This summer I received an official letter informing me that I had been called up for service in the Ukrainian Army, and that in a few weeks I would be deployed to the east, where our soldiers are fighting Russian-backed separatists.
I care deeply about my country and I want to defend it. But I was facing a dilemma: Should I go to war knowing that I will have to pay more than $2,000 out of my own pocket to get the military equipment that could save my life because official corruption has left the Ministry of Defense without enough adequate supplies to issue to new recruits? Or should I pay a $2,000 bribe to obtain papers falsely testifying that I am medically unfit and should thus be taken off the conscript list?
I’ve always been deeply opposed to corruption, a major problem in my country, not least for our soldiers fighting the insurgency. My brother, who is serving in the east, wasn’t issued anything but an old-fashioned AK-47 when he joined the army. My family, like too many others, had to spend their own money to buy what he needed: We found a secondhand NATO uniform, body armor, a helmet, a gun sight for his weapon, and kneepads and boots, all for roughly $2,400, including winter gear.
We were fortunate to have the money. The median monthly salary in Ukraine is about $260, which means that it’s impossible for the average family to equip their sons and brothers for war. The salary of a conscripted soldier varies from $185 to $417, depending on rank and specialty. In times of peace, corruption hurts people indirectly. In times of war, corruption can be as deadly as a bullet.
Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists came suddenly and caught the government unprepared. In Soviet times the military was relatively well equipped, but in the decades since that era ended our forces have deteriorated as defense spending has shrunk. In recent times, the Defense Ministry’s processes of procurement have usually been kept secret — specifications for body armor, for example, aren’t published. This means that the government can get away with purchasing low-quality gear. And it usually does.
The Office of the General Prosecutor recently announced that it is bringing charges against several former Defense Ministry officials who purchased substandard body armor for the army. They are accused of spending $5.6 million to buy 17,080 pieces of low-quality body armor, which, according to reports in the Ukrainian media, have led to dozens of casualties and deaths during military operations in the east. The armor was apparently incapable of withstanding a direct hit from a bullet.
In August, President Petro O. Poroshenko fired two Defense Ministry procurement directors for corruption. According to media reports, they will be charged with misuse of public funds, but not with manslaughter.
New procurement procedures were supposed to prevent corrupt practices that put our soldiers at even greater risk. In 2013, the Defense Ministry said that its Department of Internal Audit and Financial Control was starting a special investigation on behalf of the army under the direction of the then-minister of defense, Pavlo Lebedyev. Previously, it was relatively easy for bureaucrats in the ministry to jeopardize the integrity of an investigation. But last June, representatives from the internal audit department were excluded from procurement committees and lost their mandate to check army contracts. The military’s official explanation was that in times of war the army leadership needs the authority and flexibility to conduct its own purchases in order to supply troops as quickly as possible.
My brother says he was recently told he should buy his own winter equipment because the army couldn’t guarantee supplies. If they’ve changed the procurement system to make it faster, why are they still telling soldiers that they must fend for themselves?
Tetyana Chornovil, a former journalist who was put in charge of the new government’s anticorruption policy, recently resigned her post. “There is no political will in Ukraine for an uncompromising, wide-scale war on corruption,” she said in a newspaper interview.
Ordinary people in Ukraine want to help their soldiers. They buy special bracelets to support the troops and donate their time to volunteer organizations. But there have been reports that some initiatives are simply get-rich-quick schemes. I’ve heard of one organization whose members collected donations from the public to buy military equipment for the troops, then actually tried to sell it to soldiers.
There is a will to reform among the Ukrainian people and among our more forward-looking political leaders, but the momentum has slowed since the protests that helped rid the nation of President Viktor F. Yanukovych last winter. Now, amid the tensions with Russia and the unrest in the east, many of us are worried that the fight against corruption will be lost. If reforms don’t come now, they probably will never come.
As part of my job as a liaison officer with NATO, I was recently sent to Britain to research anticorruption programs with Transparency International. Their work is very important, tackling transparency issues in military enterprises and governments around the globe. But for Ukraine, these efforts aren’t enough; to “cure” the country all layers of society need to be involved. The political will to fight must also be in place.
As of now, the fighting in the east has quieted down and I may not have to be deployed after all. In any case, if it flares up again and it turns out that I am called to service, I have decided not to bribe my way out of the army. After all, I am 33 years old, and fit and able to serve. But if I am called to fight for my country, I want to be properly equipped to be able to defend myself. If I put my life on the line, I want to know that my government is committed to giving me the best protection it can afford. At this moment, I cannot be so sure. And I fear for my brother, who is still at the front.
Aleksandr Lapko is a senior specialist-assistant in the NATO Liaison Office in Ukraine.