PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacked his entire military recruitment directorate last month for taking bribes from wealthy Ukrainians seeking to avoid the country’s conscription laws. His critics have asked why he denied such activity was widespread for so long when allegations of such criminality first surfaced more than a year ago.

The question arises, then – just how widespread is such “graft” in Ukraine, a country which after all ranks as one of the most corrupt in the world?

The issue is of no minor importance to outside observers given that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has repeatedly refused Kyiv’s application to join the EU because of concerns about the scale of corruption exposed there. Zelenskyy’s decision to fire his recruitment directorate reveals another “systemic failure”. It also deals a further blow to the morale of a civilian population who have also complained bitterly about the “press gang” his regime has used to force boys under the age of eighteen to fight on the front line.

Many of them now lie buried among Ukraine’s military war dead which, according to figures released to The New York Times last week, amount to 70,000 fatalities and 120,000 wounded. The casualty rate has increased fourfold since the much-heralded “counteroffensive” launched in May.

Independent US journalist Danny Haiphong, giving evidence to the UN Security Council in New York last month, reported that 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since May alone and he described the carnage as a “meat-grinder” with thousands of bodies strewn across minefields and tank traps laid by Russian forces throughout the Southern and Eastern front lines.

Haiphong highlighted for comparison the 50,000 US soldiers who had died in the decade-long conflict in Vietnam. “This death rate is one Zelenskyy and the Ukraine military simply cannot sustain,” he told the UN.

The Russians have also been haemorrhaging men amidst their own huge losses. Their military humiliation in the first three months of the war led US State Dept officials to claim more than 120,000 Russian troops have been killed. That early failure was followed by the astonishing “coup” attempt of the late Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries in June of this year. Prigozhin’s mysterious, but hardly unexpected death, probably at the hands of other “hired guns”, in turn does not represent an invasion going according to Putin’s February 2022 plan.

What then are the prospects for an end to this carnage? If peace or any political settlement is to sustain, it will have to provide security guarantees for both Ukraine and Russia. But it is hard to see how any such agreement can be reached which includes Nato membership for Ukraine. The Russians have long seen that as an “existential threat to their security”. Ukraine and Nato meanwhile would undoubtedly consider anything less as a defeat.

Furthermore, Ukraine’s right to self-determination and territorial sovereignty would have to be respected by all countries, Russia particularly. Equally, the rights of all minorities inside Ukraine must also be protected under the law; ethnic Russians, Hungarians, Tartars and others.

Yet, with mutual co-operation, respect and the prospect of economic development being promoted within the region, buttressed by democratic structures and enforceable, containing free and fair elections, with the rule of law upheld and corruption eliminated, a lasting peace between the two nations might have a chance.

There are without doubt many obstacles in the way of any such agreement, not least the dark forces lined up behind Zelenskyy and Putin. Both are backed by oligarchs and ultra-nationalists.

Zelenskyy’s government, for example, is under the immense influence of men such as Rinat Akhmetov (worth $5.7bn with interests in the country’s energy sector), Victor Pinchuk ($2.1bn, in steel and the media), Ihor Kolomoyskyi ($1bn, banking and oil), Gennadiy Bogolyubov ($1.7bn, banking) and Yuriy Kosiuk ($789m, agri-business and food processing).

The Ukrainian president is certainly no “servant of the people” (the name of his hit comedy TV show). His oligarchs stand accused of pillaging the country with impunity and Zelenskyy has shown no intention thus far of rooting it out, indeed many believe him to have been personally enriched.

Equally, billionaire Putin and his rich backers include Alisher Usmanov (worth $14.3bn with interests in the country’s mining and telecoms sector), Roman Abramovich ($9bn, oil and gas), Oleg Deripaska ($2.4bn, aluminium and property), Igor Sechin ($10bn, oil and gas), Pyotr Aven ($4.2bn, banking) and Mikhail Fridman ($12.9bn, banking).

The corrupt, oligarch-ridden politics of Putin and Zelenskyy affront democracy and prevent a world of shared prosperity. Whatever else may be concluded about the situation in Ukraine, such a future will not prevail if it is influenced by either of these men or the regimes they lead.
Colin Fox
Scottish Socialist Party joint national spokesperson