Americans who even casually followed the news in the fall of 2020 probably know that Ukraine was infamously corrupt long before the United States sent the country $54 billion in aid after the Russian invasion in February. They might not know much else about Ukraine, but they know it’s the kind of place where just being the son of the vice president of the United States can get you an $83,000 monthly paycheck for sitting on the board of an energy company.
No one knows this better than Ukrainians themselves, who have to put up with a level of official corruption on par with countries like Mexico and Gabon. Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Ukraine 122 out of 180 countries worldwide, and the second most corrupt country in Europe — right after Russia.
But talking about any of this publicly is a big problem for establishment neocons in Washington because it invites uncomfortable questions about the U.S. role in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. Just ask Ukrainian-born Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., who lived in Ukraine until she was 22 and has been back six times since the Russian invasion. Spartz probably understands what’s happening in Ukraine better than anyone else in Congress, and yet Republican House leaders now say they regret giving her such a prominent platform to speak out against the war.
Why? Because she’s asking hard questions about corruption among some of Ukraine’s top officials, as well as raising totally reasonable concerns about U.S. oversight of the billions of dollars and unprecedented amount of weaponry we’ve been pouring into the country.
Such questions undermine the neocon narrative that Ukraine is a noble beacon of democracy and freedom, and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a Churchillian figure whose integrity and policies cannot be questioned. That narrative is what the neocons are relying on to prolong the war with indefinite financing and use the conflict as a way to punish Russia.
Narrative integrity notwithstanding, the reality of Ukrainian corruption and the complete absence of U.S. accountability aren’t concerns that can simply be waved away, no matter what paper-thin talking points Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is spouting this week. The fact is, there’s plenty of evidence that Zelensky’s government is deeply corrupt, that he has surrounded himself with officials who served in previous corrupt Ukrainian governments, and that maybe Ukraine isn’t the kind of place the United States should be flooding with tens of billions of dollars in cash and weapons.
The backstory is that on Friday, Politico reported Republican House leaders (who of course remained anonymous) are “coming to regret” elevating Spartz as an authority on Ukraine after she criticized both Zelensky and President Joe Biden for “playing politics” with the war, and called on Congress to “establish proper oversight of critical infrastructure and delivery of weapons and aid.” Hers is a reasonable request, of course — especially after the debacle in Afghanistan last fall, when some $80 billion in U.S. military hardware wound up in the hands of the Taliban following the disastrous U.S. withdrawal.
Spartz also issued a letter asking the Biden administration to brief Congress on Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, widely considered to be the second most powerful person in Ukraine. Spartz said Yermak, a former media lawyer and movie producer with close ties to Russia, “raises many concerns with a variety of people in the United States and internationally.” She also noted Yermak’s appointment of Oleh Tatarov, who served as the head of the main investigative department of the Interior Ministry under former President Viktor Yanukovych. Recall that Yanukovych’s tenure was marked by stupendous levels of corruption and ended when he fled to Russia during the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014.
Tatarov, though, stayed in Ukraine and was appointed by Zelensky as his deputy chief of staff in August 2020. That December, he was charged with bribery by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), but the case was dropped after then-Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova twice replaced the prosecutors in charge and then pulled the case from the NABU and gave it to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which dropped the charges.
Zelensky faced intense pressure to fire Tatarov but refused. According to the Kyiv Independent, by the time news broke of his acquittal, about a month before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, Tatarov had “become the symbol of Zelensky’s tolerance of corruption in his inner circle.”
Now comes news that Zelensky has fired Venediktova, the prosecutor general who obstructed and effectively destroyed the case against Tatarov, as well as the head of the SBU, a man named Ivan Bakanov. In a speech Sunday night, Zelensky said the dismissals were a response to a large number of high treason investigations involving law enforcement personnel, including dozens of people who remain in occupied territory and, according to Zelensky, are working against the state.
Tatarov, though, wasn’t fired. He’s now in charge of anti-corruption efforts in Zelensky’s office.
Like everything else in Ukraine, there’s no way to know what’s actually happening there, but a few red flags should give American readers pause. For one thing, anonymous U.S. officials quoted by The New York Times would like you to know that everything is fine; there’s nothing to see here. They told the Times the dismissals “reflect Mr. Zelensky’s efforts to put more experienced leaders in key security positions.”
But you would think after nearly five months of waging an all-out defensive war against Russia, a war that Zelensky has characterized as a fight for national survival, the most experienced leaders would already be in key positions such as prosecutor general and head of domestic intelligence. Why weren’t they?
Bakanov, the now-fired head of the SBU, is a childhood friend of Zelensky and a former director of a television production company started by Zelensky and some of his friends. Why was a media executive appointed to lead the Security Service of Ukraine in the first place?
And why is Tatarov, of all people, in charge of anti-corruption efforts? As Spartz noted in her letter, Tatarov has delayed the appointment of an independent anti-corruption prosecutor for more than a year, rendering the NABU — the agency that brought corruption charges against him in 2020 and was still actively investigating him when he assumed his current post — incapacitated.
The dismissal of Bakanov also raises questions given the rumors that Tatarov had been spearheading an effort to replace him with an old colleague from the Yanukovych administration, Vasyl Malyuk, who was fired from the SBU a year ago but now, as a result of Bakanov’s firing, is running the agency.
A lot of questions here, and even at first glance it’s pretty clear that Ukrainian politics is a viper’s nest of corruption and graft. Just don’t ask any questions about it or demand any oversight, because that might get in the way of the neocons’ Ukraine agenda in Washington. The whole thing stinks, and it tells you everything you need to know about how much the Washington establishment cares about corruption in Ukraine and oversight of the $54 billion we’re sending in aid and weapons.
Instead of casting aspersions on Spartz, her Republican colleagues should be amplifying her concerns and demanding more oversight from the Biden administration. At the very least, if they disagree with her and think everything is fine in Ukraine, they should say so, and make an argument.
But they won’t, because digging into Ukraine’s corruption problems could jeopardize their plans to prolong the war in Ukraine with unlimited financing and turn it into a U.S. proxy war against Russia. The neocons in Washington all know, deep down, what most Americans figured out back in the fall of 2020: Any country where an energy company pays Hunter Biden $83,000 a month to sit on its board is mindbogglingly corrupt and has been for a very long time. It’s just that they don’t care.