Corruption: America must learn from its recent past – for the good of Ukraine

The United States has a history of ignoring — and even facilitating — corruption in war-torn countries in exchange for political capital, security, or strategic military advantage, whether perceived or real. It happened in Afghanistan in three presidential administrations (Bush, Obama and Trump) and could very well happen again in Ukraine under the Biden administration.

The 2016 Report of the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR) examined how the United States “understands the risks of corruption in Afghanistan, how the American response to corruption has evolved, and the effectiveness of that response.” The SIGAR report identified five main findings. In summary, corruption undermined the mission in Afghanistan; the United States has contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars using faulty oversight; the United States has been slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem, and certain policies have exacerbated the problem; security and political objectives prevailed over vigorous anti-corruption actions; and when the United States has sought to fight corruption, success has been limited in the absence of sustained political commitment from Afghans and the United States. Ancient Ambassador Ryan Crocker said: “The ultimate point of failure of our efforts…was not an insurrection. It was the weight of endemic corruption. A SIGAR Report 2020 referred to an inspector general’s review of $63 billion in Afghan reconstruction funds appropriated by Congress, of which they concluded that about 30%, or $19 billion, had been lost to fraud, waste and abuse.

According to Transparency International corruption perception index (the global standard for measuring levels of corruption by country), Ukraine and Russia are ranked near the bottom of the scale, with only three points on their scoring system separating the two. For context, the The American score is 35 points higher than Ukraine and 38 points more than Russia.

On July 1, 2022, the same day, the Ministry of Defense announced another $820 million in security assistance to Ukraine, a New York Times published an interview with former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (2016-2019). When Yovanovitch was asked if she was worried about the “huge amounts of aid” being sent to Ukraine, given its corrupt history, she replied in part: “I just think that at this existential moment , where Ukrainians are fighting for their country, their freedom, their families, I don’t think it would be tolerated. I think someone would speak out and I think it would be stopped.

This answer contradicts what anti-corruption practitioners know to be true, for three reasons.

First, while everyone would like to believe that integrity prevails in times of crisis, history has shown that in places where levels of corruption were already a major problem – such as in Afghanistan – integrity only decrease further. Altruism does not suddenly appear in the hearts of corrupt officials in times of heavily funded chaos. Even in countries with relatively low levels of corruption, disasters and wars are well-documented examples in which corruption and fraud invariably escalate. This is due to a massive influx of funds, confusion caused by a sense of urgency, overstretched resources, and the shift in government attention to the war effort and humanitarian needs.

Second, whistleblowers do not thrive where serious corruption exists. Citizens tend to be disenfranchised by the failure to crack down on corruption. They don’t believe exposing corruption will do any good, so they remain silent. In the event that whistleblowers exist, they likely won’t have a good place to report the allegations. Systemic corruption thrives when there are no consequences for corruption. Law enforcement has shown either an inability or an unwillingness to resolve the issue. So even if whistleblowers were to report suspected corruption, it would likely land with an agency that has already proven unwilling or unable to hold corrupt officials accountable. In May 2022 interview with Voice of Americathe head of Ukraine’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption claimed that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (a sister agency) in Ukraine “has not opened any new investigations into high-level corruption in the military Ukrainian since the start of the full-scale invasion on Feb. 2. 24.”

Third, when the United States sends money for disaster relief (whether COVID or Katrina) or foreign aid, it is sent knowing that some of it will be lost, stolen, and misused. . So, if whistleblowers existed and they decided to inform US embassy officials of suspected corruption, or if embassy officials discovered the corruption themselves, it is unlikely that anything will be done. Since the start of the invasion, the United States has shown its willingness to protect Ukraine from bad press, but it would be particularly indifferent to allowing bad press for something it already knew would happen – in especially in the middle of a war. Reports of bribery and theft of U.S. taxpayer aid to Ukraine could impact the administration’s ability to secure future funds for Ukraine and place higher constraints on the money sent, which slows down aid and diminishes the political benefits of supporting Ukraine.

The 2016 SIGAR report identified six key lessons in their investigation. The four most relevant to the current situation in Ukraine are: making the fight against corruption a priority; develop a common understanding of corruption (between partners in the United States and in the host country); consider limits (on aid) and provide monitoring assistance; integrating the fight against corruption with security and stability instead of seeing it as being in conflict with security and stability.

The US government has a fiduciary responsibility when using taxpayers’ money. But being good stewards also creates a unique opportunity for the United States to help raise Ukraine’s much-needed anti-corruption standards. A good start would be for the US government to be transparent about the corruption problems that exist in Ukraine and clear about the controls it plans to implement (investigating and prosecuting task forces, exerting political pressure, maintaining aid conditional on meeting anti-corruption criteria, etc.) to protect US money and bolster Ukrainian stability through a stronger anti-corruption posture.

As long as the war persists, the United States and other countries will continue to provide assistance to Ukraine to meet its defensive and humanitarian needs.

But the more corruption is fueled inconsequentially, the worse the problem will get. And if the United States does not learn from its past – including the very recent past – Ukraine could emerge from the war, corruption-wise, worse off than when it entered it.

Jeff Cortese, a responsible for financial crimes in the private sector, is the former acting head of the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit and author of the book “Public corruption in the United States: analysis of a destructive phenomenon.” Prior to his 11-year career with the office, he worked as a dignitary protection officer with the United States Capitol Police and served on the Speaker of the House’s security detail. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreycortese or find him on his website

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