Fighting corruption has been a goal for Ukraine’s government ever since a 2014 revolution toppled a Russian-backed leader and fuelled Ukrainians’ hope for a European future.
But now, according to Kyiv’s top anti-graft cop, it’s a matter of sheer survival as the country battles against Russia’s invasion.
“Corruption is no longer seen as a just a crime, but as a crime against national security,” said Semen Kryvonos, head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).
NABU, an independent investigative body set up in 2015 with help from Kyiv’s Western partners, is at the forefront of a battle that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says is key to winning the war against Russia.
It has taken on vital significance with Kyiv hoping Western donors will send billions of dollars to help rebuild Ukraine.
While the agency has been investigating misdeeds dating back to 2015, Kryvonos said a resource crunch and greater public demand for accountability means it must now focus in on wartime crimes that endanger Ukraine more directly.
Among its new priorities will be cases in strategic areas such as defence, reconstruction and energy, he said, as well as those involving senior officials whose lucrative ploys illustrate the systemic nature of graft here.
Kryvonos cited recent investigations – including one against a former Supreme Court chief for allegedly taking a $2.7 million bribe and another against a deputy minister suspected of skimming off recovery funds – as models for its work.
“We need to demonstrate results by targeting current corruption schemes that involve truly top officials, not just some kinds of ordinary perpetrators,” he told Reuters during an interview in his Kyiv office.
Ukraine ranks 116th out of 180 countries in campaign group Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, with the last placed country seen as most corrupt.
Kryvonos’ appointment last March was a key requirement for the European Union to launch membership negotiations with Ukraine. Brussels will be closely watching Kyiv’s progress in its fight against graft.
This year alone, NABU together with the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office has launched nearly 300 cases and sent a record 58 indictments to court, he said.
Targets have included a regional council chief and two deputy governors for allegedly extorting money from an entrepreneur who helped the military, as well as a former head of the state property fund accused of orchestrating a $13.5 million embezzlement scheme.
The anti-corruption authorities have also sent more than $52 million in funds seized during probes or as part of court settlements to Ukraine’s military since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.
Their work has been bolstered by government shake-ups over corruption, such as the dismissal by Zelenskiy this month of all the regional military recruitment chiefs after a nationwide audit.
Still, Kryvonos, a former head of Ukraine’s state building inspectorate, said his agency needs more detectives, an independent forensic centre and better technology to match the increasing sophistication of sleaze.
“[Suspects] have a great deal of funds to spend in order to hide their criminal activities, and we need to keep up with them,” he said.
A bigger staff of 300 detectives, compared to the current level of nearly 250, would allow for a new unit dedicated solely to reconstruction-related crimes and to strengthen an existing one probing defence-related corruption, Kryvonos added.
He said pushback from vested interests is still a challenge but that Ukraine’s traditionally vibrant civil society is a key ally in keeping up pressure.
A Transparency-commissioned opinion poll in June found that at least 77% of Ukrainians believe corruption is currently among Ukraine’s main problems.
“Is there resistance? 1,000% there is – but we’re not standing idly by,” Kryvonos said. “And this desire, first and foremost, comes from every Ukrainian who feels this harsh injustice.”