In my post two days ago, I noted that one reason that the Russian army’s progress in Ukraine has been slower than expected—notwithstanding Russia’s overwhelming numerical superiority—may be the corruption that has been rampant in the Russian military and defense sector for years. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) While I don’t want to attach too much importance to this factor, it does seem at least plausible to me that widespread corruption has undermined Russian military effectiveness, particularly with respect to things like supplies, maintenance, and equipment quality, and possibly also with respect to training and the competence of the leadership.
But if we think that widespread defense sector corruption has played a non-trivial role in Russia’s under-performance on the battlefield in the current war, this naturally invites a question: Why haven’t we also seen reports suggesting that Ukrainian defense sector corruption has hampered the effectiveness of the Ukrainian defense against Russia’s invasion? After all, while corruption has long been recognized as a serious problem in the Russian military, many commentators—including many Ukrainian analysts—have been saying for years that the Ukrainian military also suffers from serious corruption problems, and that those problems threaten to undermine Ukrainian military effectiveness (see, for example, here, here, and here). And yet the news out of Ukraine suggests that the Ukrainian armed forces are fighting quite effectively, without reports of equipment or operational problems that might plausibly be due to corruption.
Why is this? I have no idea—so this is going to be one of those posts where I raise a question rather than trying to argue for what I think is the most likely answer. I may try to do more research and address this in a future post, but for now let me throw out three hypotheses. I would welcome comments from readers who know more about this topic as to which of these seem most plausible, or whether there might be another explanation that I have overlooked:
- Hypothesis 1: Maybe there actually have been lots of corruption-related problems on the Ukrainian side, comparable to what has occurred on the Russian side, but we haven’t heard about it because Ukraine is doing such an excellent job winning the information war. That is, maybe the reason I haven’t seen reports of Ukrainian equipment and supply problems that might be the result of corruption is the same reason why my news feed is full of stories about Ukrainian victories, but virtually no stories about Ukrainian military setbacks (as opposed to civilian casualties), notwithstanding that there have been many losses on the Ukrainian side as well.
- Hypothesis 2: The nature of the current war means that corruption-related problems are much more likely to affect the Russian side than the Ukrainian side. Russia is trying to operate in another country’s territory, attacking well-defended cities, using mostly domestically produced equipment. And maybe the aspects of military operations that are most likely to be adversely affected by pervasive corruption—supply problems, maintenance of vehicles, etc.—are a bigger deal for the invader than the defender. Furthermore, many of Ukraine’s military supplies are coming from the West, and perhaps there are simply fewer opportunities for the kinds of procurement corruption than typically take place when the Russian military procures military equipment from Russian suppliers.
- Hypothesis 3: The Ukrainian government’s efforts over the last few years to reform the military and clean up corruption, however imperfect, have in fact had a significant positive impact. Many (though not all) of the extended discussions of how corruption was “hollowing out” the Ukrainian military are from the period during or immediately following the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea. But in the last eight years, first during the Poroshenko Administration and especially during the Zelensky Administration, Ukraine has undertaken some meaningful reforms to address these concerns—and the urgency of the reform agenda had been spurred in large measure by the invasion of Crimea and the ongoing fight with Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine (see, for example, here, here, and here). Maybe these reforms, despite their imperfections and limitations, have made a meaningful difference, and have helped ensure that Ukraine entered the current war with more or less the military it had paid for, rather than a cut-rate version.
Those are my three leading hypotheses at the moment. I would welcome comments from readers regarding which of these explanations, or which combination of explanations, seems most likely, or whether there are other possibilities I have overlooked.
For me the clear missing link in these hypotheses is the legitimacy factor in corruption. At a time when the Ukrainian nation is facing existential threat and putting all its energies in the war, I can’t imagine that the odd corruption deals that seem to have worked at least in other sectors of the Ukrainian economy (as far as I know) would be holding remotely similar levels of legitimacy in the eyes of Ukrainian parties involved. Deals that undermine mildly an idle military for a personal profit turn out to be high treason in a country at war where other people are giving their lives. There are bound to be exceptions and I’m sure that down the line we will hear of corruption not only in the military but also in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and other forms of foreign support to Ukraine, but I would be surprised if there hasn’t been a dramatic decline in corruption in the Ukrainian military and otherwise across society. Arguably that would be an argument to write about it more, not less, though. So that is where the ‘information war’ argument might come into play as Western observers focus selectively on Russian corruption more than on the party they support.
Perhaps a bit of theory (for once) also helps. The intuitive idea that moral commitment is a good deterrence for corruption seems to hold in lab experiments https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0262201 . So, the moral commitment in (at least parts of) Ukraine since 2014 against Russian aggression may have helped keeping corrupt practices under relative control within the military. Similarly, Ukrainians volunteering for the army / resistance would not be driven by monetary incentives – although perhaps other types of non-profit driven corruption, such as helping their families and friends with food portions for the military, do happen.
These are trying times to test corruption measures and indicators. Unfortunately, both countries score low on CPI 2021 (Russia 29, Ukraine 32) and Defense Integrity (both lies in band “D” with high risk of corruption). Could it be that “experimental variable” to be something other than corruption?
The same question applies to Azerbaijan’s recent military victory. I’d always assumed that nearly all of their military budget got stolen. Clearly not the case.
I’d say it’s a combination of 2 and 3
its probably a combination of 1 and 2 actually. 3 is extremely unlikely as reports of major ukrainian military corruption and inability to reform were coming out as little as 10 months ago.
its significantly more likely the media is covering up ukrainian corruption failures, mcuh like it barely talks about the ukrainian equipment captured by the russians, or the russian advances in the south.