As Ukrainians prepare to head to the polls on March 31, much of the international community remains focused on Russia’s territorial aggression in the Donbas and Crimea and its expansionist interference in Ukraine’s political and economic life. But, as many commentators have observed, Ukraine is actually fighting two wars. A second, lesser-known struggle is the battle to build non-corrupt, resilient governing institutions capable of underwriting Ukraine’s national prosperity and defense. The United States and Europe must re-energize their support for that fight, regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s election.

While the investment may seem large, the return is far greater. Given Ukraine’s scale and consequence, a democratic Ukraine integrated into the European project would be a boon not only for its citizens in their struggle for freedom from Russian interference, but also for democracy at the front lines of the global fight against authoritarian revisionism.

False Starts on the Road to Democracy

Modern Ukraine has struggled to build resilient institutions out of its Soviet inheritance, much less defend them from Russia’s long and persistent reach. From the start, Ukraine’s second post-Soviet president, Leonid Kuchma, pursued the familiar storyline in the late 1990s and early 2000s of “liberalizing” legacy institutions through rapid privatization and decentralization of the economy (both of which empowered Ukraine’s oligarchs), while centralizing authority in himself at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary.

As his political fortunes declined, Kuchma, with help from Russia, championed his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, as his heir in the 2004 presidential election. But the results were disputed, even after a second round, and the “Orange Revolution” began that autumn in support of challenger Viktor Yushchenko. The result, invalidated in the courts, was finally followed by another (this time free) election, though the campaign was clouded by a poisoning attempt against Yushchenko that left his face famously scarred. Yushchenko recovered and took office amidst a series of reforms designed to rectify the institutional damage done during the Kuchma years.

But these reforms — principally the creation of a dual power center in the prime ministership, designed to check executive power — instead had the effect of reinforcing Ukraine’s personalist political culture (both Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko’s co-leader in the Orange Revolution, served as prime ministers during this period). For this reason and others, Yushchenko failed to sufficiently undo the damage done in the Kuchma years. Buoyed by these forces, Yanukovych narrowly won the presidency over Tymoshenko in largely free and fair elections in 2010.

Yanukovych’s sustained assault on what remained of Ukraine’s institutional integrity would have made Kuchma proud. In less than three years, Yanukovych repealed other Yushchenko-era reforms, stacked the judiciary with his cronies, and enabled the imprisonment of his main political rival and 2010 opponent, Tymoshenko. With his inner circle, he embezzled as much as $40 billion of state funds, including paying up to $60 million to Paul Manafort, who would go on to run Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign. 

The Security Costs of Broken Institutions

These institutional failures and the political, military, and economic corruption they wrought have hamstrung Ukraine’s ability to integrate into Europe, much less defend its homeland from Russia. Principally, Yanukovych’s close ties to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, created a glide path for Russian influence in Ukraine through oligarchs (via sweetheart business deals), Russian-owned communication channels (inflaming domestic and international tensions through false news stories), and until recently, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (exerting cultural and even political sway over Ukraine’s two-thirds Orthodox population, before it split from the mother church earlier this year).

Most devastatingly for Ukraine, Putin’s political and economic capture of Yanukovych allowed him to induce the Ukrainian leader to withdraw Ukraine from a partnership agreement with the European Union in late 2013. That act sparked the Euromaidan Revolution and the chain of events that Russia seized upon to invade Ukraine and leave it mired in a security crisis in the Donbas and Crimea that continues to this day.

At the same time, corruption has weakened Ukraine’s security sector from the inside. Nearly half of Ukraine’s defense expenditures are classified (by way of comparison, the U.S. figure is closer to 10 percent). This makes it easier to award contracts beyond the scrutiny of ordinary procurement regulations, limiting transparency and contributing to a culture where low-quality equipment is purchased to reward political allies. It also contributes to pervasive low-level corruption in critical functions like military health and housing, with an attendant hit to morale and effectiveness. In addition to making the conduct of war more difficult, corruption facilitates the illegal trade of goods across conflict zones, which has enabled pro-Russian fighters and prolonged the hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s stagnant economy has compounded these shortcomings. In 2016, internal corruption was cited as the most problematic factor for doing business in Ukraine, and graft has had significant costs for Ukraine’s GDP. According to the same report, reducing corruption to levels seen elsewhere in Eastern Europe (not the highest bar) could raise Ukraine’s per capita GDP growth by about 0.85 percent.

With a weak economy and high debt, Ukraine will need to jump-start its economy to maintain its record $7.5 billion defense budget and invest in upgrading its force. Such investments are all the more critical after Russia absconded with two-thirds of Ukraine’s naval fleet in the annexation of Crimea. If the Kerch Strait crisis last November is any indication, this is a weakness that Russia intends to exploit.

Empowering Ukrainian Efforts

Luckily, Ukraine’s vibrant post-Maidan civil society has tackled corruption directly. Immediately after Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Moscow in February 2014, a group of activists occupied his presidential palace for several weeks to document his regime’s corruption before critical papers could be damaged or destroyed. Activists then took steps to institutionalize the revolution’s momentum, and have joined forces in a powerful coalition to coordinate action on top issues.

This sustained pressure has helped make corruption the central issue of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday. Until recently, incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate tycoon” elected in 2014 as a political moderate, and veteran populist Tymoshenko, who became wealthy in the gas industry of the 1990s, appeared poised to re-enact a classic duel of political oligarchs.

But a late entry by outsider Volodymyr Zelenskiy has thrown a harsh light onto their troubled pasts. Zelenskiy, an actor and comedian whose primary experience in politics has been playing the role of Ukraine’s president in a television satire, has positioned himself as a hip disruptor and has crowdfunded his campaign. Another leading challenger, Anatoly Hrytsenko, has focused on the need to fight corruption and adopted the persona of a Bernie Sanders-esque public servant who highlights his limited wealth.

Heading into the election this Sunday, senior U.S. officials should join local calls for a free and fair election, lest their silence (neither Secretary of State Pompeo nor President Donald Trump is on record) give the impression that they would tolerate tampering if it favored Poroshenko, who is desperately seeking their help. Vocal calls may also help ensure a safe election, which is not an idle concern after more than 50 Ukrainian activists were attacked, some fatally, in 2018.

Furthermore, no matter the outcome of the March 31 election or a likely runoff, Ukraine’s powerful political elite and oligarchs remain a formidable obstacle to defeating corruption. That makes sustained and ratcheted support and pressure from the outside that much more important in the coming months and years, including in preparation for the September parliamentary elections.

To be sure, partnerships are well underway. U.S. and other external aid for domestic fact-checking groups and independent journalists, the work of international watchdogs, and partnerships with Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to strengthen defenses against Russian cyberattacks have all played a role in buttressing the efforts of Ukraine’s civil society and true reformers in office to spur political, economic, and social advancements.

One key effort that will require constant vigilance from the international community is the newly created alternative pathway to investigate and prosecute top-level corruption cases in light of the graft that undermines Ukraine’s existing judiciary. Alongside the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the most important link in this new pathway is the High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC). Parliament finally passed the law last year to establish the court, after years of stonewalling by Poroshenko and his allies. Without significant external pressure, especially via the International Monetary Fund’s lending leverage in the face of Ukraine’s debt crisis, the court would not have passed into law with the strong provisions it needed to be viable.

Despite some encouraging signs since then and plans for the court to start hearing cases in June, recent judicial appointments again have cast doubt on the new court’s integrity. And added threats to anti-corruption efforts continue to emerge: earlier this month, Ukraine’s constitutional court appears to have invalidated a law targeting illegal enrichment. Clearly, for the court and other crucial improvements to become a reality, it will take even more international support (especially aid to civil society groups who have campaigned tirelessly for credible, legitimate and effective institutions) and persistent international pressure on Ukraine’s elites.


After the fall of the Soviet Union, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said of the newly independent republics that “their vitality will temper any residual Russian imperial temptations.” Instead, over the past three decades, Ukraine’s weak and often corrupt institutions have hamstrung Kyiv’s ability to deter Russia.

That is why the democratic community must ratchet up its aid and leverage to maintain momentum for internal reform. Ultimately, Ukraine’s people, supporting and supported by strong and legitimate governance, will build the foundation needed for Ukraine’s national prosperity and defense. They are best positioned to ward off Russian “temptations” in the years to come. And their successes will spill over into the rest of Europe and bolster the fight against authoritarian revisionism across the world.

(The views expressed are those of the authors and not those of any organizations with which they are affiliated.)

IMAGE: An activist of the Ukrainian far-right party National Corps holds a placard reading “Corruption, offshores, political repressions” during their rally on Independence Square in Kyiv on March 23, 2019. The protesters demand severe punishment for Oleg Gladkovsky, an ally of President Petro Poroshenko, and his son, businessman Igor, just a week ahead of the crucial presidential election. Oleg Gladkovsky, a former deputy head of the national security council, profited from the sale of smuggled Russian military parts to state defence companies at inflated prices, according to a report this month by an independent media outlet. Accusations of self-enrichment at the expense of the army are particularly damaging in Ukraine, which has been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east since 2014. (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)