Ukraine is reshuffling its defense ministry and firing all six deputy ministers, while President Volodymyr Zelensky travels to the United Nations and Washington seeking support and assistance.
The purge comes after Zelenskyy replaced Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov earlier this month. This was a very visible shift that began and came in the middle of Kiev’s ongoing counteroffensive amid ongoing allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement within the military.
The Defense Ministry’s recent layoffs are likely a continuation of this purge attempt, although the ministry neither gave a reason for the layoffs nor directly linked them to Reznikov’s dismissal. (Reznikov himself has not been directly involved in any scandals.) Some media outlets have pointed out that personnel changes are not uncommon when a top official leaves; The new defense minister would probably deploy his own team anyway.
Still, these recent upheavals are likely a signal that Ukraine takes seriously any evidence of corruption or mismanagement and wants to signal renewed leadership at the Defense Ministry. The withdrawal also comes at an inopportune time: Zelensky is trying to reassure his partners, including in the United States, that Kiev is handling billions in military, security and economic aid responsibly.
The corruption allegations that previously circulated in connection with the Defense Department’s restructuring have not been directly linked to the misuse of Western aid, and previous regulators have found no evidence of any misuse. But Ukraine has previously struggled to root out high-level corruption and strengthen the rule of law, despite Zelensky’s promises to do so when he was elected in 2019. Ukraine’s supporters in the United States and Europe had been pressuring Kiev for nearly a decade to address these issues, particularly as a condition for inviting Ukraine into Western institutions.
Russia’s large-scale attack last year pushed some of those corruption concerns aside, as the urgency of Ukraine’s war effort consumed Zelensky’s government, its Western backers and even some of Ukraine’s watchdog organizations.
However, the problem of systemic transplantation never completely went away. And as the war continues – and it could go on for much, much longer – it is a reputation that Ukraine is desperate to avoid, especially because it relies on uninterrupted Western aid and continues to assert that it belongs to institutions like that EU and maybe even NATO.
These upheavals send a message, but Ukraine’s corruption problems remain a challenge
This is not the first major personnel change since the start of the war, and allegations of corruption in the Defense Ministry had been ongoing for some time before Minister Reznikov left in early September.
Back in January, allegations that the Defense Department oversaw inflated food contract prices led to a major staff shakeup and arrests. In August, Zelensky fired the heads of military recruiting offices over allegations that those officials took bribes to enable conscientious objectors. Ukrainian media and anti-corruption activists have continued to uncover scandals related to the military procurement processes, including a recent investigation by ZN.UA that the Defense Ministry ordered overpriced jackets for troops from a company linked to a parliament member’s nephew.
However, the departure of these deputy defense ministers comes at a time when Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads militarily and diplomatically.
Ukraine is conducting its counteroffensive, which is making slow progress. Kiev has scored some important successes in recent days, although the operation is still largely a battle of attrition. A The breakthrough could still happen, but Ukraine will continue to need sustained military, security, economic and humanitarian support.
The United States and many of its Western partners continue to provide assistance, but there are some hidden gaps in that assistance. The US has maintained bipartisan support for Ukraine, but a very vocal wing of the Republican Party – including some running for president – has questioned this level of aid and investment in Ukraine. Some US Republicans have used examples of past corruption to question the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv. European support for Kiev is very strong, but disagreements over things like the transport of Ukrainian grain could also threaten solidarity. That’s why President Zelensky is making his rounds at the United Nations – and making an important pit stop in Congress.
Kiev wants to make it clear that aid is distributed effectively, responsibly and appropriately. She aims to argue that countries’ continued investments in Ukraine – including providing resources to increase the production of weapons and artillery – also represent a long-term down payment for a democratic Ukraine.
This is an argument that needs to be made to outsiders, but also to those inside Ukraine. Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, said that throughout Ukrainian society there is strong support for exposing corruption, even if it risks breaking trust with Ukraine’s partners. “People believe in and [are] Promote the detection of corruption even during war. People have very low tolerance for corruption. People see Ukraine as an EU and NATO member – and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
As Kaleniuk emphasized, the Defense Ministry will oversee the procurement of lethal and non-lethal assistance as this war continues, and it must be able to make effective and informed decisions. Military operations run through Zelenskyy, so personnel changes should not affect the daily operations of the counteroffensive, but the ministry’s responsibilities – such as purchasing food, supplies and equipment – may affect the fight. Not only were these jackets for the Ukrainian troops overpriced, they were apparently intended for the cold season, but according to Ukrainian media reports, they were ultimately light coats.
So yes, Ukraine wants to make it clear that it is fighting corruption. However, there are still many questions about how exactly Ukraine is approaching its anti-corruption campaign. Firing or replacing officials is one thing, but Zelensky has proposed making wartime corruption a treasonous offense. This would give Ukrainian security forces more power, which some critics and observers fear would weaken the authority of independent investigative agencies. This could potentially backfire, undermining the rule of law and independent judiciary, and causing lasting damage to the institutions Ukraine (and the West) sought to build. The president’s office also oversees the security services, which could result in Zelensky consolidating his power, with the security services potentially being used to shield the president’s allies and contain scandals that could be embarrassing for Zelensky.
War, no matter who is fighting, tends to be fertile ground for corruption. The chaos of the conflict – lots of quick purchases, an influx of funds and supplies passing through many hands – increases the potential for bribery. Ukraine is no exception, but it faces the additional challenge of corruption permeating its government institutions even before Russia’s invasion.
These tremors are still unclear, but they suggest that Ukraine’s corruption problem – and the perception of that corruption problem – still threatens to undermine Kiev’s war efforts inside and outside Ukraine.