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4 July, 2022
Russian Ouroboros: How Corruption Became a Propaganda Weapon Against Ukraine

Within the first weeks of its invasion, Russia actively tried to justify the war by neo-nazies, secret nuclear and biological weapon programs and, of course, NATO’s expansion ambitions. At first, it somewhat impacted global public opinion, as the world knew little about Ukraine.

 

But when the real reason for the war became apparent and the dynamic of the confrontation changed, Russia had to look for ways of weakening Ukraine’s international support and, especially, military assistance. And this is where the good-old corruption came in handy, the one that Russia itself has been thoroughly cultivating in Ukraine over the last 30 years.


Corruption branding

 

"The most corrupt nation in Europe" – this is how The Guardian called Ukraine in one of its articles back in 2015. It has been seven years now, and the anti-corruption climate here has changed a bit. But “the most corrupt” country’s branding has been haunting Ukraine in the media ever since. Even if it is not entirely accurate. 
 

An indisputable fact: the issue of corruption in Ukraine exists.
 

A sterling example of that is Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency. It has also been a personification of an unprecedented Russian influence over Ukraine’s domestic and international policy. However, Ukrainians were not satisfied with that - and this is how the Revolution of Dignity began. With its ending, Yanukovych escaped to Russia, the war started, and Ukraine has firmly stated not only its Euro-Atlantic ambitions but also clear anti-corruption intentions. 
 

Another indisputable fact: despite society’s demand, the actual pace of fighting corruption was not satisfying, while the results left much to be desired. However, there were some results. . Ukraine has built an anti-corruption infrastructure, and the government has become more transparent and accountable to its citizens. Even a more conservative defense and security sector has experienced several significant changes.
 

In the end, all of that is reflected in the corruption perception: Ukraine’s score has improved within ten years, and, starting with 2017, it has demonstrated better results than Russia.
 

Nevertheless, Ukraine is still retaining the title of the most corrupt country.
 

Ironically, the accusations of corruption can be heard not only from the collective West but also from Russia, which is run by one of the biggest modern-day corruptors. Even more ironically, Russia itself has contributed to that both in word and deed. 
 

"A Failed State"

 

On February 21, the President of the Russian Federation addressed the nation,  spending 55 minutes to retell his own article “On historical unity of Ukrainians and Russians”. He gradually shifts from historical arguments on the artificial nature of the Ukrainian state to an internal political justification of Ukraine’s inability to exist on its own. 
 

The obsession with details in Putin’s argumentation is impressive: he talks about energy, industry, unemployment, military, cultural and religious issues, and even utility prices. The Russian  President mentions Ukrainian enterprises “ presented to the foreigners”, newly established judicial institutions, and, of course, anti-corruption bodies. 
 

In his repetitive attempt to once again emphasise the absence of Ukraine’s separate personality, and in the best tradition of Russian conspiracy theories, Putin claims that the anti-corruption efforts of Ukraine gave zero results and only dragged it deeper into the swamp of corruption, accompanied by the joyful applause of the “western puppeteers”.
 

Such narratives are not new. Russian officials and propagandists have been monotonously repeating them over the last eight years. However, they have never mentioned their own contribution to that story. 
 

Enemy Within

 

Russian influence over Ukraine did not perish in 2014. It only changed its forms. Pro-Russian political forces remained active, although with significantly less support. Besides their attempts to influence the foreign policy, advocate the restoration of friendship with Russia and oppose the Ukrainization policy, they have been actively trying to maintain the system they once built. 
 

Pro-Russian forces aimed to block the reforms essential for Ukraine. As a general rule, they voted against progressive initiatives, particularly anti-corruption ones.
 

Yet such shots were rather situationally successful. Attempts of political sabotage did better. For instance, they have managed to provoke a crisis by initiating a process of recognising several anti-corruption norms as unconstitutional. 
 

But the most considerable success was in the media. With significant media support, pro-Kremlin political circles launched a broad destabilising campaign within Ukrainian society. 
 

Their media has been regularly questioning Ukrainian sovereignty and systemically contributed to creating a negative image of any progressive initiative in the government. 
 

In fact, reform criticism has replaced pro-Russian rhetoric, which impacted public opinion and political processes. 
 

As a result, the concept of "Soros piglets" emerged in Ukrainian society, as the campaign evolved into a media “hunt” for advocates of pro-democratic, pro-European and anti-corruption initiatives.
 

Thus the years of sabotage and broad information campaigns went by. Eventually, such efforts enabled a postponement and a rollback of some reforms. But, apart from that, they successfully achieved an irrelevant conclusion fallacy, giving a new life to the narratives of Russian propaganda, which kept promoting the absence of Ukraine’s separate personality and hopelessness of its any positive inception. 
 

"...why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"

 

But Russia and Ukraine were not the only countries where the image of a corrupt Ukraine, incapable of existing on its own, has been cultivated. A powerful network of Russian media, open and hidden, has been actively spreading the same narratives globally. And the most visible impact could be seen in the United States - Ukraine’s leading military partner. 
 

For example, the scandalous phone call between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky had great potential for politics and propaganda. As the formal reason for withholding the US military assistance in 2019 was corruption. 
 

Herewith the history of the United States knew several examples of financing way more corrupt countries. Still, it did not hinder the international media from discussing “the most corrupt country in Europe.” Or, as it has been put by one of the GOP representatives, “one of the three most corrupt countries on the planet."
 

It was again recalled in 2022 and also by the Republicans. Apart from corruption allegations, the Ukrainian government has been labelled evil with a thug President.
 

As anticipated, Fox News became more active. Alongside corruption, they also blamed Ukraine for dictatorship, as the abovementioned pro-Russian media and political parties were shut down. 
 

Moreover, fakes also rose here and there. E.g. the forged documents claiming the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was selling “surplus” weapons. And all of that is only exacerbated by the verified facts of earlier corruption.  
 

However, compared to the existing cases raising reasonable concerns, the aforementioned unfounded allegations only exist for sole propaganda purposes. The aim is to limit military assistance to Ukraine by changing public opinion. Because, as Donald Trump said back in 2019, “...why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"
 

Russian Ouroboros

 

Ukrainian corruption has always been of benefit to Russia. But eight years ago, under public pressure, the situation changed. Though not too widely and somewhat only formally. 
 

Since then, while Russian propagandists have been discussing the horrors and scale of a new Ukrainian corruption, Russia itself desperately, and with relative success, tried to bring Ukraine back to its corruption orbit: save the schemes that are yet to be destroyed and restore the lost ones. 


It resulted in a paradoxical situation. Russia is trying to convince us that  Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts were pointless and only brought even more corruption. 
 

Meanwhile, the end goal of this blatant corruption exaggeration is to bring Ukraine back to the bosom of Russian corruption, from which Ukraine has been trying to distance itself in the first place.
 

Of course, it is more than fair to say that Russia is not Ukraine’s only source of corruption. However, the most comprehensive opposition to Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts specifically came from Russia. And later, it became an extra weapon in this war.
 

At the end of the day, no wonder the Russian "list of Ukrainians' to arrest and assassinate" includes anti-corruption activists. 


Viktoriia Vyshnivska,
NAKO's Communications and Advocacy Manager, Researcher
For Ukrainska Pravda