US has spent billions on Ukraine war aid. But is that money landing in corrupt pockets?

Written by on February 19, 2023

WASHINGTON – With more than $100 billion in U.S. weaponry and financial aid flowing to Ukraine in less than a year — and more on the way to counter Russia’s invasion — concerns about arms falling into terrorists’ hands and dollars into corrupt officials’ pockets are mounting.

The special inspector general who has overseen aid to Afghanistan since 2012, and some House Republicans, warn of the need for closer oversight of the military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The scale of the effort is massive. The $113 billion appropriated by Congress in 2022 approaches the $146 billion spent in 20 years for military and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, though the cost of sending U.S. troops there was far higher.

“When you spend so much money so quickly, with so little oversight, you’re going to have fraud, waste and abuse,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in an interview. “Massive amounts.”

The Pentagon rejects that narrative, saying safeguards have been put in place to ensure that U.S. weapons are accounted for by the Ukrainian forces after they are transferred. 

“The department takes our commitment to Ukraine seriously, which is why we implemented strong measures to track the capabilities we are providing to equip Ukraine,” said Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary.

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Among the American public and on Capitol Hill,support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s unprovoked invasion remains strong. But it is softening. An Associated Press poll taken in late January showed that 48% of U.S. adults say they favor the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, with 29% opposed and 22% saying they’re neither in favor nor opposed. That’s a drop from May 2022, when 60% of U.S. adults said they were in favor of sending Ukraine weapons.

Support could erode further among Americans and Ukrainians, according to members of Congress and Sopko, without greater transparency and accountability for the tens of billions spent. The costs to American taxpayers can be expected to increase as the Biden administration sends increasingly sophisticated and expensive arms to Ukraine, including Abrams battle tanks.

Assuring the aid ends up in the right hands, they say, demands greater oversight.

U.S. struggles to account for billions sent to Ukraine

A Ukrainian tank rides to its position in the frontline in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023.

The Pentagon spent $62.3 billion in 2022 on Ukraine for weapons, ammunition, training, logistics, supplies, salaries and stipends, according to the Joint Strategic Oversight Plan for Ukraine Response report. Inspectors general for several agencies released the report in January.

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development spent $46 billion for activities ranging from border security to funds for basic government services such as utilities, hospitals, schools and firefighting. Other government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, spent another $5 billion.

The report noted the difficulty U.S. agencies had accounting for the billions spent.

The Pentagon, for example, was “unable to provide end-use monitoring in accordance with DoD policy” in Ukraine, according to a report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General. “End-use monitoring” includes tracking serial numbers of weapons and ammunition to ensure they’re used as intended.

In Afghanistan, the Pentagon had troops on the ground to monitor military aid with 100,000 service members there at the peak of U.S. involvement. It was also far more costly: Overall U.S. spending for the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan is estimated to be $899 billion, according to a Pentagon report. In Ukraine, the U.S. involvement is mostly limited to embassy staff. In Ukraine, there are no U.S. combat troops on the ground, and President Joe Biden has pledged to keep them out of the fighting.

Among the thousands of weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition, the Pentagon has sent more than 1,600 portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Without adequate safeguards, they could fall into the wrong hands, said Sopko, who supports the U.S. effort to help Ukraine with its war with Russia.

“If those things get diverted, who knows what could happen?” he said. 

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With few U.S. troops or State Department personnel in Ukraine, keeping inventories is difficult, the report said. Moreover, the vast amount of money complicates the effort. The report notes the danger of corrupt officials siphoning it off.

“State is overseeing unprecedented levels of security assistance in Ukraine, presenting significant risk of misuse and diversion given the volume and speed of assistance and the wartime operating environment,” according to the report.

Singh, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said monitoring of U.S. weapons is being accomplished with the help of Ukraine.

“Through our dedicated personnel, we make comprehensive records of U.S. weapons donations at our distribution nodes immediately prior to transfer to Ukraine and then once in country, the Ukrainians log and track U.S.-items and provide expenditure and damage reports,” Singh said.

That’s not enough, said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon needs more inspectors on the ground in Ukraine to ensure the weapons are used properly.

“That kind of eyes-on versus the kind of self-reporting that’s going on from the Ukrainians is incredibly important,” he said. 

Lack of Ukraine oversight draws parallels to Afghanistan corruption

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses a media conference after the EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

Ukraine has a history of corruption, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made stamping it out a priority.

Ukraine ranks 116 out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. On Feb. 14, the defense minister named new deputies after news reports showed officials in the defense ministry had bought food for troops at inflated prices. 

Corruption corrodes the public’s faith in government, said Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan. Elites in Afghanistan skimmed U.S. aid money, and the obvious corruption alienated Afghans.

The Taliban took Kabulalmost without a fight because Afghans had little faith in their government.

He warned the same thing could happen in Ukraine without a watchdog.

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“We also enabled a lot of oligarchs in Afghanistan – warlords,” Sopko said. “The fear is if we don’t get our ducks in a row, and we don’t send a message about serious oversight, we’re going to be doing the same thing in the Ukraine. What will happen is you’re gonna lose the support of the Ukrainians, citizens, the Ukrainians who are fighting and dying, bleeding, just like the Afghans lost faith in their government because of the corruption and the abuses by these oligarchs.”

‘Need truth tellers’: Republicans demand more oversight

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine receives a standing ovation as he addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the Capitol on December 21, 2022.

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., drafted a letter to the White House requesting an expansion to a congressionally-mandated report on the amount of security assistance sent to Ukraine. The lawmakers called for more details on how much money has been sent to Ukraine and how it’s used. 

“The American people deserve to know exactly where their money is going,” Bishop said in a statement. “A detailed, transparent accounting is an absolute necessity.” 

James Comer, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability., said Congress must conduct oversight of taxpayer dollars sent overseas. The committee will work to determine if there was waste or misuse.  

“We owe it to the American taxpayer to account for how their money is spent,” Comer said in a statement to USA TODAY.  

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Biden administration officials— including from the U.S. Agency for International Development, offices of Inspector General for the Department of Defense, Department of State and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine— visited Kyi/v last month in an effort to provide more oversight of Ukraine’s response efforts, according to a release from the USAID. 

Sopko supports a new office of special inspector focused solely on aid to Ukraine. Inspectors general for the Defense and State Departments are already spread too thin, he said.

“Somebody who is independent who could speak truth to power and isn’t worried about upsetting his boss in Washington,” Sopko said. “That’s what you need. You need truth tellers.”

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