The other front in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Corruption may account for Russia’s slow military advances even as the West rises to block dirty wealth from the Russian elite.

Italian Financial Police officers walk by a superyacht belonging to an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the port of San Remo, Italy, March 5. European governments are moving against Russian oligarchs to pressure President Vladimir Putin to back down on his war in Ukraine.

Nearly two weeks after Russia’s military invaded Ukraine, it is struggling to take and hold any major city. Its soldiers have suffered high casualties while the army’s supply logistics appear weak. It has resorted to indiscriminate bombing of civilians and may rely on Syrian fighters for door-to-door urban combat. Although Russia’s massive forces may eventually claim victory, some experts point to a possible cause for this faulty performance: the country’s culture of corruption.

“If the leadership is corrupt, then it is no wonder that the Russian army is at war with its capabilities,” Jānis Sārts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, told Latvian Television. “I find it difficult to imagine how they would be able to capture the whole of Ukraine.”

In contrast, Ukraine has adopted many anti-corruption reforms in recent years, especially under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The drive for clean governance and rule of law, while still far from complete, may account for much of the fighting spirit of Ukrainians and their forces.

In addition, Western countries are waking up to their tolerance for dirty wealth from Russia’s elite and the need to cut off that flow as a way to punish the regime of President Vladimir Putin. The watchdog group Transparency International found current and former Russian officials had 28,000 properties in 85 countries from 2008 to 2020.

“We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains,” President Joe Biden warned in last week’s State of the Union address. Both the United Kingdom and European Union have begun the difficult task of tracking corrupt money from Russians, especially in real estate. Even the financial havens of Switzerland and Monaco have joined this transatlantic effort.

Mr. Putin’s need to maintain corruption in Russia may be one reason for the war. On Feb. 24, the starting date of the invasion, imprisoned Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny said at a court hearing, “This war between Russia and Ukraine was unleashed to cover up the theft from Russian citizens and divert their attention from problems that exist inside the country.”

In large part, the war in Ukraine is a battle between Russia’s system of corrupt governance and the West’s system of accountable and transparent governance. For the West, the war is a strong reminder of what more should be done on the homefront against corruption. For Russia’s foot soldiers in Ukraine, the war up to now is a reminder of how far their country has to go.

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