Case Studies

Making the system work: security assistance to Ukraine, 2014-2017

"Russia over the last decade or so has used another foreign policy weapon. It uses corruption as a tool of coercion to keep Ukraine vulnerable and dependent. So pursue those reforms to root out corruption. It’s not just about good governance. It’s about self-preservation. It’s about your very national security."

- Joe Biden, Former US Vice President (quoted in The Atlantic)


After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and breakout of the separatist conflict in the east of Ukraine, Ukrainian armed forces received significant assistance from European and North American partners. By the summer of 2016, 18 countries provided non-lethal aid to Ukrainian armed forces, with others offering lethal aid as well.[i] Provision of significant amounts of assistance has continued since then, with top donors – the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada – transferring equipment, deploying advisers to assist with reform of the Ukrainian defence forces, and providing training to selected Ukrainian units.


When Ukraine faced conflict on its territory in 2014, its armed forces were ill-prepared for it. In the Crimea, a significant part of Ukraine’s Navy switched allegiance to Russia – where naval salaries were much higher – while its Army struggled to contain the separatists in the Eastern parts of the country.[ii] It sustained heavy losses, with some sources pegging the death toll at more than 10,000 casualties,[iii] and struggled to recruit and retain conscripts, who often preferred to bribe their way out of service with an ill-equipped and badly managed organisation.[iv] Its logistical and supply chains was dysfunctional to an extent that necessitated the use of volunteers to deliver supplies to the frontline, and the funding situation was sufficiently dire that the government invited private contributions – effectively charity – to keep the army functioning.[v]

Risk Pathways

Anti-Corruption Measures

After the issues plaguing Ukraine’s armed forces were exposed, increased donor and public scrutiny pushed the government to introduce a number of reforms aimed at improving the functioning of the armed forces, as well as addressing corruption in Ukraine overall. International pressure and conditionality implemented by international financial institutions have supported anti-corruption institutions such as the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), an investigative law-enforcement institution mandated to investigate corruption cases.[xxxviii] Advisory missions, from NATO engagement to the Defence Reform and Advisory Board (DRAB) have assisted in designing and implementing reforms, and deployed advisors. The UK’s Special Defence Adviser, for example, works directly with the Ukrainian MOD to support and help implement reforms.[xxxix] Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has also committed to Ukraine achieving NATO standards and interoperability with the Alliance by 2020.[xl]

The Ukrainian government has also introduced other measures aimed at mitigating corruption risks. One key development was Prozorro, the Ukrainian government’s online procurement systems, which has provided external stakeholders with access to government tenders and procurement decisions..[xli] The Ukrainian MOD has used Prozorro, but the system is not applied to classified procurement processes, rendering a significant part of defence procurement – including all munitions, equipment and weapons – opaque.[xlii]

But perhaps the most significant progress has been achieved in improving supply to frontline troops. This was done through a combination of stronger accountability for equipment and supplies at the tactical level, and measures aimed at reducing impunity and improving the overall governance of the defence sector. While initially donors tended to bypass Ukrainian defence structures and rely on external actors, in time, donor pressure and improvements in Ukrainian structures have helped plug the leaks in the supply chains.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Anti-corruption, transparency and accountability reforms can be particularly challenging in a conflict environment, when it can be easier to argue that national security considerations require a cloak of secrecy over the defence sector, especially in terms of procurement. Failure to control sensitive information related to national security can indeed have dire results. Similarly, however, excessive secrecy and over-classification, which can facilitate corruption and inefficiency, can pose major threats to national security. Finding an appropriate balance between transparency and national security concerns not only helps build public trust in institutions, but also helps push for greater efficiency and capacity.[lxvi]


All online sources were accessed between November 2016-December 2018.

[i] See for example ‘Литва передала Украине вооружение по просьбе Киева – министр обороны’ (‘At Kiyv’s request, Lithuania supplies arms to Ukraine’), Interfaks-Ukraina, 5 February 2015, available at



This case study is partially based on interviews conducted in 2016 and 2017 for a TI-Defence and Security report, Making the System Work: Enhancing Security Assistance for Ukraine. Available online.