Locals Raise Corruption Issues Over Kharkiv Fortifications As Russians Advance

Our journalist friends at Gwara Media are reporting on Russian military advances into northeastern Ukraine.  At great risk to themselves, they are detailing how Russian soldiers have taken a series of villages on the road between the Russian border and the major city of Kharkiv, which is about 25 miles inside Ukraine.

Locals have been surprised at the apparent ease and speed with which Russian troops managed to make the recent gains, with Ukrainian soldiers claiming that the Russians “just walked in,” raising serious questions about the quality of fortifications supposed to protect the area.

I know many of these communities well, and over the last two years, I have traveled with journalists from Gwara and others to report from many of the villages now under threat.

These places endured Russian occupation for most of 2022 but were retaken by Ukrainian forces towards the end of that year. Since then locals have been trying to rebuild homes, schools, and clinics after the devastation of occupation, only to see Russian soldiers sweep back in and retake villages they lost 18 months ago.

This week local anti-corruption investigators from the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center (KhAC) and Mezha released information on dubious contracts awarded for fortifying the region against attacks. Activists say they scrutinized all the expenses of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration for Defense in 2023-2024 and identified all the contractors who won a total of 223 contracts in 2024 for the construction of fortifications totaling 4.51 billion hryvnias ($115 million).

They found that dozens of contracts have been awarded without competitive tendering, and to businesspeople with questionable qualifications.

“The owners of these firms do not resemble successful businessmen: they have open court cases, from whiskey theft to domestic violence…some of them … have enforcement proceedings for loans in banks,” said Martyna Bohuslavets of the anti-corruption NGO Mezha.

The KhAC also found that many contracts have been given to firms with questionable reputations. We have worked with the KhAC since 2017 when I visited activists at their Kharkiv office who had been beaten up for exposing local corruption. In July 2023 we co-authored a report with them into irregularities in contracts for reconstruction awarded by Kharkiv’s authorities.

Part of the new scandal over the contracts for fortifications concerns how local officials have been buying timber for the defenses. The KhAC found that timber has been bought through intermediary companies, not directly from the state forestry services, and that these companies had often not dealt in the timber business before, and charged much higher prices than normal.

“Overpayments could be in the millions [of hryvnias],” said Helen Getmanenko of the KhAC. “And when these issues were raised last week, the official website detailing these deals – ‘The Forest Innovation and Analytical Center’ – was suddenly shut down.”

Corruption eats away at Kharkiv’s ability to defend itself. In March 2024 the KhAC issued a report on corruption surrounding military conscription in Kharkiv. The following month leading KhAC activist Dmytro Bulakh’s car and home were searched, and his phone taken by officials from the State Bureau of Investigations and the domestic security service (SBU). He said that he has since discovered a hidden camera trained on his apartment.

Bulakh was one of those I visited in Kharkiv in 2017 where he had been attacked on the street for exposing corruption in Kharkiv.  The new revelations, plus the recent attacks on Bulakh and other anti-corruption activists elsewhere in Ukraine, are worrying indicators of Ukraine’s readiness to withstand another major Russian assault.

I will return to Kharkiv in the coming weeks to report on how local activists and others assess progress in the battles against Russian soldiers, and against internal corruption.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on May 20, 2024


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