In High-Profile Raids, Zelensky Showcases Will to Tackle Corruption

KYIV, Ukraine — Leaked police video shows wads of cash found on an officer’s couch. A tax inspector accused of fraud in the issuance of returns. The dismissal of the head of the customs service and his top deputy, as well as senior officials of a consumer protection agency and the forestry agency. And a search warrant issued against a business magnate once considered nearly untouchable because of his close ties to the government.

These new details emerged Thursday from a sprawling investigation into corruption in Ukraine’s national military procurement, following a dozen home and office searches on Wednesday, and corruption cases that had lingered in Ukrainian courts for months.

Corruption, and Ukraine’s long struggle against it, had all but disappeared from the agenda after the Russian invasion last February, when Ukrainians joined the army and government at a time of national danger.

But rather than downplay what many former Ukrainian officials and analysts say are inevitable instances of wartime profiteering, President Volodymyr Zelensky pivoted earlier this year toward a high-profile enforcement policy.

Analysts cited several reasons for the change.

To some extent, it signals a resumption of Zelensky’s pre-war focus on fighting corruption, aimed at maintaining Ukrainians’ confidence in the wartime government despite a spate of indictments and firings of government officials. He may represent the government’s effort to get its own house in order as it faces the prospect of increased scrutiny of financial aid and arms transfers from the Republican-led House of Representatives in Washington.

And Zelensky is expected to meet in Kyiv on Friday with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, to discuss the reconstruction of Ukraine and his candidacy for membership of the bloc. Ukraine’s ability to control bribery and corruption is a primary concern for Western allies in both areas.

Previously, the Zelensky government had carried out a series of dismissals, mainly for relatively minor lapses in judgment or deafness, such as driving expensive cars or vacationing abroad. But the cases opened after the searches on Wednesday included serious allegations of bribery and official abuse.

“Today is a fruitful day for our country,” Zelensky said in a late-night address to the nation on Wednesday. Zelensky said he would “change as much as is necessary to ensure that people don’t abuse power” within his government.

He stressed that the anti-corruption crackdown would mainly focus on domestic military acquisition. None of the criminal investigations and firings of officials touched on the billions of dollars in foreign aid or weapons transferred to Ukraine by its Western allies. Zelensky highlighted that contrast in his speech, saying that the strict controls now applied to foreign military aid should be a model for military contracting within Ukraine.

“Any internal supply, any acquisition, everything must be absolutely as clean and honest as external supply for our defense,” he said. He said he would seek “process cleanup” in the Ministry of Defense and the army.

Underscoring that point, Ukrainska Pravda, a Ukrainian news outlet, published a video on Thursday that it said showed police searching the home of a former deputy defense minister, Oleksandr Myronyuk, on suspicion of corruption in purchases for the army before the Russian invasion. In the video, which could not be independently verified, investigators remove bundle after bundle of cash from a storage space on a sofa bed. Also Thursday, a court ordered another deputy defense minister, Viacheslav Shapovalov, suspected of wartime military procurement fraud, to be remanded in custody with bail set at 402 million hryvnia, or about $10 million.

Ukrainian journalists had reported on corruption in the purchase of food for the army before the government acted, in articles that some commentators in Ukraine suggested had forced Zelensky’s hand.

The Ukrainian leader won a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election vowing to rid Ukraine of government corruption and waste and had taken some steps in that direction, including stripping members of Parliament of immunity from prosecution.

In the post-Soviet period, Ukraine never fully privatized many large industrial companies, and the resulting state or partly state-owned companies became easy targets for corruption. The country was also plagued by so-called strategic corruption by the Kremlin, with Ukrainian businessmen allowing a profit bonanza trading Russian natural gas in exchange for promoting Russian interests through bribes and subsidies to pro-Russian media outlets.

Zelensky’s record before the invasion in addressing these issues had been mixed. Anti-corruption groups and former officials criticized him for stalling a series of investigations into the business dealings of an oil and media magnate, Ihor Kolomoisky, who had supported his television career and his election campaign.

But police searched Kolomoisky’s home on Wednesday, accusing him of embezzling around $1 billion from a partly state-owned oil company, suggesting that Zelensky’s wartime crackdown will not exempt his former supporter from scrutiny.

While Zelensky turned his attention to corruption in military procurement, the crackdown did not stop there. Police on Wednesday searched the home of Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister who resigned in 2021 after a scandal-plagued tenure.

Mr. Avakov told the Ukrainian media that law enforcement officials were investigating the helicopter crash that killed his successor, Denys Monastyrsky, on January 18 outside Kyiv. Avakov had overseen the purchase of the helicopter, but said police had found no information relevant to the crash investigation.

In a separate investigation into a political ally of Zelensky’s, the government’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption said in a statement that a criminal investigation had been opened against a deputy head of the parliamentary arm of Zelensky’s political party, Pavlo Khalimon. Ukrainian journalists had previously reported that Mr. Khalimon had bought a luxurious house in Kyiv that cost far more than his salary would allow.

Whatever the government’s motivation for ordering the crackdown, it drew praise from analysts who for years have expressed frustration at the slow pace of anti-corruption activity.

“A Long Time Ago”, Timothy Ash, an economist who has followed Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts, tweeted about the raid on Kolomoisky’s home. The move would “send a strong signal to go ahead with early EU membership.”

Vitaly Sych, editor-in-chief of NV, a Ukrainian media outlet, said the crackdown was mainly due to recent media reports on corruption, as well as the upcoming EU summit, joking that, maybe one day, “we could fire these people without visitors. of EU officials.

The head of the parliamentary faction of Mr. Zelensky’s political party, Davyd Arakhamia, wrote that “the country in wartime will change. If someone is not ready for change, then the government will come and help them change.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv