Ukraine’s Zelensky Struggles With Corruption as He Competes With Israel for Support

ukraine corruption losing war
Government of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t that long ago that the United States was glued to their screens watching the war in Ukraine. American’s hearts simultaneously swelled and broke as Ukrainians bravely held back the Russian invaders, and their fearless and charismatic president held the line.

Now, as the Ukrainian war heads into winter and the end of the second year of fighting, the Ukrainian president finds himself struggling to maintain the same level of attention as before, let alone support after the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel.

It would be hard enough to maintain focus on the war in Ukraine after what happened in Israel on October 7th. But the reality is President Volodymyr Zelensky has struggled to keep support going for Ukraine, and the problem lies within his own country.

The problem is the same as it has been for Ukraine for decades now: rampant corruption.

The lone wolf

TIME Magazine published an article highlighting the shift in the air away from support for Ukraine and the frustrations of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and those in his charge. A leader once heralded as charming and steely in his resolve now seems more desperate and on an island regarding his hopes for Ukraine.

A close aid to President Zelensky told TIME’s Simon Shuster:

“He deludes himself. We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”

President Zelensky said in his interview with the magazine:

“Nobody believes in our victory like I do. Nobody.”

He may be onto something. The war in Ukraine has had its fair share of unnamed sources leaking information to the press and now is no exception.

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A former Ukrainian soldier told Newsweek recently:

“It’s time for Zelensky to admit reality, stop being in denial, and act accordingly.”

Is Mr. Zelensky the glue that is holding his country together, or is he holding onto a dream that was destined to fail? 

Running out of tomorrows

Before the invasion, Ukraine was known for its penchant for corruption. A country that was and possibly could still be a hub for arms trafficking, it was and still is the second most corrupt country in Europe behind none other than Russia, according to Transparency International.

Mr. Shuster heard firsthand how bad corruption is even after President Zelensky attempted to crack down on dirty politicians and military leaders in his administration.

A top presidential advisor told TIME Magazine:

“People are stealing like there’s no tomorrow.”

And what they’re stealing isn’t even their own. It comes from American taxpayers.

Bribery seems to be the preferred activity of those in Ukraine wishing to profit from the war. President Zelensky removed a judge for taking bribes and wiped out every draft officer in the country for widespread corruption. 

Turns out the draft officers were taking bribes from men they had pulled off trains and buses to go to the front lines in exchange for fraudulent medical exemptions.

And yet it was just a few months ago that the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said:

“Russia continues to pay severely for its war of choice. Unlike Ukrainian forces – who are highly motivated to fight for their country, their freedom, their democracy and their way of life – the Russians lack leadership, and they lack will.”

Motivations seem to have shifted for some Ukrainians who, if they have the means, are willing to pay off officials to avoid fighting for said freedom and democracy.

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One and the same?

Mr. Zelensky is known for his ability to read a room and pivot messaging on a dime if needed. He is attempting to do just that in light of recent events in the Middle East.

Tying his cause to that of Israel, President Zelensky warns:

“A third world war could start in Ukraine, continue in Israel, and move on from there to Asia, and then explode somewhere else.”

In one of his nightly addresses on social media, the embattled Ukrainian president said:

“Russia is interested in triggering a war in the Middle East, so that a new source of pain and suffering could undermine world unity, increase discord and contradictions, and thus help Russia destroy freedom in Europe.”

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Mr. Zelensky goes on to attempt to draw parallels between Russia and Hamas:

“Terrorists like Putin, or like Hamas, seek to hold free and democratic nations as hostages and they want power over those who seek freedom.”

While the two conflicts have nothing in common, marrying the two rhetorically is a savvy strategy given the push to tie support for Ukraine with support for Israel in D.C.

Waning support in America for sending more money and aid to Ukraine and increased focus on the Middle East has forced some creative accounting and messaging by not just Mr. Zelensky, but the neoconservative War Party in D.C. as well.

The most important thing ever

Despite fears of diminishing support due to distractions in the Middle East and concerns over corruption, the White House is still pushing forward with aid, asking for another $61 billion to go to Ukraine. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has consistently pushed back against his fellow Republicans who argue aid to Ukraine shouldn’t be tied to other issues, such as Israel, or should be stopped altogether.

Senator McConnell has said:

“Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that.”

The ground truth of the war in Ukraine tells a different story. Today, a fifth of Ukraine’s territory remains in Russia’s control, which is not a good position leading into the winter season.

Earlier, Senator McConnell claimed:

“…defeating the Russians in Ukraine is the single most important event going on in the world right now.”

However, according to a recent CNN poll, over half of Americans would disagree, with 55% believing Congress should not authorize additional funding for Ukraine.

In defense of the $61 billion requested from the Biden administration, the senator explained:

“If you look at the Ukraine assistance, a significant portion of what’s being spent in the United States and 38 different states, replacing the weapons that we send to Ukraine with more modern weapons, so we’re rebuilding our industrial base.”

And therein lies what actually moves U.S. foreign policy. As long as U.S. politicians can bolster their defense lobby contacts, there will be continued support regardless of corruption within Ukraine’s government. 

But the world ought to be wary of promises made by anyone in D.C.; look to Afghanistan to see how far American promises go. Time is ticking, but if history repeats itself, Ukraine has at least another 18 years of support before the United States pulls out abruptly, leaving Ukraine ripe for Putin’s picking. 

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson