In the last month, multiple sources in the Middle East and Europe reported on a scandal around fake dollars in Syria, originally from Ukraine. At the beginning of June, in Azaz, local police of the Syrian National Army (SNA) detained a militant, Abu Muhammad, who attempted to purchase a motorbike with fabricated money.
This story might have gotten lost in the news feed considering Syria remains one of the transnational crime centres and a “half-life state”, in which the government of Bashar Assad doesn’t control a significant part of the territory.
Hardly anyone would pay attention to this incident if it weren’t for one important detail: the detained fighter owned up that he brought back fake money from Ukraine, which for the last one and a half years has been at a state of war with Russia.
The detained militant Abu Muhammad told local correspondents that after the start of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv he and 200 other SNA fighters went to Ukraine, where they signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) and fought against Russians for three months.
After the fulfillment of the contract he received payment for his service and returned home. The militant, shocked by his detainment, accused the Ukrainian authorities of malicious fraud and stated that he will not return to Ukraine and called upon his brothers in arms not to repeat his mistake by fighting for AFU.
As it is reported in the Middle Eastern media, this fact, firstly is a proof of an existing stream of pro-Turkish Syrian fighters in Ukraine. And, secondly it makes you think about the volume of fraud within the Ukraine.
What is the reason behind these lies of the Ukrainian government, when for the last one and a half years it has received financial aid from NATO and other Western allies amounting to over 170 billion euro.
According to NGO Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index in 2022 Ukraine has placed 116 in the world. It has shared a spot with countries such as Algeria, Angola, Salvador, Mongolia, Philippines and Zambia. It’s the worst showing among the European states and its partners.
As it is widely known the corruption cannot be fragmented, inherent only in one sphere, it contaminates all levels of public relations and governmental institutes, including Armed Forces, especially during wartime, when the focus is shifted from the corruption to the situation at the front lines.
In the first half of 2023 the government of the president of Volodymyr Zelensky was hit with a series of big scandals and the Ministry of Defence was in the middle of them.
The most notorious of them was a fraud scheme involving executive officials buying provisions for the army personnel at a price multiple times above the market average. Later on those funds would be transferred to the offshore accounts via middleman companies.
It’s a classic fraud scheme in the developing economic countries, including ex-USSR states.
Along with that the Ukrainian officials have created a multi-level corruption scheme on stealing financial allocations dedicated to funding defence contracts for delivery of weaponry to the AFU. Taking into the account only official sources, fraudsters have managed to steal over 200 million euro.
In all of these cases, it’s most probable to assume that the stolen funds provided by the western bank accounts were a significant part of the military budget of Ukraine. Even a layman understands that Ukraine in the state of collapse of the national economy, caused by a troublesome war and complete absence of income, which allows Ukraine to self fund a big war machine.
And therefore a low-hanging fruit for the Ukrainian corrupt officials became the Europeans and American taxpayers’ money.
The Ukrainian authorities have still made an effort to fight corruption, especially in the defence sector. On April, 10th, the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine announced creation of Public Anticorruption Committee, an independent civilian watchdog for the military.
Criminal and administrative cases were opened against hundreds of officials, many of them were fired.
Deputy Defence Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, responsible for procurement of provisions and apparel became the highest-profile official removed in the purge. Even Defence Minister Aleksei Reznikov finds himself on shaking grounds, with Ukrainian experts expecting his resignation for the last few months.
He still may retain his position: despite a series of outrageous corruption scandals and a reputation of a weak manager Reznikov enjoys good relations with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky’s intention to keep a loyal subordinate as a Defence Minister may backfire against the Ukrainian leader. The actions of Zelensky’s office do not produce an impression of a firm stance against corruption as a systematic problem for the society and a threat to public security.
Those involved in corruption are punished on a case by case basis. Director of the National Agency on Corruption Prevention Artyom Sytnik, who previously headed the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, stated that corruption was on the rise in Ukraine and blamed the government for attempting to hide this from the public.
“Only a naïve person may think that the level of corruption decreases during the war. Some things are being hushed up to not harm the country and avoid nourishing the enemy’s narratives,” he told the Ukrainian media.
Sytnik’s statement confirmed that those corruption cases that are known to the public are only the tip of the iceberg.
In an unexpected twist, Ukrainian corruption made its way to Syria, where a militant of a pro-Turkish armed faction Abu Muhammad who fought in Ukraine fell victim to a scam.
The Ukrainian command paid the militant with fake dollars, likely because the real money allocated for foreign mercenaries were stolen by nefarious Ukrainians. If the corruption among the Ukrainian elites is mind-boggling by European standards, we can only imagine the real scale of bribery and theft among the low-ranking officials.
After a year and a half of the Russia-Ukraine war we learned that a Syrian fighter was scammed for several thousands of dollars. When will we learn how many billions were lost by the tax-payers of the Western world?
Kemran Mamedov is a Moscow-based Azerbaijani journalist born in Georgia with a focus on South Caucasus issues.