May 18, 2023 - 1:00pm

This week Ukrainian agencies announced the arrest of the country’s Supreme Court Justice, Vsevolod Kniaziev — adding to a legacy of troubled relations between the Government and the country’s judiciary. Kniaziev is accused of accepting a bribe of nearly £1.6 million from oligarch Kostyantyn Zhevago in exchange for favourable rulings, even as the Government simultaneously seeks to take over Zhevago’s metals company Ferrexpo in relation to claims he embezzled money from a bankrupt bank he once controlled. This is the second time in as many years that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has fallen out with the head of its two highest courts.

Amid Russia’s continued attacks, Kyiv has been attempting  to overhaul its courts — long seen as some of the most corrupt in the Western world. Kniaziev’s arrest is just the latest example of this effort, which has repeatedly stumbled. And while Zelenskyy’s government has said that Vladimir Putin’s war will only spur on its efforts to tackle corruption, the case nevertheless raises uncomfortable questions about just how deep the rot is.

That such corruption has long plagued Ukraine is not controversial — Western government reports have long acknowledged the reality. A 2017 report from the US’ Helsinki Commission noted that oligarchs “captured the Ukrainian state”. Even on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion, EU publications noted Ukraine still relied on “unreformed judicial, prosecution, and law-enforcement sectors despite seven years of support” — explaining in wishy-washy Brussels-ese language that reforms “could have relied more on conditions to support reforms in the judiciary” from Kyiv. And while agencies such as NABU and SAPO were held up by Western support, they too have been beset by infighting and have often been seen as failing to make effective progress.

Prominent detractors of Western support for Ukraine such as Tucker Carlson have focused on Ukraine’s troubled record in combatting corruption to justify their calls for abandoning Kyiv to devastation at Putin’s hands. There is no denying that the reform effort in relation to Ukraine’s courts has proved a particularly grave challenge. Judge Oleksandr Tupytskyi was sanctioned by the United States in December 2021, but formally held on to his post until the expiry of his term in May last year. Kniaziev, on the other hand, was appointed to head the Supreme Court in 2017 thanks to an earlier attempt to reform the courts by then-president Petro Poroshenko. He became its head under Zelenskyy’s government in 2021.

The question of whether support for Ukraine’s resistance risks being negatively affected by such corruption therefore remains a live one. But there is ample reason to believe that the current administration does see corruption as a threat to the Ukrainian state — with the agenda taking on a newfound vigour over the last year. A number of oligarchs have been stripped of their assets over alleged support for Moscow and charged with various forms of corruption. This includes the former owner of defence and aerospace company Motor Sich Vyacheslav Bohuslayev, metals magnate Vadim Novinsky and gas billionaire Dmytro Firtash. Zelenskyy has also gone after his supposed erstwhile ally Ihor Kolomoisky, on whose television networks the President rose to fame, though Kolomoisky was one of the first oligarchs to fund resistance efforts after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014.

It would be mistaken to argue that Kyiv is responsible for this national legacy of corruption, or its future impact. The reality is that in almost every one of the aforementioned cases the oligarchs have relied on Western bolt-holes, legal support and tax havens to escape being held to account. Ex-constitutional court chief Tupytskyi fled to Austria last year. Firtash has been hiding out there to resist US and now Ukrainian extradition efforts since 2014. Zhevago this March secured a French court order denying his extradition. His Swiss-headquartered firm remains on the London Stock Exchange. Novinsky is at liberty in Switzerland, where he has openly criticised Zelenskyy’s agenda. Last March Kolomoisky secured a delay from an English court against Kyiv’s efforts to claw back assets he allegedly embezzled.

For Ukraine to be successful in its hopes to root out corruption, it will need Europe to take unprecedented measures to overhaul its own way of doing business — just as it has taken unprecedented steps to support Ukraine on the battlefield.

Maximilian Hess is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.