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The Corruption War: Russia Is Losing the War for the Same Reason It Started It

Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On Feb. 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited corruption as a motivator for his decision to invade Ukraine. 

While complaining about Ukrainian corruption in his televised speech on the eve of the invasion, Putin singled out the dangers posed by the anti-corruption actions of Ukraine’s “National Agency on Corruption Prevention, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and the High Anti-Corruption Court,” which he argued served as puppets of the United States. 

As Ukrainian activists have claimed, Ukrainian progress against corruption scares Putin. It is understandable that it would. Ukraine’s fight against corruption might be as critical as its fight against Putin.

How Corruption Defeats Armies

Over the previous decades, Ukraine had evolved into a vassal state for the more powerful Russia, one held in check by Russia’s corrupting influence. A network of pro-Russian oligarchs held unparalleled sway in Ukrainian society. The Kremlin’s control over these oligarchs allowed Moscow to influence the government and promote pro-Russian policies. 

Putin’s corrupt grip on Ukraine began to weaken with the Maidan Revolution of 2014, which overthrew the comically corrupt Viktor Yanukovych, whose presidential palace was filled with absurd proceeds of his embezzlement — a stuffed lion, a floating pirate ship restaurant, and a solid gold loaf of bread. Since then, Ukraine has made substantial progress in the fight against corruption — an effort that is critical to its aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.

Putin viewed these anti-corruption efforts — correctly — as a threat to Russian influence. To maintain his control, he turned to military power. In the wake of the Maidan Revolution in 2014, following fictional claims of a “neo-Nazi” coup, Putin sent Russian special forces into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Then, in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine wholesale, seeking to topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government.

The Russian invaders were stopped, and then pushed back, because of logistical issues, strategic errors, and general incompetence. But underlying these issues was the same sickness with which Russia had infected and controlled Ukraine: corruption. In 2022, Transparency International noted that “Russia’s defense sector is at high risk of corruption, owing to extremely limited external oversight of the policies, budgets, activities and acquisitions of defense institutions.” Russia spent $62 billion — 4.3% of its GDP — on its military in 2022. But various Russian officials and experts have estimated that at least 20% of the defense budget, and possibly as much as 50%, is lost to internal theft and corruption. This corruption in the military sector is nothing new — the former Russian general prosecutor under Boris Yeltsin, Yury Skuratov, claimed that the military was the most corrupt of all Russia’s government structures. 

Top-Down Issues

Ukrainian military-sector corruption has also traditionally been very high, though the wartime instinct to pilfer critical supplies likely differs for an army defending home and family. In addition, Ukraine is increasingly fighting with weapons and ammunition provided by the United States and its allies, which mitigates the potential impact of corruption in Ukraine’s defense industrial base.

Russian military procurement is especially prone to corruption. The Peter the Great Cruiser scandal, for instance, involved a fake ship repair yard that won numerous multimillion dollar contracts to repair nuclear submarines and guided missile cruisers over several years, without actually repairing a single ship. Similarly, Russia’s procurement of military-grade Azart radios seems to have been a victim of corruption, with cheap Chinese replacement components and a third of the 18 billion ruble budget lost to embezzlement. Instead of modern, fully encrypted radios, Russian troops frequently have to make do with cheap radios and walkie-talkies, which Ukrainian forces have exploited for eavesdropping and location tracking for targeted artillery strikes.

But corruption is not just a procurement issue. The culture of embezzlement and graft seeps down through the ranks and onto the battlefield. Higher-level officers steal their military budgets, such as when a Russian major general embezzled $25 million intended for the purchase of satellites. Likewise, a Russian colonel was arrested for stealing the engines out of his T-90 battle tanks. Supply officers pawn off military equipment: thousands of suits of body armor were sold on Avito (Russia’s eBay). Lower-level officers rent out their troops for construction work and pocket their subordinates’ combat bonuses. In turn, the lowest-level conscripts sell any supplies not permanently attached to the ground. On the eve of the 2022 invasion, for example, such soldiers sold off untold gallons of vehicle fuel on the black market, as tanks and trucks lined the side of the road on the highway to Kyiv.

The Fruits of Corruption

The fruits of this endemic corruption were on display as soon as Russian soldiers crossed into Ukraine in 2022. Poorly maintained vehicles and tanks (some missing critical protective armor) broke down or ran out of fuel and were destroyed in large numbers. Many infantrymen lacked body armor, and others wore bulletproof vests whose plates had been hollowed out and sold. Common grunts ran out of warm clothes, and many received rations seven years past their expiration date. Countless soldiers ended up buying supplies and uniforms for themselves and crowdsourcing body armor, medicines, and even gun sights online. The invasion suffered death by a thousand, corruption-fueled cuts. Even hardline nationalists like former Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin have been increasingly vocal about the catastrophic impact of defense sector corruption, with Prigozhin justifying his short-lived revolt against the Kremlin as a response to corruption.

Corruption was doubly damaging, however, because it was largely hidden from Putin and other decisionmakers. Although Putin certainly knew about the malfeasance of his top military officials, it appears — based on his cocky actions and declassified U.S. intelligence — that he was unaware of the depth and breadth of graft in the military. Thus, Putin and his advisors were given a fundamentally inaccurate and exaggerated picture of the military’s competence, causing them to invade Ukraine with an army incapable of quick victory but also to blunder by spreading out their forces along multiple axes and forsaking an initial heavy bombardment. Contrary to Sun Tzu’s dictum, Russia knew neither the enemy nor itself.

Beating the Kleptocrats

Russia’s war in Ukraine is of, by, and for corruption. Putin’s corruption-diminished armies are fighting to safeguard the Kremlin’s corrupt influence over an increasingly Western-facing Ukraine. Kyiv, likewise, is fighting a two-front war. While repelling the Russian military, Ukraine has simultaneously been coming to grips with the activities of its own corrupt oligarchs and government officials. The Ukrainians have made important progress (and taken some missteps) on this front. In the past year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has arrested scores of corrupt officials and deported or subdued numerous pro-Russian oligarchs. 

But much more remains to be done. To win this war, Ukraine must be victorious on both the corruption and military battlefields. That is why it is essential that Washington and its allies support Kyiv’s efforts to combat corruption as an essential precondition for both aid and membership in Western multinational alliances. Western countries must tie their military and financial aid to continued anti-corruption reforms, and the EU must continue to condition Ukrainian accession on transparency and good governance. On the battlefield and in smoky back rooms, Ukraine must be freed from the clutches of Russia and its deep arsenal of kleptocracy.

Author Expertise 

Elaine Dezenski is senior director and head of the Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and former acting and deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.

Ted Shepherd is a CEFP research intern and a rising junior at Yale University majoring in History and Global Affairs.

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Elaine Dezenski is senior director and head of the Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and former acting and deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. Ted Shepherd is a CEFP research intern and a rising junior at Yale University majoring in History and Global Affairs.