Ukraine’s government corruption shake-up, briefly explained

A corruption scandal is shaking up the Ukrainian government, with top officials stepping aside as Kyiv seems eager to assure Western partners of their responsible stewardship of billions in military and economic aid.

Among the high-profile exits are Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head in the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and a deputy in the ministry of defense, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who was responsible for overseeing supplies and food for troops. A deputy prosecutor general was also sacked, as were a handful of regional governors and a few other government ministers.

The actual details of what prompted the shake-up are a bit murky, and not all of the resignations and ousters appear to be related, but it comes after at least one report in Ukrainian media that the Ministry of Defense had purchased food for troops at extra-high prices. The Ministry of Defense had said the allegations were a deliberate attempt to mislead, but said it would conduct an internal audit. Additional media reports in the past week had questioned officials, including Tymoshenko, who appeared to be enjoying lavish lifestyles.

This represents the most high-profile reshuffle since Russia’s invasion last year. More details about the alleged graft are likely to emerge, but it seems clear that Zelenskyy’s government moved fast to tamp down any allegations of widespread corruption, especially from international backers who are providing tens of billions of dollars in assistance that Ukraine depends on in its fight against Russia. Some critics have also suggested the shake-up is more of a political move, rather than a genuine anti-corruption effort.

In his Tuesday evening address, posted on Telegram, Zelenskyy acknowledged the personnel shifts and said that any internal problems “that hinder the state are being cleaned up and will be cleaned up. It is fair, it is necessary for our defense and it helps our rapprochement with European institutions.”

Ukraine has previously struggled to root out high-level corruption and bolster the rule of law, despite Zelenskyy promising to do so when he was elected in 2019. Ukraine’s backers in the United States and Europe had long put pressure on Kyiv to deal with these issues, especially as a condition for Ukraine’s invitation into Western institutions, including perhaps one day joining the European Union. Russia’s full-scale attack last year shunted some of those corruption concerns aside, as Western governments rushed to back up Ukraine and as Ukraine itself became a global symbol for democratic resistance.

Within Ukraine, some civil society groups and anti-corruption forces who’d long been critical of the Ukrainian government and Zelenskyy put on hold some of their activism as Ukrainian society fully mobilized in the war effort. According to a report on war and corruption in Ukraine released last summer, about 84 percent of anti-corruption experts abandoned their activities because of the conflict.

Still, concerns about Ukraine’s approach to corruption never totally dissipated. The chaos of conflict — lots of rapid procurements, an influx of funds and supplies moving through many hands — tends to be fertile areas for potential graft and can exacerbate existing problems. This is true no matter where the war or who’s doing the fighting. Ukraine is no exception.

What we know about the Ukrainian government shake-ups

The recent reshuffle appears to be connected to a few different scandals. Perhaps the most high-profile is this allegation, first reported in the Ukrainian media outlet ZN.UA, that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense had signed a contract paying two to three times more for food than retail prices in Kyiv. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov rejected the claims, saying it was a “technical error” and suggesting the leak was timed to a meeting of Western donors, in an effort to undermine Ukraine. “Information about the content of food service shoppers who have taken up public space is spreading with signs of deliberate manipulation and mislead,” the ministry said in a statement. The ministry said it was opening an investigation into the “spread of intentionally false information,” though it was also conducting an internal audit.

In response to the procurement allegations, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) publicly announced its own investigation. On Tuesday, Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov reportedly asked to be dismissed, so as “not to pose a threat to the stable supply of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a result of a campaign of accusations related to the purchase of food services.”

But Ukraine’s government shake-up extends beyond that. On Tuesday, Tymoshenko, a close aide to Zelenskyy, announced his resignation, saying it was of his “own volition.” Tymoshenko had a fairly public-facing role during the war, and Ukrainian media had reported last year that he had driven an SUV donated for…

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