Russian military’s rampant corruption helped Ukraine win the war

A group of Russian conscripts appeared drunk in front of their commander.

In January 2024, the Russian independent newspaper Verstka published research on corruption in the Russian Armed Forces that saw widespread bribery of commanders by their service members.

A British Ministry of Defense update on the war in Ukraine commented on the story and reported that bribes had been given out for things like leave, certification of physical training, military rank, and even avoiding disciplinary actions for using phones or drinking while serving.

The services that Russian service members were expanded when Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and soldiers could purchase injury certificates and awards for participating in Moscow’s ‘Special military Operation’.

The British Ministry noted that Verstka published the rough cost of purchasing leave from the front, which equaled roughly $440 dollars, in the price of squaring an injury certificate, which equaled about $11,000 dollars.

“Corruption has long been a problem in the Russian Armed Forces,” the British Defense Ministry explained in its war update. “It is likely that corruption significantly undermines the effectiveness of the Russian military.”

“There is only a remote chance that significant progress will be made in reducing corruption levels,” the defense ministry continued. This wasn’t the first time corruption in the Russian ranks has made news since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Corruption problems have plagued the Russian Armed Forces ever since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began highlighting the major issues the country was facing. But there was one example from 2023 that really underscored Moscow’s situation.

At no time in the war was it more evident Russia had serious systemic corruption issues than when news reached Western media that a Russian officer had been arrested for stealing tank engines and selling them on the black market.

Colonel Alexander Denisov was arrested by authorities in March 2023 for allegedly stealing seven V-92S2 engines that were meant for a new stock of T-90 tanks according to a report from the Russian language newspaper, The Kommersant. 

Colonel Denisov had sold a number of the stolen tank engines at some point between November 2021 and April 2022, a fact that was relayed by The Telegraph’s James Kliner. Kilner picked up the story of Russian military corruption and translated the details into English.

As you might imagine, tank engines can cost quite a large amount of cash and Kilner reported that a single V-92S2 tank engine was worth roughly $200,000. That means Colonel Denisov could have been pocketing as much as $.14 million dollars if he had sold all seven engines. 

Kilner noted that the colonel was the commander in charge of “technical tank support” in Russia’s Southern Military District, which explained how Denisov got access to the engines and was able to take them for sale at a later time. 

Denisov was arrested in March at Rostov and was later charged with “stealing parts intended to be installed on tanks” according to a translation from The Telegraph. 

Colonel Denisov’s story was a great encapsulation of the problems Russia faced in the early days of the war as the scale of corruption in Moscow’s military was made apparent. Nothing was as it should have been and the country didn’t look like it was ready for a major war.

The first reports of Russian corruption affecting the war in Ukraine came shortly after the invasion began. Columns of combat vehicles were stopped for days due to a lack of fuel which some reports said was because troops had sold it in Belarus according to the Kyiv Post. 

In October 2022, The Guardian reported on the lack of basic equipment available for soldiers mobilized in Russia’s first big push for more troops, the reason being mass corruption.

“I am not at all surprised to see the mess that the army is in,” Gleb Irisov, a former air force lieutenant in the Russian military explained to the Guardian’s Pjotr Sauer at the time. 

“The army has always been deeply corrupt, and those issues were never properly addressed. They didn’t spend any money on the personnel while our seniors were becoming rich,“ Irisov added. But just how corrupt is the Russian military system?

BBC News Russia published its own report in October 2020 on the corruption in Russia’s Armed Forces and showed that over the previous eight years, there were 558 sentences issued by military courts for the theft of army clothing, a situation far worse for other equipment.

Over the eight years investigated, there had been 12,000 convictions for fraud, with 2019 and 2018 being particularly bad years, as well as over 700 embezzlement convictions of contract servicemen that included both regular soldiers and their commanders.

However, corruption extends past the theft of military property. It’s present at everything at every level of Russia’s command structure and decision making according to retired U.S. General Ben Hodges. 

“These are the kinds of things that are the result of either total incompetence or corruption,” General Hodges said in August 2022, “false reporting, people signing off on things that actually don’t meet standards, and of course the individual Russian soldier.”

How the corruption problem in the Russian military will continue to affect the war in Ukraine has yet to be seen. But it is clear Russia’s corruption problem has probably helped Ukrainian forces as they’ve fought to defend their country from their neighbor. 

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