Corruption, fraud and Ukraine’s defense minister – POLITICO

Adrian Karatnicki is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “Battleground Ukraine: From Independence to the Russian War,” due out later this year.

In recent days, a fusillade of articles in the Ukrainian and Western media have reported scandals, both alleged and real, involving price gouging for food supplies to the Ukrainian military and the sale of low-quality body armor at inflated prices. As a result, several key officials of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense were fired, one was caught with several thousand dollars in cash, and a criminal investigation was launched.

Thus far, the scale of the alleged violations runs into the millions of dollars – big numbers to be sure. But that’s a drop in the bucket of tens of millions of dollars in Ukrainian and Western-funded defense spending since Russia’s massive invasion.

Anti-corruption activists have rightly blamed secrecy surrounding procurement contracts and identified weaknesses in internal monitoring technology and systems. But Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said even public procurement of food for the military could reveal information about its size and other wartime secrets useful to Russia.

Reznikov also stressed that if there was a price increase for some food items, it was in one of the eight contracts that the ministry sealed, as well as the overall cost of providing food per capita for the military, amid global food price increases. 10 percent more than the year before the war—this, despite the logistical challenges of operating in a war zone.

And all this needs to be kept in mind as the debate over Reznikov’s fate continues. Although, at the time of writing, cooler heads seem to prevail.

US and NATO officials say the alleged abuses are not related to billions in arms and ammunition transfers to Ukraine directly from the West. In fact, the best evidence of the effective use of Western military aid is being demonstrated on the battlefield, where Ukrainian forces have excelled.

In addition, the Ukrainian government’s response to allegations of fraud and possible corruption has been very reasonable. Those directly responsible for the dubious deal have resigned, and a criminal investigation has been launched. Moreover, the Ministry of Defense and Parliament moved quickly to find a middle ground between secrecy and accountability in wartime procurement.

Despite these facts, however, a small group of zealous anti-corruption activists and journalists – with no direct experience in the national security or military industry sectors – have called for the well-known Reznikov’s resignation or dismissal.

All corruption and price gouging must be investigated and punished – especially in a country where every stolen dollar undermines the war effort. Nevertheless, given the scale of the wartime budget, which takes up the bulk of state spending and resources, it is important to realize that such incidents are probably inevitable, even with the best systems of control and auditing.

In the perilous environment that Ukraine faced earlier in the year, when Russian forces were advancing rapidly, the priority was to gather quickly available supplies, while the country’s military, national guard and regional defenses. The unit was extended.

In 1982, during the early days of Ronald Reagan’s US presidency and the nation’s military build-up against the Soviet threat, noted strategic thinker Edward Luttwak (whose recent ideas about war with Russia were not well received by Ukrainians) published an important book. The article is titled, “Why We Need More Waste, Fraud and Abuse at the Pentagon.”

Luttwak’s provocative headline was making a rather mundane point: the United States needs a much larger defense budget, and such an expanded budget will inevitably lead to waste, occasional fraud, and mismanagement. Luttwak also argues that it is crucial to respond to and try to minimize such systemic failures, while recognizing that they are inevitable and should not diminish the need for a strong military built on innovation.

He also warned against excessive civilian micromanagement and control, concluding: “If the price of a smarter strategy, better operational procedures, and smarter tactics is indeed the neglect of micro-management, then so be it.”

Luttwak’s argument is key to Ukraine being locked in an existential war against President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Among the current set of grievances, both the Ukrainian public and the country’s Western friends should acknowledge that there will be occasional failures in the military’s control system. And these failures must be seen as par for the course in any military that is rapidly developing and dealing with wartime exigencies.

Undoubtedly, such failure will lead to improved measures of control and punishment of those guilty of corruption. However, they should not be tempted into witch-hunts, which could unnecessarily oust Ukraine’s highly effective national security leadership.

The Ministry of Defense’s occasional failings need to be judiciously weighed against Reznikov’s impressive record of achievements. Aside from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he has emerged as the most effective advocate for Western military aid, and his rational arguments have won the trust of Western allies.

Ukraine should only switch horses in the middle in exceptionally dire circumstances – and based on what we know, such circumstances are currently absent.