The spark behind Ukraine's victories

Seven years of reforms to curb corruption and instill transparency has paid off in the military’s win for the battle of Kyiv.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands next to destroyed Russian military vehicles outside of Kyiv, April 4.

After seven weeks of war in Ukraine, history books are probably already being written on how the country’s army was able to repel the much-larger Russian forces from taking the capital. Stung by its losses, Russia is now moving the war front to the east where Ukrainian defenses may again be tested. Yet one lesson will go down in history: Ukraine’s victory in the battle for Kyiv was due in no small part to its effort on another critical front – the battle against corruption in its military.

Since 2014, when Russia last invaded and took the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine has steadily reformed its security establishment. In 2016, civil activists created the Independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee to push for reforms. Military procurement has become more transparent, in part by digitizing the process. State-run defense industries are being audited. Citizen groups now have a say over who runs those enterprises. Parliament has brought more democratic control over the army.

The military is less hierarchical and more meritocratic, giving local commanders more freedom to act quickly on the battlefield. The changes are far from complete. Yet a recent Rand Corp. study found many of them help account for the military’s “surprisingly tough resistance” in the war against a corruption-riddled Russian military.

The reforms have also made it easier for more than 30 countries to send military aid to Ukraine. This week, the United States announced it will send $800 million in additional weapons, a big vote of confidence in Ukraine’s elected leaders and its Defense Ministry. One former finance minister, Oleksandr Danylyuk, even contends that the drive for a cleaner, more efficient army spurred Russian President Vladimir Putin to order the invasion on Feb. 24.

“The fact of the matter is that, ironically, this war is a result of reforms,” he wrote in The Economist, adding that the Kremlin “detested our reforms to the army.”

Ukraine’s struggle against Russia is also a battle against a regime that thrives on corruption and feels threatened when a neighboring country moves toward democratic equality and transparent government. Cleaning up its own act has helped Ukraine in the war so far. And it may help Russia clean up as well someday.

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