Baltimore Sun

Graft concerns in Ukraine resurface

Worries arise about country’s suitabilit­y to receive US aid

- By Matthew Lee and Nomaan Merchant

WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s dismissal of senior officials is casting an inconvenie­nt light on an issue that the Biden administra­tion has largely ignored since the outbreak of war with Russia: Ukraine’s history of rampant corruption and shaky governance.

As it presses ahead with providing tens of billions of dollars in military, economic and direct financial support aid to Ukraine and encourages its allies to do the same, the Biden administra­tion is now once again grappling with long-standing worries about Ukraine’s suitabilit­y as a recipient of massive infusions of American aid.

Those issues, which date back decades and were not an insignific­ant part of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachmen­t, had been largely pushed to the back burner in the immediate run-up to Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 and during the first months of the conflict as the U.S. and its partners rallied to Ukraine’s defense.

But Zelenskyy’s recent firings of his top prosecutor, intelligen­ce chief and other senior officials have resurfaced those concerns and may have inadverten­tly given fresh attention to allegation­s of high-level corruption in Kyiv made by one outspoken U.S. lawmaker.

It’s a delicate issue for the Biden administra­tion. With billions in aid flowing to

Ukraine, the White House continues to make the case for supporting Zelenskyy’s government to an American public increasing­ly focused on domestic issues like high gas prices and inflation. High-profile supporters of Ukraine in both parties also want to avoid a backlash that could make it more difficult to pass future aid packages.

U.S. officials are quick to say that Zelenskyy is well within his right to appoint whomever he wants to senior positions, including the prosecutor general, and remove anyone who he sees as collaborat­ing with Russia.

Yet even as Russian troops were massing near the Ukrainian border last fall, the Biden administra­tion was pushing Zelenskyy to do more to act on corruption — a perennial U.S. demand going back to Ukraine’s early days of independen­ce.

“In all of our relationsh­ips, and including in this

relationsh­ip, we invest not in personalit­ies; we invest in institutio­ns, and, of course, President Zelenskyy has spoken to his rationale for making these personnel shifts,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday.

Price declined to comment further on Zelenskyy’s reasoning for the dismissals or address the specifics but said there was no question that Russia has been trying to interfere in Ukraine.

“Moscow has long sought to subvert, to destabiliz­e the Ukrainian government,” Price said. “Ever since Ukraine chose the path of democracy and a Western orientatio­n this has been something that Moscow has sought to subvert.”

Still, in October and then again in December 2021, as the U.S. and others were warning of the increasing potential for a Russian

invasion, the Biden administra­tion was calling out Zelenskyy’s government for inaction on corruption that had little or nothing to do with Russia.

“The EU and the U.S. are greatly disappoint­ed by unexplaine­d and unjustifia­ble delays in the selection of the Head of the Specialize­d Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Office, a crucial body in the fight against highlevel corruption,” the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said on Oct. 9.

“We urge the selection commission to resume its work without further delays. Failure to move forward in the selection process undermines the work of anti-corruption agencies, establishe­d by Ukraine and its internatio­nal partners,” it said.

That special prosecutor was finally chosen in late December but was never actually appointed to the

position. Although there are indication­s the appointmen­t will happen soon, the dismissal of the prosecutor general could complicate the matter.

The administra­tion and high-profile lawmakers have avoided public criticism of Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. The U.S. has ramped up the weapons and intelligen­ce it’s providing to Ukraine despite early concerns about Russia’s penetratio­n of the Ukrainian government and existing concerns about corruption.

A Ukrainian-born congresswo­man who came to prominence early in the war recently broke that unofficial silence.

Rep. Victoria Spartz, a first-term Republican from Indiana, has made half a dozen visits to Ukraine since the war began. And she was invited to the White House in May and received a pen used by President Joe Biden to sign an aid package for Ukraine even after she angrily criticized Biden for not doing more to help.

But in recent weeks, Spartz has accused Zelenskyy of “playing politics” and alleged his top aide Andriy Yermak had sabotaged Ukraine’s defense against Russia.

She’s also repeatedly called on Ukraine to name the anti-corruption prosecutor, blaming Yermak for the delay.

Ukrainian officials have hit back. A statement from Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry accused Spartz of spreading “Russian propaganda” and warned her to “stop trying to earn extra political capital on baseless speculatio­n.”

U.S. officials gave Spartz a classified briefing last week in hopes of addressing her concerns and encouragin­g her to limit her public criticism. She declined to discuss the briefing afterward but told The Associated Press that “healthy dialogue and deliberati­on is good for Congress.”

Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services and Intelligen­ce committees, said he had seen no evidence to support allegation­s that Zelenskyy’s inner circle was trying to help Russia. But as the war continues, part of the long-term American strategy in Ukraine will have to include addressing waste and mismanagem­ent of resources, he said.

“There is no war in the history of the world that is immune from corruption and people trying to take advantage of it,” Crow said. “If there are concerns raised, we will address them.”

 ?? UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTI­AL PRESS OFFICE ?? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently dismissed his top prosecutor, intelligen­ce chief and other officials. That’s brought back concerns about Ukraine’s history of corruption and shaky governance.
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTI­AL PRESS OFFICE Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently dismissed his top prosecutor, intelligen­ce chief and other officials. That’s brought back concerns about Ukraine’s history of corruption and shaky governance.

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