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The Transformation of Ukraine: From Corruption to Courage

Judges of the Supreme Court of Ukraine vote to remove the head of the court Vsevolod Kniaziev during the session in Kyiv, on May 16, 2023. Following a 2.7 million dollars bribery inquiry and Kniaziev’s detention, 140 out of 142 judges backed a decision to remove him from office. (Sergei Supincky/AFP via Getty Images) 

In the midst of an ongoing full-scale war, Ukraine is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Yuri Vanetik’s insightful piece sheds light on the nation’s evolution from being primarily associated with post-Soviet corruption to becoming a symbol of courage, patriotism, and military strategy. Drawing from conversations with Ukrainian military and business figures, Vanetik elaborates on how the war has not only displaced millions but has also dramatically altered the value system of Ukrainians. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have demonstrated their capabilities against Russian aggression, leading to a shift in global perception. Moreover, the society is experiencing a cultural reset, rejecting the old guard of oligarchs and criminal elements, embracing a more accountable and pragmatic approach. The article draws parallels with Georgia’s post-Soviet transformation and emphasizes the likely emergence of Ukraine as a military power.

Original article by Yuri Vanetik published in Newsmax, 2023. All rights reserved.

In Spite of War, Ukraine Is Reinventing Itself

In the 15 months of full-scale war in Ukraine, the West has learned that Ukrainians are courageous warriors, patriots, and formidable military strategists. Gone are the days when the world only associated Ukraine with post-Soviet corruption endemic to Russian satellite states. The current war has displaced almost 13 million people, and it has also displaced people’s value system. This change in perception is predicated on Ukraine’s surprising ability to mobilize and fight off Russia’s unprovoked and savage aggression.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) showed the world that Ukrainians are worthy of their sovereignty. In contrast, the Russian military is at best not measuring up to world power status, and at worst, is outdated, unmotivated, brutal, and brutish. Many politicians in Ukraine, who had high popularity ratings before February 24, 2022, have not maintained them during the war.

Ukraine has embraced a utilitarian approach to its political, social, and economic agenda. The impact of social networks, Telegram, and YouTube channels has increased in a myriad of ways. The positive results of state-mandated de-oligarchization have become clearly visible. There is a demand for military presence in Ukraine’s political life, as Ukrainian General Yuri Dumansky pointed out in one of our many conversations.

I regularly speak with Ukraine’s top brass as well as the businessmen who chose to stay in Kyiv to serve their country, despite having options to relocate to Europe, Turkey, or the UAE. Both groups have embraced the new culture of military-style pragmatism and accountability that previously did not exist in Ukrainian society. These are far from all the new cultural traits that have vividly manifested in Ukraine over the last 15 months of war.

In this context lies the noteworthy revelation that Soviet-style gangster authority is being scorched out of Ukraine. This may seem paradoxical for a country at war, where marauders and foreign agents scavenge for opportunities. Yet, this is exactly what is happening in Ukraine now, and we as Americans ought to take note.

Consequently, the view of Ukraine as a corrupt post-Soviet republic has shifted. Ukraine is now seen as a worthy friend that is reinventing itself. Given that Ukraine has become a country at war, there is a rejection of the old post-Soviet “way of life.” A similar phenomenon happened in Georgia under President Saakashvili’s first term when that nation purged its organized crime establishment, known as the “thieves in law,” which had developed from the old Stalin gulag culture.

These Georgian “Godfathers,” or “Thieves,” eventually moved to other countries such as Greece and the UAE. They left Georgia because they faced a harsh government ultimatum: leave or be marginalized through the stern enforcement of the rule of law.

The same recently happened in Ukraine with the oligarchs. Many of them have been highlighted in Ukraine’s media under the moniker, “The Monaco Battalion,” with an investigative feature that tracked various toxic Ukrainians lounging on their yachts in Monaco.

Historically, there were two strata that were widespread throughout the post-Soviet times: the “thieves in law,” who lived by the established criminal codes known in Russian as the “understandings,” and the self-styled “bandit-athletes.” Both were trying to pose as important “decision-makers” in business and politics.

This lasted quite a long time. But today, it appears that in Ukraine there is not only de-oligarchization but also de-banditization, spawned by its transition towards a military-oriented society. The organized criminal world is being repelled by Ukrainian society, and military structures are coming to the forefront in terms of influence.

Power in Ukraine is now in the hands of the military and government, not oligarchs and bandits, as a Ukrainian general I befriended pointed out. There are remnants of the latter, of course, as the cultural reset escalates. Cultural stains from years of Soviet colonialism do not disappear instantly, as a high-ranking SBU official I got to know told me.

The war is shaping values of accountability and patriotism that supplant those of criminal rule through authority figures and negotiators who communicate in Soviet prison jargon.

People who do not participate in defending their country, but instead sit in cafes drinking vodka and intimidating bystanders, are no longer accepted. Ukraine of today has no tolerance for them or what they represent.

Though they may still wield influence at a ministerial level and bribe low-level officials, they are now anachronisms – remnants of the past in a nation at war. They will have to either reinvent themselves or leave Ukraine.

Similarly, for those who used to “rule” but left Ukraine during the war – a country they were looting – it will be very difficult to come back.

The war has led to many deaths and has changed the mentality of Ukrainians. The authority of gangsters is no longer respected, as Svetoslav Piskun, the longest-serving Attorney General of Ukraine and head of the Association of Attorneys of Ukraine, points out.

Even when this war ends, Ukraine will operate by the example of Israel, where military service and lifestyle are paramount.

Western experts I speak with at political think tanks and academia seem to hold this view. It is possible that many of the Ukrainian women and men who excel in the military will go into business or perhaps political or cultural life. However, the military complex in Ukraine will always be venerated and receive deferential treatment. No matter how Ukraine is rebuilt after the war, it will always be a military power. The war has changed the Ukrainian people’s value system.

Ukraine was the quintessential illustration of the Soviet cliché, “money cuts steel.” But now, it’s a nation reinventing itself.

Written by Yuri Vanetik, a private investor, lawyer, and political strategist based in California.

© 2023 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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