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Corruption: America needs to learn lessons of its recent past — for Ukraine’s sake

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The United States has a history of ignoring — and even facilitating — corruption in war-torn countries in exchange for political capital, security, or a strategic military advantage, whether perceived or real. It happened in Afghanistan across three presidential administrations (Bush, Obama, and Trump) and could very well be primed to happen again in Ukraine under the Biden administration. 

The 2016 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report examined how the U.S. “understood the risks of corruption in Afghanistan, how the U.S. response to corruption evolved, and the effectiveness of that response.” The SIGAR report identified five main findings. In summary, corruption undermined the mission in Afghanistan; the U.S. contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars using flawed oversight; the U.S. was slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem, and certain policies exacerbated the problem; security and political goals trumped strong anticorruption actions; and when the U.S. sought to combat corruption, there was limited success in the absence of sustained Afghan and U.S. political commitment. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker claimed, “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts … wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.” A 2020 SIGAR report referenced an inspector general review of $63 billion in congressionally appropriated Afghan reconstruction funds of which they concluded approximately 30 percent, or $19 billion, was lost to fraud, waste and abuse.

According to Transparency International’s corruption perception index (the global standard for measuring corruption levels by country), Ukraine and Russia are ranked toward the lower end of the scale, with only three points on their scoring system separating the two. For context, the U.S. score is 35 points higher than Ukraine and 38 points higher than Russia.

On July 1, 2022, the same day the Defense Department announced another $820 million in security assistance to Ukraine, a New York Times published an interview with former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch (2016-2019). When Yovanovitch was asked if had concerns about the “huge amounts of aid” being sent to Ukraine, given their history of corruption, she replied, in part, “I just think that in this existential moment, when Ukrainians are fighting for their country, their freedom, their families, I don’t think it’d be tolerated. I think somebody would blow the whistle and I think it would be stopped.”

This response conflicts with what anticorruption practitioners know to be true, for three reasons. 

First, while everyone would like to believe that integrity prevails in moments of crisis, history has shown that in places where corruption levels were already a major problem — like in Afghanistan — integrity only diminishes further. Altruism does not suddenly appear in the hearts of corrupt officials in times of heavily funded chaos. Even in countries with relatively low corruption levels, disasters and war are well-documented instances in which corruption and fraud invariably worsen. This is due to a massive influx of funds, the confusion brought about by a sense of urgency, resources being spread too thin, and the redirecting of government attention toward the war effort and humanitarian needs. 

Second, whistleblowers do not thrive where severe corruption exists. Citizens tend to be disenfranchised by the absence of corruption enforcement. They do not believe reporting corruption will do any good, so they remain quiet. In the event whistleblowers do exist, they will likely not have a good place to report the allegations. Systemic corruption develops when there are no consequences for corruption. Law enforcement has either shown an inability or an unwillingness to address the problem. So, even if whistleblowers reported alleged corruption, it would likely land with an agency that has already proven unwilling or unable to hold corrupt officials accountable. In a May 2022 interview with Voice of America, the head of the Ukrainian National Agency on Corruption Prevention claimed the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (a sister agency) in Ukraine “had not opened any new investigations into high level corruption in the Ukrainian military since the full-scale invasion started on Feb. 24.”

Third, when the United States sends money for disaster relief (be it COVID or Katrina) or for foreign aid, it’s sent with the understanding that a portion will be lost, stolen, and misused. So, if whistleblowers existed and they decided to inform officials in the U.S. embassy about alleged corruption, or if embassy officials discovered corruption themselves, it is unlikely anything would be done. Since the invasion began, the U.S. has shown a willingness to protect Ukraine from bad press, but they would be particularly uninterested in allowing bad press for something they already knew would occur — especially in the middle of a war. Reports of corruption and theft of U.S. taxpayer aid to Ukraine could impact the administration’s ability to obtain future funds for Ukraine and put higher constraints on the money sent, which slows the aid, and diminishes the political benefits of supporting Ukraine.

The 2016 SIGAR report identified six key lessons in their investigation. The four most relevant to the current situation in Ukraine are: make anti-corruption a priority; develop a shared understanding of corruption (among partners in the U.S. and in the host country); consider limits (on aid) and provide monitoring assistance; integrate anticorruption with security and stability instead of viewing it as in conflict with security and stability. 

The U.S. government has a fiduciary responsibility when using tax-payer dollars. But being good stewards also creates a unique opportunity for the U.S. to help raise much-needed anticorruption standards in Ukraine. A strong start would be for the U.S. government to be transparent about the corruption challenges that exist in Ukraine and clear about the controls they plan to implement (investigative and prosecutorial task forces, the exercise of political pressure, continued aid contingent upon anticorruption benchmarks being met, etc.) to protect U.S. money and enhance Ukrainian stability through a stronger anticorruption posture.

As long as the war persists, the U.S. and other countries will continue to provide aid to Ukraine in support of their defense and humanitarian needs.

But the more the corruption is fed without consequence, the bigger the problem will become. And if the U.S. does not learn from its past — including the very recent past — Ukraine could come out of the war, from a corruption perspective, worse off than when it went in.

Jeff Cortese, a financial crimes manager in the private sector, is the former acting chief of the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit and author of the book “Public Corruption in the United States: Analysis of a Destructive Phenomenon.” Before his 11-year career with the bureau, he worked as a dignitary protection agent with the U.S. Capitol Police and served on the security detail for the Speaker of the House. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreycortese or find him at his website

Tags afghanistan corruption anti-corruption Bush Corruption Corruption in the United States Corruption in Ukraine Donald Trump Foreign Aid Joe Biden Marie Yovanovitch Obama Ryan Crocker US aid to Ukraine US military aid to Ukraine waste fraud and abuse

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