Russia’s war in Ukraine has made slow progress amid a catalogue of corruption-related blows to the morale of its military. Josie Stewart and Joseph Moore chart the stalling of long-standing attempts to control Ukraine.
When Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of that cold February morning a year ago, his plan represented a shock and awe offensive, aimed at encircling the capital Kyiv until the capitulation of the Ukrainian army and, eventually, the annexation of Ukraine. Even amongst Western observers, there was scepticism that Ukraine could effectively counter Russia.
This was the next step in a strategy which had already seen Putin spend two decades trying to control Kyiv through weaponised strategic corruption: enriching pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine such as Dmytro Firtash or Viktor Medvedchuk, who in turn bought up news channels, bankrolled political parties, and steadily built up Ukraine’s political and economic dependence on Russia.
But when corruption is used as a weapon, it can backfire.
Up until recently, the Russian army was praised as one of the world’s most powerful militaries. Today, one year on from the escalated invasion, having already suffered staggering loses with an estimated 200,000 dead and wounded soldiers, Russia’s ill-predicted quick victory seems a long way away.
There is no question that the war has not gone as Putin hoped. How much of this is because a reliance on corruption has come back to bite him?
Back in 2008, Russia embarked on the task of modernising its military forces. This process entailed a rapid increase in defence spending: 175 per cent growth from 2000-2019, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This peaked in 2016 at 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). That’s a lot of spending in a context where public sector corruption is rife.
Our most recent Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Russia 137th out of 180 countries and Russia’s military is not immune. Our Government Defence Integrity Index 2020 assessed Russia’s defence sector as being at high risk of corruption, due to the extremely limited oversight of defence-related policies, budgets, activities and acquisitions, in conjunction with high levels of opacity in defence procurement.
As a result, bribe money intended to buy a Ukrainian coup was stolen before it could leave Russian hands, soldiers on the front line were provided with ration packs seven years out of date, crowdsourcing for body armour was required for troops not properly equipped for the war, fuel was sold on the black market before it could power Russian tanks and supply chains failed. Ultimately as a result of this all – Russian morale suffered.
The UK Ministry of Defence’s intelligence updates further supported this and flagged ‘corruption amongst commanders’, with the “Russian military… consistently [failing] to provide basic entitlements to troops deployed in Ukraine… almost certainly contributing to the continued fragile morale of much of the force.” The Head of Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention of Ukraine (NACP) also expressed his “sincere gratitude” to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – who is alleged to own property worth at least $18 million (somehow reportedly acquired on his official annual salary of $120,000) – for the “invaluable contribution” Russian embezzlement had provided in better enabling the defence of Ukraine.
In contrast to the corruption-related problems that have plagued the effectiveness of Russia’s Army from the start, Ukraine has invested in improving oversight and accountability, action initiated following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Our colleagues at the Independent Defence Anti-Corruption Committee (NAKO) have been working closely with the Ukrainian Government on this since 2016. Ukraine is continuing to fight corruption at the same time as fighting on the battlefield. With the stakes this high, they know they must win on both fronts.
At Transparency International Defence and Security we have long argued that a failure to strengthen defence governance together with increases in defence spending increases the risk of corruption – and that corruption in defence undermines military effectiveness. In other words: it’s not just how much you spend that determines the outcome. Russia’s challenges in Ukraine only reinforce this argument.