1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Rule of LawUkraine

Ukraine struggles to curb corruption in its military

Lilia Rzheutska
August 17, 2023

Ukraine is dismissing all regional military recruitment heads after a major graft investigation. But questions remain: Who will replace them? And can Ukraine curb corruption in the long term?

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to the frontline in August 2023
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talked to soldiers during a visit to the frontline in August 2023Image: President Of Ukraine/APA Images/Zumapress/picture alliance

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has fired all regional military recruitment chiefs due to allegations of widespread graft. Ahead of the drastic move, all recruitment offices in Ukraine had been audited. According to the State Investigation Bureau, a total of 112 criminal cases were opened against representatives of recruitment offices, with 33 cases of suspected misconduct and 15 lawsuits launched.

"This system should be run by people who know exactly what war is and why cynicism and bribery during war is treason," Zelenskyy said after meeting with the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

Going forward, Zelenskyy said, all recruitment chiefs will be replaced by "soldiers who have been at the front or who cannot be in the trenches because they have lost their health, lost their limbs."

Bribes and fake medical certificates

This is not the president's first attempt to tackle corruption in Ukraine. In recent weeks, several recruitment heads were mired in scandals. The former military commissioner of Odesa, Yevhen Borisov, for example, is accused of having accepted bribes and thereby amassed the equivalent of several million euros since the beginning of the war against Russia. According to media reports, Borisov is also alleged to have purchased luxury real estate in Spain, and expensive cars for relatives. He was dismissed from his post and arrested when these allegations surfaced.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seen during a video address
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed to clamp down on corruptionImage: The Presidential Office of Ukraine

The audit of Ukrainian enlistment offices also revealed that, among other things, the recruitment chief of Oblast Zakarpattia, in western Ukraine, had used soldiers in the construction of his private estate. And in the city of Rivne, the head of a recruitment office had apparently mistreated his subordinates.

The head of a Donetsk recruitment office in eastern Ukraine was also arrested. He allegedly sent subordinates whom he was close with to join a combat brigade in the Ukrainian armed forces. While the men never took part in combat missions, they were fully paid. Numerous searches of recruitment offices in Kyiv and ten other regions revealed that forged medical certificates had been sold to allow individuals to evade military service.

President Zelenskyy, meanwhile, has promised arrests in some but not all cases. He also said that dismissed officials against whom there was no evidence of crimes or wrongdoing should go to the front to "keep their rank" and "prove their dignity."

Tempted by graft

The Ukrainian public wants to see all regional recruitment heads replaced and Zelenskyy is fulfilling this wish, said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the Center of Applied Political Studies "Penta" in Kyiv.

He said the president was now relying on people with combat experience to become "moral guardians against corruption in the system."

At the same time, Fesenko added that this replacement wave was no proper reform and that the state could not provide complete protection against corruption.

"Even for the new chiefs, the temptations will be great in the system," Fesenko said. "These are lucrative posts, because many people are trying to pay money in order not to have to go to war."

Ukrainian bills are seen close up
Military recruiters were found to have taken bribes, and issued fake medical certificatesImage: Mykhailo Polenok/PantherMedia

Replacing regional recruitment officers is necessary, though not all at once, Hlib Kanievskyi of StateWatch, an anti-corruption non-government organization in Ukraine, told DW. That's because doing so would "slow down" the recruitment system for at least three months as the new directors settle in, Kanievskyi explained.

"Replacing all the old heads with new ones will look good in the short term because the president is meeting the [public's] desire for justice," Kanevskyy said. "But when the system loses so many leaders at once, it has a negative impact."

He also said simply replacing recruiters was not enough, as they could be corrupted in the same environment.

Far-reaching reforms needed

Corruption, even among new recruitment heads, can only be countered by establishing greater transparency, according to Lyubov Halan of Prinzip, a human rights center that provides legal assistance to soldiers. Graft should always be investigated, not just "in individual cases," she added. Halan said the system needed to be reformed as it strongly impacts peoples' perceptions and mood, especially those who are fighting.

"While some people are buying their way out [of serving in the army], others are lying in trenches," Halan said. "This is outrageous, unfair and undermines trust in the state."

That is why, she said, recruitment data should be efficiently shared to curb corruption.

President Zelenskyy is seen in a bunker alongside Ukrainian soldiers
President Zelenskyy wants to install vetted Ukrainian soldiers as recruitersImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/REUTERS

In an effort to further fight graft, Ukraine's National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP) is now monitoring citizens crossing the borders. Medical certificates are most widely abused to get people out of serving in the army, and these "allow people to leave the country," said NACP director Oleksandr Novikov.

He envisions changing the rules pertaining to border crossings and issuing respective documents. He would like to see the border service and recruitment office databases linked, for example, as this would ensure far greater transparency in the entire procedure.

President Zelenskyy said he will step up the fight against corruption. This is also driven by his desire to push ahead with negotiations on EU and NATO accession. Anti-corruption reforms are a precondition for joining the European bloc.

This article was tranlated from German.