Olena Halushka is a Ph.D. in International Economics and a board member of the Ukrainian NGO “Anti-Corruption Action Centre” and the “International Centre for Ukrainian Victory”. Olena writes for the Atlantic Council and the Kyiv Post and contributes to the EU Observer, The Washington Post, and The Foreign Policy. She spoke with us about corruption in Ukraine, what Ukraine needs to win the war, and the role of Europe. The interview has been edited for clarity.
One of the main arguments of Russian propaganda is that Ukraine is a wholly corrupt country. You work for an anti-corruption organization; how true is this?
The truth is that the situation in Ukraine is very complex and interesting. After the Maidan, in 2014, the fight against corruption began and many reforms were immediately taken to achieve greater transparency. However, reforms aimed at accounting took longer, which created a paradox.
Many investigations, both public and journalistic, were opened, many corruption schemes were uncovered, an anti-corruption office and courts were created and agents were trained to fight corruption, but reforms to investigate accounting were lacking. For that reason, the general impression was that corruption had increased, when in fact it was a huge change from the Yanukovich period, where corruption was endemic and could not be investigated.
Now the situation has improved tremendously, and Ukraine has functioning institutions that are very well prepared to deal with corruption and have achieved amazing results. For example, there are twelve judges in prison for corruption. This may not seem significant, but it is a very clear signal to the system. Never before had a corrupt judge ended up in jail because there was a system of collective immunity.
Judges protected each other.
That is correct. However, with the creation in 2019 of the Supreme Court against Corruption, this circle of impunity was broken.
With Zelensky’s rise to power?
Chronologically, it was after his victory, but all the groundwork was done in Poroshenko’s term. Although it should be noted that if these measures were implemented, it was also due to international pressure from the EU and the US, and the work of civil society.
And the fight against the oligarchs?
A month ago, anti-corruption carried out a search of a flat owned by the oligarch Kolomoisky. It is the first time that prosecutors are going personally against someone at that level, not against someone related to him or the nominal owner of his assets, but specifically against him. And other investigations are underway against all oligarchs, such as the one launched in May into the oligarch Firtash’s Zaporizhzhia titanium-magnesium plant, which has been confiscated and returned to the state.
They are also investigating a huge corruption case involving the oligarch Akhmetov for deliberately manipulating the price of electricity to make huge profits. However, these stories rarely make big headlines because they are legally complicated, but obviously the ultimate goal is to put the oligarchs in jail. This, of course, will not be easy and will take time. However, as an anti-corruption campaigner, I have to say that we are moving in the right direction.
We have made great progress, we know our shortcomings and we have fixed the most serious ones, such as the judicial system. The war has complicated the process a bit, but I am optimistic. I believe that if it were not for the war, in five years we would have made the major reforms necessary to be accepted in the European Union.
However, there is a widely held view that the difference between Russia and Ukraine is that Putin controls the oligarchs, while the oligarchs control Zelensky.
Since the beginning of the war the oligarchs have lost a great deal of power. Firstly, because many of their assets have been destroyed. For example, Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, had his biggest assets in Mariupol, in Azovstal, and in the electricity market, which is now under Russian attack.
Almost all of the oligarchs are taking huge losses in economic and power as well, because martial law has caused them to lose their influence in parliament. And, although there has been much speculation on this issue, Zelensky is not influenced by the oligarchs. Finally, the oligarchs have also lost another important tool: the media. Because of the war, the channels only provide news and no longer serve to influence politics; the oligarchs have stopped investing in the media because it no longer provides them with political benefit.
For all these reasons, their influence has diminished, but we must not be satisfied and we must continue to work to end their power. For example, Kolomoisky controlled the entire chlorine market in Ukraine and, when he wanted to put pressure on President Poroshenko, he threatened an epidemic because the water would not be purified. This cannot happen again.
Many believed that Zelensky would not be up to the task and that he would give in to Putin or even flee.
For me, it was an absolute surprise, I also thought he would give in. However, there is something that Russia could not understand because of its inability to analyze the situation, Zelensky could not give in because Ukrainian society would not have allowed him to do so. Ukrainian society is not like Russian society; if Zelensky had given in, he would have ceased to be the president of Ukraine the next day.
Ukrainians want victory. We are often asked whether we want peace. Of course, we want peace, we don’t want to lose our best people in the war, but we know that a peace deal would only give Russia time to strengthen itself, upgrade its weapons, buy thousands of missiles from Iran and North Korea, and hit us harder. This is our moment to win. Russia is weak and losing on the battlefield. Their new campaign of terror seeks only to make Ukraine uninhabitable by destroying critical infrastructure, so now is the time to give us what we ask for so we can win this war and restore control over all our legitimate territory. We want peace, but peace will only come with Ukrainian victory.
If you don’t help Ukraine, you are sending a message to all the dictators in the world that they can take what they want by force. What is surprising is that so many people in the West do not understand this. This is the tipping point of the world order for the next generation.
That is why you founded the International Centre for the Victory of Ukraine, to explain in the West what Ukraine needs to win the war?
Exactly. We established the Centre in Warsaw as soon as the war started. And we started meeting with foreign delegations, such as American representatives in the Senate or Congress, or Secretary of State Blinken. And, as you can see from the name of the organization, we have always carried the message that Ukraine can win this war. But we need help. The sooner Ukraine is helped to win this war, the sooner the world will be spared the burden of this war.
A long war will mean more Russian destruction in Ukraine, energy crisis, food crisis, inflation and so on. We have no doubt that Ukraine will win this war, but we wonder what the price will be, which is proving to be very high, and when the victory will come.
Don’t you think that the reaction to Russia has been too late, given what happened in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014?
There have been two major strategic mistakes with Russia. The first was the Minsk agreements, which allowed Russia to make Ukraine weaker from within and led to the current situation. The second mistake was not punishing Russian war crimes in Syria. What they did in Aleppo while the world looked the other way.
However, I am very grateful that, after almost eight months of war, we still feel the support and solidarity of European states and the United States. I think they have finally realised that if Ukraine falls, others will fall tomorrow. We cannot afford this Russian impunity to destroy a nation.
And what does Ukraine need to win this war?
Weapons. The main thing is weapons. The priority is defense systems to protect our cities, and we are very grateful to Spain for the “Hawks” it has sent us, but we need more and faster. And we also need offensive weapons for the battlefield, especially now that we are conducting an offensive. We need more armored vehicles and tanks.
Some are in bad shape, but it’s not a problem; we can fix them if they are delivered to us. The important thing is that they arrive as soon as possible. The fact that we keep asking for help does not mean that we are not grateful, but we want a victory as quickly as possible. A victory that I hope we can celebrate in Sevastopol with all the nations that have helped us in this war, but to achieve that victory we need more weapons, more sanctions, a criminal court against Russia, and so on.
You just mentioned sanctions, A few days ago Viktor Orbán said that Ukraine needs to be supported, but to do that you need a strong Europe and that some sanctions cause more harm to Europe than to Russia. What do you think about this?
We don’t want Europeans to freeze during the winter because we want and need a strong Europe. When we asked for the energy embargo in Germany and analyzed the issue in depth, we realized that it was literally and technically impossible to do it immediately. When it is impossible to do it, we believe that the most rational way is to start working on a progressive plan to abandon this dependence. However, I believe that Hungary is behaving like a Trojan horse in Europe.
The Hungarians say that they have no alternative, while governments like the Spanish government are buying more Russian gas than ever.
They say they have no alternative, but then they go to Moscow, sign agreements and take pictures with Lavrov. That’s not exactly ending Russian dependence, it’s the opposite.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.