There are two wars for the future of Ukraine. The main one takes place on the battlefields of the east and south where the invader has occupied almost a fifth of our country’s territory, and in cities and villages where Russian missiles kill civilians in their beds or destroy critical infrastructure. The other is quieter and aimed at the enemy within — the stain of corruption. 

The first war has to be won because without victory there is no independent Ukraine. The second has to be won because a victory bought at such a terrifying price in human and material terms cannot be wasted by returning to the old ways, where the wealthy and powerful take what they wanted without consequence. 

There are some positive signs. On May 15, Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies — the Specialized Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) and National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) — detained the head of the country’s Supreme Court for alleged bribery. His arrest was one of the highest-level detentions in recent Ukrainian history. State agencies seized $2.7m — stacks of dollar bills were pictured on the judge’s sofa — which they said was paid to ensure a ruling in the interest of an oligarch. Chief Justice Vsevolod Kniaziev was subsequently dismissed from his post. 

The fight against corruption matters for the recovery efforts too. On June 21-22, hundreds of representatives from around the world will meet for the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London. Discussions will focus on rebuilding a shattered country, with the World Bank estimating costs at $411bn for damage done in the first 12 months of the conflict. Other estimates suggest $1 trillion plus. 

This is a whole lot of money and it is reasonable to ask where it will come from. It is fair and just to demand that Russia pays for the damage it caused, and Western countries should speed up the efforts to develop mechanisms to confiscate Russian state and oligarchs’ private assets and send that to Ukraine. The other major source of funds is likely to be borrowed, gifted, or invested. Both lenders and investors will be asking questions and demanding evidence that the money is going where it should, a demand which will certainly be echoed by Ukrainians — a poll from mid-2022 showed that ridding the country of corruption was viewed as the second-biggest issue after the war itself (48% compared with 49%.) 

The challenge which Ukraine now faces is immense. While fighting Russia’s imperialist war, the country struggles to preserve reforms and move them forward. Yet building a strong, resilient, and democratic Ukraine is seen by many citizens as a tribute to their fallen heroes, a well-deserved act of gratitude for the hundreds of thousands of frontline defenders, and the best way to return millions of refugees home. 

The big war brought new issues but also opened extra opportunities for reform. On the one hand, the influence of Russia and its proxies has reduced, oligarchic power has been weakened, while significant financial contributions from Western countries allow qualitative changes. On the other hand, Ukraine is forced to maintain a fragile balance between transparency and security. Even so, the population rightly sees the war as an opportunity to slay the twin dragons of Russian colonialism and corruption. Bringing cases to light also helps to drive policy changes; as when an investigation on inflated food prices at the Ministry of Defense triggered the adoption of a special law requiring the MoD to reveal information on all purchases, except weapons.  

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The successful fight against corruption directly contributes to the war effort. Since February 2022, NABU and SAPO have transferred around $46m in seized bribery proceeds to the budget of the Ukrainian armed forces. In the spring of last year, Ukraine started to confiscate Russian assets, including those of top Russian oligarchs like Mikhail Shelkov and Arkadiy Rotenberg.  

Efforts toward European Union (EU) integration have also given a powerful push to Ukraine’s wartime reforms. Ukrainians largely recognize the process as no less important than the end goal. Seven reform conditionalities attached to EU candidate status were imposed in June. Senior EU figures continue to emphasize both good progress and a need for further action, “especially in the area of justice, rule of law [and] the fight against corruption.” 

The detention of the Supreme Court head has underlined the urgency of further progress in judicial reform. As a part of its EU accession efforts, Ukraine has restarted one of the two judicial governance bodies, the High Council of Justice. It will soon be tasked with the appointment of a second body, the High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ), which will determine the future of the judiciary for decades to come.  

Some anti-corruption measures reasonably imposed in the early days of the big war now need to be restored, like officials’ asset declaration reporting. The bribery allegations against the Supreme Court head remind everyone of the need to restore this beneficial practice. With some security precautions, there is no reason for MPs, ministers, and other high-ranking officials not to report on their assets.  

Every single day since 2014, and particularly since February 24, 2022, Ukrainians have been defending our right to live decently in a homeland where the rule of law, zero tolerance for corruption, and respect for human rights are not empty words. While air raid sirens scream above our heads, and our best people hold the line in the trenches, Ukraine continues to push forward the reforms started by the Revolution of Dignity.  

Battlefield victory by an honest and democratic state against an imperial invader, along with our ultimate membership of the EU and NATO, are woven inextricably together into the fabric of Ukraine’s future. 

Olena Halushka is a Ukrainian activist, co-founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, and board member at the Anti-corruption Action Center. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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