A Brief Note on Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (or, more accurately, the dramatic escalation and expansion of the invasion that Russia already started eight years ago) is horrifying. As I type this, Russian forces are moving against Kyiv, and Ukrainian defense forces and reservists are preparing to defend their capital city against overwhelming odds, while the Ukrainian army elsewhere in the country is doing its best to resist Russian advances from all directions. I have nothing useful to say about this terrible situation. I am not a military analyst, an expert in geopolitics, or even terribly knowledgeable about aspects of this crisis closer to my own areas of expertise (such as questions regarding the efficacy of sanctions the West is imposing, or could impose). I’m just a professor, not terribly well known outside my fairly narrow areas of academic specialization, who runs a blog about anticorruption. But this morning, I can’t really think of anything else to write about.

Maybe at some point I’ll be able to collect and organize my thoughts and say something coherent about how this war relates to the global fight against corruption. There most certainly is a connection–probably several connections–even though corruption/anticorruption is only one part of the story. For now, let me just share scattered thoughts and reactions:

First off, I want to express my sympathy and solidarity with all of my friends in Ukraine. I’ve had the opportunity to visit Kyiv twice and to meet with many people there, especially in the anticorruption community. I serve as a Board member for Transparency International’s Ukraine chapter, and in that capacity have gotten to know the outstanding and dedicated staff of that organization, as well as my fellow Board members (all of whom are Ukrainian). I don’t know if any of you are out there reading this, but if you are, I wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you and hoping for the best.

Next, while I don’t want to fall into the trap that so many academics fall into, of exaggerating the importance of my area of specialization (in this case corruption) to the biggest world event right now, I do think that there is in fact an important connection, or set of connections.

As plenty of other more knowledgeable commentators have pointed out, Putin’s claim that Ukraine poses a military threat to Russia is laughable, but Ukraine does pose a different kind of threat: a cultural and political threat. This threat emerged with the 2014 Maidan uprising, and sharpened when Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, won the presidency in 2019 on an anticorruption platform. I don’t want to romanticize Zelensky or exaggerate his anticorruption accomplishments: Many of my friends in the Ukrainian civil society community had been quite critical of his administration and questioned his close relationship with certain Ukrainian oligarchs. That said, the vision Zelensky presented of a new, cleaner Ukraine, and the tangible steps that his government has been taking to promote integrity and curb the power of entrenched elites to enrich themselves at the people’s expense, was, I suspect, deeply threatening to Putin’s inner circle. Putin himself may be motivated by larger geopolitical ambitions or his sense of Russia’s rightful place in the international order. I wouldn’t pretend to know what’s in his head. But it seems fairly clear that for many of those around him, it’s not about ideology or history — they’re in it for the money. And they’re scared not just of having a liberal, democratic, pro-Western Ukraine on their border; they’re also scared of how a less corrupt, non-kleptocratic Ukraine might inspire Russia’s own citizens. (For further evidence of how scared the Russian elite is of anticorruption sentiment among the citizenry, look no further than their reaction to Alexy Navalny.)

Speaking of the corruption of Putin’s inner circle and Russian political elites and oligarchs more generally, as many other commentators have emphasized–and as Western sanctions policy clearly recognizes–one of the best ways to go after them is to go after their illicit wealth stashed abroad. Paul Krugman certainly doesn’t need me to amplify his columns, which have millions of readers, but his piece yesterday seemed to me spot-on. I’ll also call attention to the civil society led campaign #BlockPutinWallets, which seeks to highlight the Western assets owned or controlled by Russian elites close to Putin, and to pressure the governments of the countries where those assets are located to freeze and seize them.

Of course, any discussion of Western sanctions on Russia needs to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that many Western interests–bankers, accountants, law firms, think tanks, universities, politicians, advocacy groups, and others–have benefited, and in many cases continue to benefit, from Russian money of dubious origin. And this may create hesitance (or worse) when it comes to responding to Russia’s indefensible offensive war of conquest. Some would describe this as another form of corruption, one that has been going on for quite some time. (The Free Russia Foundation, among others, has done important work on this–see here and here.)Whether or not one uses the “corruption” terminology, the problem is a real one.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for now. I will try to form some more coherent thoughts, and talk to some better-informed people, before I post on this again. I’m now going to return to doomscrolling.

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