As Ukrainians prepare for a hotly-contested presidential vote, two threats loom large over the political landscape: Russian aggression and corruption. These twin grievances are well-grounded. Five years after the Euromaidan Revolution, high hopes have given way to disappointment. Ukrainians – from the soldiers fighting on the Donbass frontline to the civic activists risking grave consequences for exposing the truth in their communities – continue to make unimaginable sacrifices for the country’s future. Yet the transformation Ukraine so desperately seeks has proven elusive.
Today, a staggering 70% of voters believe that things in Ukraine are going in the wrong direction; this figure has risen precipitously since President Petro Poroshenko took office in 2014. Ukraine’s dismal score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has only marginally improved since notorious ex-president Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office. Though the Kremlin’s war in Donbass has regrettably faded from global headlines, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are killed almost daily.
Largely due to corruption and the entrenched conflict, Ukraine still languishes among the poorest countries in Europe, with GDP per capita under $3,000. It is unsurprising millions of Ukrainians have emigrated in search of a better life. Those who have stayed behind report the world’s lowest confidence in their leadership: A recent Gallup poll showed that just 9% of Ukrainians trust their government. Notably, this figure is a nadir – public trust today is even lower than under Yanukovych’s regime.
But amid these depressing indicators is one good sign for democracy: No one knows who will win the election. Comedian Vladimir Zelensky, who plays the president on a popular TV show, is leading a crowded field of candidates. Zelensky’s apolitical background and anti-establishment rhetoric appeals to Ukrainians disillusioned with the status quo. Yet his insurgency has drawn some ire from Ukraine’s international friends. Why, many ask, would a fragile democracy stake its future on an inexperienced leader during a protracted war against a powerful adversary?
This question is based on a faulty premise. The obstacles Ukraine faces to building a modern state are complex and interrelated, but it is inaccurate to categorise them as “external threats” (Russia) and “internal threats” (corruption). In reality, such a neat distinction is impossible to draw. Corruption infects Ukraine like a virus that erodes its immune system, creating deadly vulnerabilities across institutions. A corrupt state is a weak state, and a weak state is a soft target for a foreign aggressor.
The Kremlin wields corruption as a weapon of power projection, a lever of control over the elites ruling sovereign countries in Eastern Europe. The latest scandal to break before the election illustrates this parasitic relationship: Ukrainian officials allegedly conspired to procure substandard parts for military equipment from Russian smugglers, inflate the prices, and sell the parts to Ukrainian defence plants, potentially endangering soldiers’ lives for profit. Not only do Ukraine’s twin national security threats exacerbate each other, but each requires the other to exist.
Nevertheless, reform and defence are often framed as competing priorities, to Ukraine’s detriment and Poroshenko’s benefit. To the president, the Kremlin’s war provides the ultimate excuse for his administration’s failures. Ukraine’s friends in the West often echo this view. Some even contend that Western-backed reform initiatives have exacerbated internal factionalism that undermines Ukraine’s ability to protect itself from Russia. It is especially ironic when vocal advocates for Ukraine’s sovereignty defend those who would replicate Russia’s oligarchic power-brokerage in Ukraine.
Facing an uphill battle to re-election, Poroshenko is driving such flawed narratives as his political survival depends on it. He portrays himself as the only candidate capable of preserving the Ukrainian nation; unlike his competitors, he rarely mentions corruption. Poroshenko’s slogan – “Language, Army, Faith” – is designed not only to harness nationalistic sentiment but also to mobilise voters through fear.
The public has good reason to be afraid: Vladimir Putin has long exploited the internal instabilities of Russia’s neighbours, and Ukraine has borne the brunt of his opportunism. In that context, where domestic stability is the best defence against Russian aggression, a vote for the incumbent is the only patriotic choice.
But this line of reasoning circumvents the point. Though the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian Orthodox church carry enormous significance for millions of citizens, many others – Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Russian-speakers, and many more are no less Ukrainian than their Orthodox and Ukrainian-speaking compatriots.
Poroshenko’s elevation of certain elements of national identity obscures the promise of the Maidan that most Ukrainians are truly fighting for – a European democracy, where all are equal under the law. Ethnic and religious pluralism is foundational to this vision for Ukraine. It is therefore fitting that the chief concerns of the electorate – corruption and Russian aggression – cut across society, uniting diverse coalitions to challenge the status quo.
Only by realising that Ukraine need not make a binary choice between reform and national security can the country’s leadership effectively combat the dual threat. But how? Ukraine could draw on the experience of another country that eradicated corruption while facing Russia’s rapaciousness.
Georgia. Unlike Poroshenko’s lacklustre attempts at reform, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s initiatives were neither piecemeal nor gradual. Georgia’s war on corruption did not fall under the purview of designated agencies; it was an all-encompassing effort of the entire ruling elite. To transform a failed state into the world’s top reformer, Georgia required a total overhaul of the system. Ukraine needs nothing short of the same. But this requires a political will far stronger than Ukraine’s political class has demonstrated.
Though Saakashvili did the impossible in turning the post-Soviet system upside down, his country ultimately lost more territory to Putin’s imperialism. Defenders of Ukraine’s failing status quo may claim Russia’s occupation of Georgia supports the fallacy that prioritising reform means subordinating national defence. This argument belies a fundamental misunderstanding of Putin’s motivations.
Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 for the same reason Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014: Putin is afraid of flourishing democracies on Russia’s border. A functional and prosperous Georgia, free of the corruption that characterises Putin’s neo-feudalism, may have inspired neighbouring countries to follow suit. The stakes were too high for Putin to allow such emancipation “Russia’s backyard.” Thus, it was not an insufficient commitment to national defence that inspired Putin to attack – it was the success of Georgia’s reforms.
Certainly, conflict with Russia may have been averted – but at what cost? Saakashvili’s only alternative would have been to reject his country’s chosen Western course, avoiding the progress that the Kremlin considered an affront. Perhaps a Georgia that had appeased Putin by remaining a banana republic would have kept more of its territory. But such a Georgia would have sacrificed something far more significant: Sovereignty.
The parallels to Ukraine are obvious. An openly Kremlin-aligned presidential candidate, Yuri Boyko, has been running campaign ads with the slogan: “Vote for me, end the war!” The conflict would presumably end if Boyko were elected, because Ukraine would become a Russian vassal state.
But as long as Ukrainians are still fighting one war on two fronts – not only against Putin’s imperialism but against Russian-style feudalism and patronage networks in their own country – we must believe that victory is possible. As the saying goes, “Every country has the government it deserves.” And it’s clear that Ukrainians deserve a better future.