In High Profile Raids, Zelensky Showcases Will to Tackle Corruption

KYIV, Ukraine — A leaked police video showing bundles of cash found in an official’s sofa. A tax inspector accused of fraud in issuing refunds. The dismissal of the chief of the customs service and his top deputy, as well as senior officials from a consumer protection agency and the forestry agency. And a search warrant served on a business tycoon once seen as all but untouchable for his close ties to government.

These new details emerged Thursday from an expanding investigation into corruption in domestic military procurement in Ukraine, following a dozen searches of homes and offices on Wednesday, and from corruption cases that had lingered in the Ukrainian courts for months.

Corruption, and Ukraine’s long struggle against it, had mostly dropped off the agenda after the Russian invasion last February, as Ukrainians rallied around the army and government at a time of national peril.

But rather than playing down what many former Ukrainian officials and analysts say are all but unavoidable instances of wartime profiteering, President Volodymyr Zelensky pivoted earlier this year to a policy of high-profile enforcement.

Analysts cited several reasons for the change.

To some extent, it signals a resumption of Mr. Zelensky’s prewar focus on fighting corruption, aimed at maintaining Ukrainians’ trust in the wartime government despite the flurry of accusations and dismissals of government officials. It may represent the government’s effort to put its own house in order, as it faces the prospect of greater scrutiny of financial aid and weapons transfers from the Republican-led House in Washington.

And Mr. Zelensky is expected to meet in Kyiv on Friday with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, to discuss Ukraine’s reconstruction and its candidacy for membership in the bloc. Ukraine’s ability to get a handle on graft and corruption is an overriding concern for the Western allies in both those areas.

Previously, Mr. Zelensky’s government had made a string of dismissals mostly for relatively minor lapses of judgment or tone-deafness, like the optics of driving expensive cars or vacationing abroad. But the cases opened after Wednesday’s searches included serious accusations of graft and official abuse.

“Today is a fruitful day for our country,” Mr. Zelensky said in an overnight address to the nation on Wednesday. Mr. Zelensky said he would “change as much as necessary to ensure that people do not abuse power” within his government.

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

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

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

Ukrainian journalists had reported on graft in food purchases for the military before the government acted, in articles that some commentators in Ukraine suggested had forced Mr. Zelensky’s hand.

The Ukrainian leader swept to a landslide victory in presidential elections in 2019 on promises to rid Ukraine of graft and waste in government and had made some steps in that direction, such as stripping members of Parliament of immunity from prosecution.

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

Mr. Zelensky’s pre-invasion record in tackling these problems had been mixed. Anti-corruption groups and former officials criticized him for stalling a swirl of investigations into the business dealings of an oil and media tycoon, Ihor Kolomoisky, who had supported his television career and election campaign.

But the police searched the home of Mr. Kolomoisky Wednesday, accusing him of embezzlement of about $1 billion from a partially state-owned oil company, suggesting Mr. Zelensky’s wartime crackdown will not exempt his former supporter from scrutiny.

While Mr. Zelensky focused attention on corruption in military procurement, the crackdown did not stop there. On Wednesday, the police searched the home of Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister who resigned in 2021 after a scandal-ridden tenure.

Mr. Avakov told the Ukrainian news media that law enforcement officers were pursing an investigation into the helicopter crash that killed his successor, Denys Monastyrsky, on Jan. 18 outside Kyiv. Mr. Avakov had overseen the purchase of the helicopter, but he said the police had found no information relevant to the crash investigation.

In another investigation into a political ally of Mr. Zelensky, the government’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention said in a statement that a criminal investigation had been opened into a deputy head of the Parliamentary arm of Mr. Zelensky’s political party, Pavlo Khalimon. Ukrainian journalists had earlier reported that Mr. Khalimon had purchased a luxurious home in Kyiv that cost far more than his salary would allow.

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

“Long overdue,” Timothy Ash, an economist who has tracked Ukraine’s anticorruption efforts, tweeted about the search of Mr. Kolomoisky’s home. The action would “send a strong signal to push on with early E.U. accession.”

Vitaly Sych, the editor in chief of NV, a Ukrainian news outlet, said the crackdown stemmed primarily from recent news media reports on corruption as well as the coming E.U. summit, and quipped that, maybe someday, “we could fire these people without visits from E.U. officials.”

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

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv

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