The war in Ukraine has awakened international cooperation unlike any event since World War II, as international organizations and states have come together to sanction Russia’s invasion. These measures to help with Ukraine’s war efforts have included economic sanctions, providing military equipment, and the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees by several European Union countries and the US. Although Russia’s economy has been devastated by the invasion, and Russian forces haven’t taken Ukrainian cities as easily as they had assumed, the campaign continues. All this to say, there are a few factors that the international community, and especially the media, have not actively pursued in the days since the invasion began, including historical corruption and complicated political ties within Ukraine.
In previous years, Ukraine was consistently described as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and without protections for civil liberties (see Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2021; an article by The Guardian in 2015; an analysis by Ernst & Young in 2018; Freedom House’s latest categorization of “partly free,” along the lines of the Philippines or Hungary; etc.). United States Foreign Service diplomats once described Ukraine as a kleptocracy, a nation whose elites use economic and political corruption to acquire the resources of their populations through embezzlement and misappropriation.
Since the beginning of the war, discussion of terms like kleptocracy, billionaire oligarchs, and corruption that previously defined Ukraine’s political landscape have largely revolved around Russia; think sanctions against Russian oligarchs like the former owner of a British football club, Roman Abramovich, or the acquisition of yachts scattered across European docks owned by other Russian businessmen.
Each year, due to corruption, Ukraine loses over a quarter of its GDP, which has not risen nearly as much as neighboring Poland or Russia in recent decades. This amounts to $37 billion from its state budget. This shadow economy is hurting the Ukrainian people and is a blatant indicator of democratic erosion. Bribery plagues the daily lives of citizens in their attempts to obtain any public services, but political corruption is also prevalent, evident in Joe Biden’s claims in 2016.
The United States supported the far-right Svoboda party in the wake of the 2014 Maidan Square protests, after which U.S. diplomats helped to institute a new, pro-Western government. As other far-right militia groups continued to violently oppose Russia and pro-Russian separatists, President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to fulfill his election mandate to bring peace. However, over time he incorporated a number of these groups, including the Azov Battalion into his military and national police forces, with general support from the United States.
Many of the stories on corruption once dominated reporting on Ukraine, while some of the political realities never surfaced in a major way in Western media. The current focus by the media on Russia’s misdeeds may be justified as an effort to maintain control of the information environment and expose the aggressor—and rightfully so. But without an understanding of Ukraine’s corrupt history and the vested interests throughout its government, there can be no hope of returning the Ukrainian people to a sovereign state in which the democratic process is respected and the norms of corruption and democratic repression are eliminated from government and day-to-day life. Free media has the responsibility to present accurate, timely, and relevant information during international crises, as it is this information that will ensure the continuation of democracy in Ukraine and accountability for leaders around the world involved in the crisis and Ukraine’s political past.
There is always the argument for silencing opposition and media sources during a war as an executive emergency power. In this case, Zelensky has faced the responsibility of ensuring that his country is not vulnerable to external manipulation of the information environment, and he also wishes to establish stricter control over what information is shared. At the same time, allowing dissent within Ukraine and having alternative perspectives shared with the rest of the world is essential to protecting freedom of speech and the multiplicity of ideas and actors after the war. The more that citizens of western allies know, the better able they will be to express informed support for the war effort. There is no doubt that civilians are the true victims of any war, and that Ukrainian civilians require the support of the international community during this time. This community needs to understand, acknowledge, and work to combat not only the military threats facing Ukraine but also the less obvious political and economic ones that have existed before and will continue to exist after the war.
To understand a different perspective of the “why” of the war, read this interview with John Mearsheimer, who has long spoken about Ukraine and the West, and whose work you’ve likely read if you’ve taken Intro to IR. Mearsheimer highlights some of the illogical arguments that the media has focused on surrounding Russia’s intentions, and explains the realist point of view.
Amanda – I love this post, you truly highlight pivotal points that are missing from conversations about the war. I think is rather fascinating in how easy the media can shift their narrative (a power that can be used for both good and evil). Media truly does have a responsibility to provide well-rounded accurate information that can project accountability, but I think there may be some difficulty in how the media goes about approaching this matter. I believe commentators would have to emphasize more solidarity for Ukrainian citizens at the forefront of conversations, and then explain how Ukraine’s past problems still exist in the present, and how accountability for this could truly make a better democratic environment for the people. My fear is that if the media goes straight into Ukraine’s past without context, it could potentially be seen as targeting a country that is under attack, causing viewers to dismiss the information and view it as sympathizing with the aggressor. Regardless of my fear, I do agree with you and I believe that is essential the past corruption gets acknowledged, otherwise, in the future, Ukrainian people will continue to be hurt the most if the problems they faced before the war continue to exist.
I completely agree with what you said here. I think when dealing with pretty much any ex-Soviet state except for the Baltics, corruption will come up at some point. That being said, corruption is definitely a spectrum, and it would take a very involved journalism endeavor to properly contextualize the Ukrainian form of corruption against the ex-Soviet backdrop. I think in some ways, Ukraine is being glorified in part because it is being attacked by Russia. This is not to say that Russia is not at fault here. Russia is very obviously the bad guy from any angle. However, that doesn’t mean that because one side is the aggressor, the other side now has a spotless rap sheet. Specifically when dealing with the Soviet Bloc, as I said before, clientelism, corruption, oligarchy, and kleptocracy all persist. Information control has long been a struggle of Eastern European regimes, and Ukraine is no different. I can see both sides to the argument that in order to present a united front, in an already politically-fractured country, it is best to only present one narrative. But at the same time, people’s right to know trumps a certain agenda. All that being said, it is also important to note the level of political instability present in Ukraine since Crimea and even long before that. Especially in the Eastern parts of the country, the Donbas region, who has long voiced opposition to the Ukrainian administration. The Donbas region has long been rebelling against the government and voicing its desire for independence. Whether or not we think this all is “right”, we should still be informing people. It is interesting how much of a pedestal the West and the media seems to have built for Ukraine. I do not have a problem with lifting up a country when they need help. I do have a problem with scrubbing their past.
I love this post. I really thought more people would talk about Ukraine in their blogs, especially since the ongoing crisis. Like you’ve highlighted in your blog post, corruption is a huge problem. The president of the Ukraine, comically trained Volodymyr Zelenskyy, acted in a political satire that mocked how much corruption there was in the Ukraine . I even believe resistance against some of this corruption is a part of the reason the Ukraine war is happening. Starting with the rise of Yanukovych.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, the former prime minister of Ukraine in 2002, won the presidential election with aims for an authoritarian regime in Ukraine . As soon as he entered office, he immediately began to remove checks and balances, to concentrate his own power . He canceled the 2004 amendments in the constitution that weakened the office of the president. By 2011 he jailed his primary political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko, for making a gas deal with Russia that Yanukovych deemed harmful for the economy . During this time, Yanukovych also acquired huge fortunes which he shared with loyalist entourages and family members. At the time, nearly $70 billion was reportedly transferred into foreign accounts . Nothing stood in the way of Yanukovych, except for a new association agreement being planned with the European Union. Through this agreement, Ukrainians hoped that it would bolster the faltering Ukrainian democratic institutions and enforce European business standards, doing away with the widespread corruption . However, this deal wasn’t the only agreement in the works for Yanukovych’s administration. At the opposite end of the table was a treaty to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Which spelled the opposite of what was promised in the European association agreement. Their deal would lead to closer ties to Russia, and the threat of Russian competitors dominating their markets . Likewise, Russia was keen on ensuring the Ukrainians stayed in their center of gravity. All through 2013 they initiated a trade-war with Ukraine and prevented the sale of some Ukrainian goods in their market as a point of economic pressure not to sign the European deal. The Russians also offered a $15 Billion loan to Ukraine, intended to save their government from an impending default. Russia clearly wanted to keep Ukraine their sphere of influence .
However, for the Ukrainian public there was a clear favored option, 49% percent of Ukrainians supported the EU association agreement with 31% disagreeing . Even some oligarchs in Ukraine agreed with the European plan, wanting to curb Yanukovych’s power, as well as wanting access to lucrative European markets . At the end of 2013, the summit in Vilnius to sign the agreement was planned for November 28. However, a week before the signing, Yanukovych’s administration refused to sign anything, opting to postpone instead . Right after Yanukovych’s dismissal of the European agreement, the first installments of money offered by the Russians arrived, a likely coincidence . The previous year of promises, and the hope of a better European future, especially one further away from Russia’s grip, were now broken. The Ukrainian public responded with outrage and protest. On November 21, after the refusal to sign the agreement, protesters began to camp on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in Kyiv and the site of the previous 2004 Orange Revolution . Not wanting to repeat 2004, on November 30, Yanukovych deployed police to disperse the crowd that resulted in widespread police brutality. An act Ukrainians were not willing to tolerate. The following day, hundreds of thousands turned out on Maidan, transforming the protests into the Revolution of Dignity with Ukrainians refusing to leave the streets.
The corruption and ties to Russia that Viktor Yanukovych had, formed somewhat as a catalyst for the ensuing events that pushed the Ukraine public away from Russia and more towards Europe. The Maidan revolution was a symbolic tip of the scale that sent Moscow into a more imperialistic tone with Ukraine. Overall, I thought it was a great post, and talks about something that is often overlooked in Ukraine.
 “Servant of the People: ‘Zelensky’s comedy made me admire him more’.” 7 Mar. 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-60647206. Accessed 2 May. 2022.
 Wilson, Andrew. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, Fourth Edition . Yale University Press.
 Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 338). Basic Books.
 Ibid 1. pp. 337-342.
 Ibid 2. pp. 337-342.
 Ibid 3. pp. 337-342.
 Ibid 4. pp. 337-342.
 Ibid. 5. pp. 337-342.
 “Большинство украинцев поддерживают ассоциацию с ЕС.” 4 Sep. 2013, https://zn.ua/POLITICS/bolshinstvo-ukraincev-podderzhivayut-associaciyu-s-es-128544_.html. Accessed 2 May. 2022.
 Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 337-342). Basic Books.
 “Why Ukraine’s Euromaidan is not spreading to other post-Soviet states.” 22 Mar. 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/22/why-ukraines-euromaidan-is-not-spreading-to-other-post-soviet-states/. Accessed 2 May. 2022.
 Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 337-342). Basic Books.
I agree with you that historical corruption in Ukraine is being starkly overlooked by foreign actors. Free media is responsible for reporting true and fast information to the public, especially in wartime. Allowing for varying opinions, including dissent, is a vital part of the news. This is especially important in times of international crises, as you point out, as it allows for global actors to gain insight into citizens’ experiences and thoughts. Even in the name of avoiding “vulnerability” and “manipulation,” suppressing or altering the media is a harmful tactic.
The United States, and other states for that matter, claim to support Ukrainian efforts in the name of democracy, which the (Ukrainian) government is clearly lacking in. While this holds true in some aspects, the central reason for international hysteria/assistance emerges from a fear of Russia. In other words, states (especially the U.S.) are more concerned with the prospect of Russia gaining power than for Ukraine’s sovereignty. This is quite a realist view of the situation, but it would explain the neglect of Zelenky’s recent undemocratic actions, as well as Ukraine’s historical misconduct. Of course this is ironic, as we simultaneously oppose an authoritarian regime (Russia) yet support one with “kleptocracy” tendencies. At the same time, as conflict continues, it would be seen as undemocratic of the U.S. and others to not aid Ukraine based on such an untold narrative. In this way, it is a difficult and complex point you make, yet interesting nonetheless.
In the long run, though, the international community’s ignorance is a call for concern. Like you say, these are indicators of democratic backsliding, which could lead to yet another conflict in the future. I think the world would be better off knowing Ukraine’s true political and economic condition, as it would hopefully lead to a more democratic post-war reconstruction effort.