Ukraine corruption concerns resurface as war with Russia continues

By MATTHEW LEE and NOMAAN MERCHANT
Associated press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The firing of senior officials by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sheds an uncomfortable light on an issue the Biden administration has largely ignored since the outbreak of war with Russia: the history of endemic corruption and Ukraine’s fragile governance.

As it strives to provide tens of billions of dollars in direct military, economic and financial aid to Ukraine and encourages its allies to do the same, the Biden administration is once again grappling with concerns about long standing about Ukraine’s suitability as a recipient of massive aid. US aid injections.

These issues, which date back decades and were not an insignificant part of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, had been largely pushed into the background in the period immediately preceding the invasion of Russia and during the early months of the conflict as the United States and its partners rallied to the defense of Ukraine.

But Zelenskyy’s weekend firings of his top prosecutor, intelligence chief and other top officials resurfaced those concerns and may have inadvertently brought new attention to allegations of high-level corruption in Kyiv made. by an outspoken US legislator.

This is a tricky question for the Biden administration. As billions in aid funnel into Ukraine, the White House continues to make the case for support for Zelenskyy’s government to an American public increasingly focused on domestic issues like high gas prices and inflation. Ukraine’s prominent supporters in both parties also want to avoid a backlash that could make it harder to pass future aid packages.

US officials are quick to say that Zelenskyy is well within his rights to appoint anyone he wants to senior positions, including attorney general, and to remove anyone he sees as collaborating with Russia.

Yet even as Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border last fall, the Biden administration was pushing Zelenskyy to do more to fight corruption — a perennial U.S. demand dating back to the early days of independence. Ukraine.

“In all of our relationships, including this relationship, we don’t invest in personalities; we invest in institutions and, of course, President Zelenskyy explained why he made these personnel changes,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday.

Price declined to comment further on Zelenskyy’s reasoning for the layoffs or address specifics, but said there was no doubt Russia tried to interfere in Ukraine.

“Moscow has long sought to overthrow, to destabilize the Ukrainian government,” Price said. “Since Ukraine chose the path of democracy and a Western orientation, this is something that Moscow has sought to reverse.”

Yet in October and then again in December 2021, as the United States and others warned of the growing potential for Russian invasion, the Biden administration called out Zelenskyy’s government for its inaction on corruption. which had little or nothing to do with Russia.

“The EU and the United States are very disappointed by the unexplained and unjustifiable delays in the selection of the head of the office of the specialized prosecutor in the fight against corruption, a crucial body in the fight against high-level corruption”, said said the US Embassy in Kyiv in October. 9.

“We urge the selection commission to resume its work without further delay. Failure to move forward in the selection process undermines the work of anti-corruption agencies, established by Ukraine and its international partners,” he said. This special prosecutor was finally chosen at the end of December but was never appointed to this post. Although there are indications that the appointment will take place soon, the dismissal of the attorney general could complicate the matter.

The administration and top lawmakers have avoided publicly criticizing Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February. The United States has stepped up the weapons and intelligence it provides to Ukraine despite early concerns about Russian penetration into the Ukrainian government and existing concerns about corruption.

A Ukrainian-born MP who came to prominence at the start of the war recently broke that unofficial silence.

Representative Victoria Sparta, a first-time Republican from Indiana, has made half a dozen visits to Ukraine since the war began. And she was invited to the White House in May and given a pen used by President Joe Biden to sign a Ukraine aid package even after he angrily criticized Biden for not doing more to help.

But in recent weeks, Spartz has accused Zelensky of “playing politics” and alleged his top aide Andriy Yermak sabotaged Ukraine’s defense against Russia.

She also repeatedly called on Ukraine to appoint the anti-corruption prosecutor, blaming Yermak for the delay.

Ukrainian officials retaliated. A statement from Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry accused Spartz of spreading “Russian propaganda” and warned it to “stop trying to gain additional political capital on baseless speculation.”

On Friday, US officials gave Spartz a classified two-hour briefing in hopes of addressing his concerns and encouraging him to limit his public criticism. She declined to discuss the briefing afterwards, but told The Associated Press that “healthy dialogue and deliberation is good for Congress.”

“We’re not here to please people,” she said. “It’s good to deliberate.”

A few hours later, Spartz gave an interview in Ukrainian broadcast on YouTube in which she again called for the appointment of an independent prosecutor.

“This issue should be resolved as soon as possible,” she said during the interview. “It’s a huge problem for the West, so I think your president should fix it soon.”

Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado who serves on the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said he had seen no evidence to support allegations that Zelenskyy’s inner circle was trying to help Russia. But as the war continues, part of the long-term US strategy in Ukraine will have to include combating the waste and mismanagement of resources, he said.

“There is no war in the history of the world that is safe from corruption and people trying to take advantage of it,” Crow said. “If there are any concerns raised, we will address them.”

Igor Novikov, a Kyiv-based former adviser to Zelensky, called many of Sparta’s claims a mix of “hearsay, legends and urban myths”. Allegations against Yermak in particular have been circulating for years, dating back to his interactions with Trump allies seeking derogatory information against Biden’s son, Hunter.

“Given that we are in a state of war, we must give President Zelensky and his team the benefit of the doubt,” Novikov said. “Until we win this war, we have to trust the president who stayed and fought with the people.”