Bye-bye Kiev, hello Cote d’Azur: how Ukraine’s corrupt elites are profiting from the conflict
By Olga Sukharevskaya, a former Ukrainian diplomat
Since the beginning of Russia's military offensive in Ukraine, the US, EU, and their allies have provided Kiev with $126 billion worth of aid, a number almost equal to the country's entire GDP. Moreover, millions of Ukrainians have found refuge in the EU, where they were given housing, food, work permits, and emotional support. The scope is huge, even by Western standards. Considering that the bloc has been funding Kiev while coping with an economic and energy crisis of its own, the assistance is perhaps especially notable.
Kiev bases its endless funding requests on the collapse of its economy, due to the war, and its need to “resist Russian aggression.” But is the aid reaching its intended destination?
While Ukraine has undergone a general mobilization affecting all men under the age of 60, many former and current high-ranking officials, politicians, businessmen, and oligarchs have moved to safety abroad – mainly to the EU.
The mass flight of Ukrainian elites started even prior to the armed conflict. On February 14, 2022, 37 deputies from the Ukrainian president's parliamentary faction (Servant of the People) suddenly went missing. Had MPs not been banned from leaving the country the very next day, others would have definitely joined them. Meanwhile, former officials and oligarchs enjoyed more freedom to move around. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, 20 business jets took off from Kiev’s Boryspol airport on the 14th as well.
Tycoons were at the front of the line. Entrepreneur and MP Vadim Novinsky, businessmen Vasily Khmelnitsky and Vadim Stolar, Vadim Nesterenko, and Andrey Stavnitzer all left the country on charter flights. Millionaire politician Igor Abramovich booked a private flight to Austria for 50 people – taking relatives, business partners, and fellow party members aboard. Oligarchs flew from Kiev to Nice, Munich, Vienna, Cyprus, and other EU destinations. Another group of businessmen took off from Odessa on private planes. The owner of Vostok Bank departed for Israel, while the head of the Transship group flew to Limassol. An ex-governor of the Odessa region, Stalkanat's Vladimir Nemirovsky, also left the country.
the Monaco Battalion
In the summer and early autumn of 2022, Ukrainska Pravda prepared several investigative documentaries about fit-for-service Ukrainian billionaires and officials spotted vacationing on the Côte d'Azur during the war. A movie with the ironic title The Monaco Battalion shows Ukrainian oligarchs resting at their villas, mansions, and on yachts. In the first part, we see businessman Konstantin Zhevago, who is included on Interpol’s wanted list, relaxing on his private yacht worth $70 million. The yacht graces the shoreline of the Côte d'Azur as Zhevago’s family disembarks. Kharkov entrepreneur Alexander Yaroslavsky, who promised to sell his yacht and transfer the funds towards the restoration of Kharkov, can be seen sailing alongside.
The Ukrainska Pravda journalists also got a glimpse of the Surkis brothers in France, who are currently renting apartments worth €2 million per year. Meanwhile, a $300,000 Bentley belonging to Ukrainian businessman Vadim Ermolaev was spotted near the casino in Monaco, and Eduard Kohan, the co-founder of Euroenergotrade, was seen at one of Monte Carlo’s chic hotels.
A whole colony of Ukrainian oligarchs has apparently taken up residence in the elite French commune of Cap-Ferrat. Land developer Vadim Solar, oligarchs Dmitry Firtash, Vitaly Khomutynnik, and Sergey Lovochkin are among those enjoying high life in the middle of the war. The Cap-Ferrat villa once belonging to King Leopold II of Belgium was bought by the richest Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. His neighbors are Alexander Davtyan, president of the Investment Group DAD LLC, and Vladislav Gelzin, a former deputy of the Donetsk Regional Council.
As the creators of the film repeatedly emphasize, deputies and businessmen of “pro-Russian” parliamentary factions left the country during the war. Yet many active supporters of the current government also prefer to defend their homeland from abroad.
Ukrainska Pravda managed to interview Andrey Kholodov, an MP from Vladimir Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, from his current residence in Vienna. The Austrian capital was also chosen by nationalist Nikita Poturaev and Sergey Melnichuk, a former head of the Aidar battalion known for war crimes reported by Amnesty International. The former head of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, 59-year-old Alexander Tupitsky, and 45-year-old ex-prosecutor general of Ukraine Ruslan Ryaboshapka also preferred foreign 'trenches'.
Members of the Ukrainian parliament are in no hurry to adopt vitally important laws for the country during wartime. According to the Telegram channel Volyn News, as of 11th March, more than 20 MPs had moved abroad for unspecified reasons. The geography is extensive: Great Britain, Poland, Qatar, Spain, France, Austria, Romania, Hungary, UAE, Moldova, Israel, etc. In March, the Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine launched an investigation into the actions of six parliamentarians who have remained abroad.
Apparently, neither war nor punishment can put Ukrainian legislators to work. Only 99 deputies out of 450 attended the session of the Parliament on July 20. Presumably distracted by summer, the Côte d'Azur, the Maldives, and yachts… As for defending Ukraine itself – just leave it to the foreign volunteers, they say.
Where’s all the military and humanitarian aid going?
Some Western benefactors have recently noticed that most of the military and humanitarian aid never reaches Ukraine’s army or ordinary citizens.
In an original documentary, CBS reported that about 70 per cent of military aid failed to find its way to the intended beneficiaries and donor countries are often unable to control its intended use. According to the creators of the report, some of the weapons are sold on the black market. As US Marine Corps veteran Andy Milburn said, “I can tell you unarguably that on the frontline units these things are not getting there. Drones, Switchblades, IFAKs (first aid kits). They’re not, alright. Body armour, helmets, you name it.”
The Grayzone writes that weapons and humanitarian aid provided by the West to the Ukrainian military is being stolen along the way and never reaches the soldiers. At the same time, Ukrainian MPs recently gave themselves a 70 per cent pay raise. The author of the piece argues that billions of dollars from the US and the EU have been diverted.
A Ukrainian soldier named Ivan told journalists about Western funds never reaching the front: “Imagine telling an American soldier that we are using our personal cars in the war, and we’re also responsible for paying for repairs and fuel. We’re buying our own body armor and helmets. We don’t have observation tools or cameras, so soldiers have to pop their heads out to see what’s coming, which means at any moment, a rocket or tank can tear their heads off.”
Samantha Morris, a medical doctor from the US, drew attention to the theft of medical supplies and the overall corruption: “The lead doctor at the military base in Sumy has ordered medical supplies from and for the military at different points in time, and he has had 15 trucks of supplies completely disappear,” she said. The doctors couldn’t even set up courses for medical assistants until a friend of the Sumy Region governor interceded.
CNN talked to a retired US colonel who said that Ukrainian troops are short on supplies. Small arms, medical equipment, field hospitals, and a lot more are under the control of private organizations – more concerned about stealing money than saving the lives of their compatriots.
As Stephen Myers, a former member of the US Department of State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy, insisted, “There is little to prevent a field commander from diverting some of the equipment to buyers, aka the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians or whomever, while claiming the equipment and weapons were destroyed…”
Thousands of tons of humanitarian aid is being stolen. In September, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) proved that the head of the Office of the President, Andrey Yermak, his deputy Kirill Tymoshenko, the head of the Servant of the People party, David Arakhamiya, and his friend Vemir Davityan were behind the large-scale theft of humanitarian aid in Zaporozhye Region. Zaporozhye officials Starukh, Nekrasova, Sherbina, and Kurtev only superficially carried out the task of distributing aid. In six months, they organized the theft of 22 sea containers, 389 railway cars, and 220 trucks. Humanitarian aid was sold in ATB and Selpo – supermarkets owned by Gennady Butkevich and Vladimir Kostelman, respectively. Of course, Tymoshenko, Nekrasova and Davityan all became 'refugees' and found asylum in Vienna.
Admittedly, not everyone is on the run. Andrey Yarmolsky, the scandalous former deputy head of the Volyn regional administration – accused of stealing humanitarian aid, supplying defective bulletproof vests, and illegally moving men out of the country – was promoted. He now works for the National Security and Defense Council.
Medical supplies are also being stolen. The Telegraph reports that “some of the donated supplies later made their way onto the hospitals’ pharmacy shelves: priced, and listed for sale". Health workers appropriate medicine, bandages, and medical equipment, and resell them to patients for whom they were intended to be free, the article says.
A similar story was told by the aforementioned doctor Dr Morris: “I got a call from a nurse at a military hospital in Dnipro. She said the president of the hospital had stolen all the pain medications to resell them, and that the wounded soldiers being treated there had no pain relief. She begged us to hand-deliver pain medications to her. She said she would hide them from the hospital president so that they’d reach the soldiers. But who can you trust? Was the hospital president really stealing the medications, or was she trying to con us into giving her pain medications for her to sell or use? Who knows. Everyone is lying.”
War for some, Gucci for others
Enormous cash flows from Western countries are continuously used by corrupt Ukrainian officials for personal enrichment and to acquire luxury goods.
In a recently busted corruption scheme, Odessa customs smuggled shirts, backpacks, sports shoes, belts, and other luxury items by Givenchy, Gucci, Polo, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Armani under the guise of army equipment. The documents, declaring the cargo as “for the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” were signed by the acting head of the Odessa customs, Vitaly Zakolodyazhny. According to MP Aleksandr Dubinsky, this is a common theft scheme. “The work of the customs is unsatisfactory because while some are fighting at the front, others are making money under the guise of their customs uniforms," the parliamentarian said.
To take another example, in May 2022, Western countries abolished customs duties for Ukraine. Within a week, over 14,000 passenger cars were imported into the country. As the deputy minister of infrastructure, Mustafa Nayem, commented, "Considering we’re a country at war, our partners in Poland, Slovakia, and Romania were quite surprised by this fast-paced upgrade to our vehicle fleet.”
As they go about acquiring luxurious clothes and cars, the thieves are also taking care to withdraw capital from Ukraine.
According to the Bureau of Economic Security of Ukraine, Ukraine’s budget is missing UAH 4.5 billion worth of taxes from agrotraders: “In August-September 2022, almost 12 million tons of grain crops and oil estimated at 137 billion Ukrainian hryvnia ($3.71 bn) were exported through the customs territory of Ukraine. Of these, almost 4 million tons were exported by fake companies existing only on paper.” Moreover, “most of the non-resident companies to which grain is exported are high-risk and involved in criminal investigations.” Is this the 'grain deal' that the global community is actively cheering? It looks like Ukrainian fraudsters are corrupting not just their own country, but foreign states as well. And this is just one example out of many.
When the Surkis brothers left Ukraine, they took $17 million with them. But that’s just a trifle compared to the 'heroes of the Euromaidan'. According to former People's Deputy of Ukraine Oleg Tsarev, after the outbreak of hostilities, leading Ukrainian politicians sent both their capital and their families abroad.
He mentions that the parents and relatives of Zelensky and his wife all left the country. His predecessor, former President Pyotr Poroshenko, moved not just his children but also about a billion US dollars in cash to the UK.
The same applies to other major Ukrainian officials: former Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, the head of the Office of the President, Andrey Yermak, the second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, former Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, and many others all took their families and fortunes, estimated at around a billion dollars, out of the country. And that’s not to mention the numerous politically-affiliated oligarchs.
Scammers of smaller stature can “individually join the EU” as well. A system of bribery allows military-age males to leave the country. According to Izvestia, the fee is currently between $8,000 and $10,000. The Ukrainian media also actively reports on people paying to cross the border.
The sympathy of Westerners towards a country at war is understandable. But while some countries are doing their utmost to aid Ukraine – even while facing an economic crisis themselves – corrupt Ukrainian officials are using the funding to amass personal fortunes and live the high life at fancy resorts. And all at the expense of taxpayers in the West.
In 2015, Arseny Yatseniuk, upon leaving the post of the prime minister, openly declared that he had become a billionaire. It is yet to be seen how many new Ukrainian super rich tycoons – nurtured by foreign military aid – will appear in the West by the end of the conflict.