis said.
Dubovyk believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is fearful of the anti-corruption push in Ukraine and sees it as potentially undermining his power at home.
“Russians will be asking, ‘if Ukraine can do, why can’t we?’” Dubovyk said.
“If Ukraine is successful in strengthening its democracy and moving away from Russia, it would be a major threat to Putin.”