WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 25: Supporters of Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian community hold a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of Russias invasion of Ukraine, near the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 25: Supporters of Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian community hold a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of Russias invasion of Ukraine, near the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

‘A War On Two Fronts’: Ukraine Takes On Corruption As It Fights Russia

Can the Pentagon’s inspector general satisfy skeptics while still rooting out corruption?

As Ukraine fights off Russian invaders, it is also waging an internal battle against corruption and Western perception, say analysts, inspectors, and some Ukrainians.

The country’s history and the massive amount of aid it continues to receive put U.S. inspectors in a difficult position—working to uncover corruption in a country without American boots on the ground, and doing so without fueling the idea that Ukraine is inherently undeserving of aid. 

“They acknowledge that they are fighting a two-front battle,” one senior official in the office of the Defense Department Inspector General told Defense One. “They are fighting the Russians and they were fighting internal corruption,” And fighting on one front means pulling resources from the other. “Many of the people that, you know, would normally have helped fight the corruption battle on the frontlines are fighting the Russians.” 

“We just consider the risk high, no matter what,” the official said, referring the possibility that aid might be diverted before it reaches its destination, simply because of the massive scale of military and other aid the United States has allocated for Ukraine. But the risk of corruption isn’t contained just within the country’s borders. The office is also looking at the possibility of contract fraud in the United States, as well as the diversion of weapons or other aid as it travels through Europe on its way to the war zone.

The Defense Department is also “concerned about the potential diversion or legal export, or theft for that matter, of the goods,” said another official, who works criminal investigations for the Pentagon IG. “The department procures especially sensitive goods that directly support warfighting efforts…DOD procures the most advanced systems in the world, there are many entities, to include foreign nations as well as criminal groups, that want to get their hands on weapons technology, etc.”

Pentagon Inspector General Robert Storch is working with counterparts in the State Department and USAID to monitor aid flowing into the country. Storch has “close to 100 people engaged in oversight right now related to Ukraine,” he said during a recent reporter roundtable. “Of those, 20 are forward deployed in the region, mostly in Germany, but in other areas as well, auditors, evaluators, investigators.” 

The inspector’s office currently has more than 20 different audits planned specific to Ukraine. “We're really covering the waterfront…in terms of security assistance,” Storch said, calling Ukraine oversight “job one” for his office.

Former President Donald Trump, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others on the far right frequently describe Ukraine as a nation permanently beset by corruption at the highest levels. But is that reputation well deserved? 

During the rule of Putin-ally Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine was known for high levels of corruption across the government. It was during that period that Ukraine achieved its lowest score on Transparency International’s corruption index. 

But when Ukrainians expelled Yanukovych from power in 2014 to forge a new path, closer to Europe and the United States, it was in part a reaction to the mechanisms of corruption that the Kremlin used to infiltrate and undermine Ukrainian self-governance, Serhii Mytkalyk, chairman of the board of the non-governmental Ukrainian organization Anti-Corruption Headquarters, told Defense One.

Since that time, Ukraine has undertaken a series of reforms, set up online accounting procedures (particularly for foreign aid), and established new offices and organizations like the Anti-Corruption Headquarters. 

“We have made strong progress in the fight against corruption. A number of institutions have been created, for example, a specialized anti-corruption prosecutor's office, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention and so on, that make it possible to bring to justice those who were…previously the untouchable. There were some untouchable people,” Mytkalyk said. That’s the biggest change, he said. Now, the state has an interest in directly prosecuting corruption rather than risk losing vital financial support from the West. 

The January sacking of a number of high-ranking Ukrainian officials on corruption charges is a sign that Ukraine’s methods for finding corruption are working and are necessary, Mytkalyk said. 

Ukraine also is employing a number of online tools to reassure Western observers on governmental integrity and transparency, such as an online procurement system officials can use to more easily track and model requests. There’s also Diia, which allows Ukraine’s citizens to document war-related property damage through photos and also access government services online. Mytkalyk’s organization has a tool that alerts authorities when a contracting official makes an award to a relative. 

But while those efforts may help Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts internally, they don’t help the IG’s office directly, because the IG can’t just take a tool developed by a country that is a target for surveillance and use that tool as if it was developed by the United States. And the United States’ footprint is severely limited in Ukraine. 

“Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, we don't have combat troops. And in Ukraine, the DOD, its presence itself [at the embassy] is 12,” the IG official said. 

“I wouldn't interpret that to mean that the oversight  is not comprehensive,” he said. “During the pandemic we weren't always able to have eyes on. And we did have to implement alternative procedures to obtain reasonable assurance that things were properly accounted for, or make a determination that they're not accounted for.”  

For instance, on the battlefield, Ukrainian forces use handheld scanners that transmit data directly back to the Pentagon, Defense Department Undersecretary of Defense for Policy told lawmakers in February. 

The other official acknowledged that, in terms of tracking criminal fraud inside the country, “We would be reliant upon the Ukrainians who bring it to our attention and to cooperate with us…The the recurring theme that we hear is there's a recognition of the fact that this is an existential issue for the Ukrainians. So there's allegedly a vested interest in cooperating. With that said, we also recognize that when you're talking about transfer of this volume of equipment, we'd be naive to think that the very real risk doesn't exist, that this stuff could be diverted.” 

However, he said, they are working continuously with law enforcement and other agency partners both in the United States government and in Europe to track criminal fraud incidents related to Ukraine. 

Said the first official, “Given everything that's going on in Ukraine, we are on high alert, for lack of a better term…Every time that we see a significant surge in contracting, [we] see an upswing in cases. Where there's money, there's fraud. It's the nature of the business we're in.”

That sums up Storch’s position. He has a long history in Ukraine, working as a U.S. government advisor to help the country stand up the very institutions that are now helping it fight corruption. 

“I went back in 2014, providing technical assistance on behalf of the U.S. government to help them to draft their anti-corruption legislation that created the anticorruption framework of the National Anticorruption Bureau and the special prosecutor and all the rest. So I'm very familiar with the challenges that have been faced in Ukraine and the efforts of the United States government to work with the Ukrainians to address them. So hopefully, that gives me some perspective and some credibility in dealing with them,” he said.

During a recent trip to the country in January, Storch said he met with the nation’s top officials, and all of them understood that submitting to Washington’s scrutiny was critical for foreign aid to continue. But he’s not in a position to accept their assurances on face value. “We get paid to be skeptics,” he said. 

In many ways, the success of the IG’s activities in Ukraine will be judged by how much they uncover. 

“There has certainly—I think it's fair to say objectively—been progress in terms of the development of institutions to address corruption [since 2014.] What there has to be is a real commitment to making that meaningful, to being transparent about it.”