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.