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Corruption and Ukraine: the causes and consequences of war

Author: Professor Robert Barrington, Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex

Ukraine has been the subject of considerable interest to anti-corruption experts for a number of years, and the reasons for that are playing out in the current crisis. State capture, strategic corruption, public procurement and corruption in the military were all features of the discourse on Ukraine in the run up to the invasion, and together they help to explain why Russia and Ukraine are at war – and its consequences.

Here’s why – starting with four causes of the conflict:

1. State capture

My colleague Professor Liz David-Barrett writes ‘State capture is…a type of systematic corruption where narrow interest groups take control of the institutions and processes that make public policy, buying influence not just to disregard the rules but also to rewrite the rules.’ The term state capture was coined to describe Russia in the late 1990s, when a few oligarchs were able to gain control of vast swathes of the economy through a flawed privatisation process. But it has evolved into a strategy used more by political leaders to expand and maintain their own power, and to ensure that they cannot be challenged or dislodged. Like other leaders who have borrowed his playbook, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin was democratically elected – but then abused his power to capture the state and disable the accountability institutions.

Such leaders often find it helpful to construct an external ‘threat’ and ‘enemy’ in order to maintain their hold on the population, as well as appealing to nationalism and patriotism. This sense of external threat can be particularly useful in the face of the growing inequality and economic decline that tends to result from state capture. In the case of Ukraine, Putin’s message is that his invasion is righting a wrong, addressing a long-held grievance, ridding the country of ‘Nazis’ and giving Russia back its rightful ownership of territory. Perhaps the fact that Ukraine’s democratic transition looked like it was succeeding was also its own threat, by demonstrating that a path other than state capture was possible – not a message that Putin could tolerate on his doorstep.

2. Strategic corruption

Prior to 2014 and the democratic resurgence, Ukraine was the poster child for the so-called weaponisation of corruption or strategic corruption, in which one state uses corruption strategically to undermine another, to its own advantage. Russia had actively promoted state capture in Ukraine, seeking to have a friendly government whose self-enriched elite would do what was necessary to maintain their power and Ukraine’s friendship with Russia. This seemed to work until the Maidan revolution.

Since then, we have seen how hard it is for a state to break free of state capture, even if there is political will. There is no model to follow, and each state’s solution must be its own. That means there will be steps backwards as well as forwards; and progress requires taking on the opponents and the displaced beneficiaries of the previous regime, who sometimes fight viciously to maintain their power. Despite such challenges, Ukraine is widely acknowledged to have made progress in the democratic transition, at the same time pushing back against Russia’s promotion of strategic corruption.

3. Fuel for separatists

Meanwhile, we have also witnessed one of the long-term effects of corruption within the Ukrainian political system: how it can fuel disconnection and discontent in provinces that consider themselves to be victims of a corrupt government. This opens the door to separatists willing to embrace a neighbouring state that claims to offer something different.

4. Undermining national security

When the Donbas separatists went on the offensive in 2014, and Russia annexed Crimea, both the military and the political response from Ukraine was inadequate. Corruption in those spheres had undermined national security. For example, Ukrainian conscripts arrived at the front line having to buy their own equipment because the equipment budget had been misappropriated. Faced with a weakened opponent, the seeds were sown for Putin to embark on his wider invasion strategy in 2022.


Through understanding state capture and the corrosive effects of political corruption, we can see both why Russia had an incentive to invade Ukraine, and why Ukraine’s earlier resistance was inadequate. While not being the direct cause of the invasion, corruption has a big role to play. So what about the consequences of corruption on the course of the invasion?



1. Military effectiveness

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the opening phase of the war has been how effective the Ukrainian military has been, and how ineffective Russia’s has been. This came as less of a surprise to corruption analysts. Russia’s military effectiveness has been severely compromised by corruption: the classic signs are there of misappropriated budgets and cronyistic appointments to senior positions based on loyalty not expertise. Ukraine learnt the lessons of 2014, when it was in a similar position. An intensive effort was put into reducing military corruption, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the armed forces: money meant to be spent on equipment and training was spent as intended; the civilian population became more aligned to and less alienated from the military. Unlike in 2014, the Ukrainian military response did not crumble in the face of Russian invasion.

2. Public procurement

Ukraine’s Pro-Zorro system of online public procurement, introduced in 2016, is recognised as the gold standard of e-procurement. Originally introduced to reduce corruption, it will have helped ensure that Ukraine was better prepared than ever before, with money spent in the right places, especially in healthcare budgets. Reports filtering out from Ukraine are of an important secondary benefit during this time of crisis: the e-procurement system can adapt better to the disruption of war, ensuring that goods can still be procured, the usual exploitations of wartime procurement can be reduced, and the location of goods can be tracked.

3. Closing Londongrad

The phenomenon of both Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs moving large sums of money to London, acquiring property and laundering their reputations, has been acknowledged for years. For motives we can only guess, successive UK governments have not acted to stem the flow, or to rein in the army of professionals – lawyers, accountants, estate agents, PR companies – who have enabled the flows of corrupt capital. But such is the revulsion at Russia’s brutal invasion, it looks as though action will now at last be taken, even in the face of the vested interests which have for so long kept London open to tainted Russian money.

So what? We can see that corruption contributes to both the causes and the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has been a hot topic for our Corruption and Governance MA (online) students at the Centre for the Study of Corruption – students who join us from all corners of the world. Like so many aspects of current affairs, we realise that applying the lens of corruption gives a view that is both more focussed and more revealing. Corruption is not enough to explain the causes of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but without understanding the role of corruption, the narrative is incomplete.

Want to join the fight against corruption? Our Corruption and Governance MA (online) course might be right for you.

Discover five reasons to study the online, part-time programme here.