Hours after Senate Democrats blocked an effort to install greater oversight over the billions of dollars the United States is sending to Ukraine, the watchdog who oversaw U.S. spending in Afghanistan issued a warning.
Spending too much too fast, with little oversight, would lead to “unanticipated consequences,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said at an event sponsored by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft last week. The U.S. has sent more money to Ukraine in one year than it spent in Afghanistan over 12 years, Sopko pointed out. “I’m not opposed to spending that. I just want to make sure it’s done correctly and there’s oversight,” he said.
Sopko especially warned about the risk of fueling corruption, perhaps the most damaging legacy of the billions the U.S. spent in Afghanistan and a major factor in the collapse of its effort in the country. “If that much money is coming in, you know some of it is going to be stolen,” he said. “In Afghanistan, corruption was the existential threat. It wasn’t the Taliban. It was corruption that did us in.”
Debate over installing a special inspector for Ukraine modeled after SIGAR began swirling on Capitol Hill as it became clear that U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s full-scale invasion would reach unprecedented levels. The push for a special inspector for Ukraine aid has been heralded by some of the Biden administration’s most vocal opponents, including Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; and J. D. Vance, R-Ohio; and Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.; and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. That factor, as well as a conflation of calls for greater oversight with opposition to sending the aid in the first place, has made the idea of a watchdog to oversee all aid to Ukraine somewhat toxic for many Democrats.
Following multiple failed efforts to pass standalone legislation on this issue, Republican lawmakers tried to include such a provision in the annual defense budget, the National Defense Authorization Act. 45 Democrats, joined by Sens. Angus King, I-Maine; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Rand Paul, R-Ky.; voted against it last Wednesday, blocking its passage. The provision was also opposed by the White House, which wrote in a statement to lawmakers that the Pentagon Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office “are currently undertaking multiple investigations regarding every aspect of this assistance.”
Opponents of a special inspector for Ukraine have argued that existing agency-specific oversight mechanisms are sufficient, with Elizabeth Hoffman, director of congressional and government affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, telling VOA last month that the special inspector office could have “a chilling effect.”
For proponents of the office, the unprecedented rate of aid to Ukraine naturally calls for greater oversight. Sopko has called for a holistic “whole-of-government” approach, focused on a broader evaluation of U.S. overall spending, rather than one limited to each agency’s scope and to tracking how much money was spent and on what. “The U.S. government,” he said, “whether it’s USAID, or DOD, or State, have horrible records on effective monitoring and evaluation.”
In Ukraine, many of the same groups lobbying for greater international support against Russia’s invasion are also speaking out about the need to make sure that money gets to its intended recipients. “Huge money always comes with corruption,” said Vita Dumanska, leader of the Chesno movement, a Ukrainian anti-corruption group. “We can’t keep silent on this.”
Lessons From Afghanistan
U.S. involvement in Ukraine is fundamentally different from the role it played in Afghanistan. Reconstruction and state-building efforts came to Afghanistan after the U.S. and its allies invaded a country that was roiled by civil conflict and remains so after a two-decade U.S.-led war there. In Ukraine, U.S. assistance has so far been primarily of a military nature and has come largely in an effort to keep the U.S. from getting more directly involved — this time in support of the sovereignty of a nation that was invaded by another. If in Afghanistan the U.S. spent billions in an effort to establish, train, and equip a local military that ultimately faltered amid political failures, in Ukraine, it is responding to local calls for help bolstering a highly motivated military that is defending its country against what many Ukrainians see as an existential threat.
Still, there are important parallels, said Sopko, whose office tracked at least $19 billion that was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse over the last decade in Afghanistan. In response to requests from senators advocating for more oversight, he has suggested how lessons learned in Afghanistan may serve U.S. efforts in Ukraine. SIGAR was established in 2008, nearly eight years after the U.S. first invaded the country and after it had already spent – and lost track of — billions in reconstruction money there. Given those experiences, Sopko, who was appointed to the role in 2012, has stressed the importance of starting the monitoring in Ukraine early in the process. “No matter who is doing the oversight, it’s important to start now, not eight years from now,” he said.
Already, U.S. assistance to Ukraine as it fends off Russia’s aggression and relentless bombing campaigns has reached unprecedented levels, though the money, equipment, and other assistance is not always easy to track. Congress approved some $113 billion in aid to Ukraine last year, and some analysts put the full figure to date at closer to $137 billion.
By comparison, the U.S. spent some $146 billion in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2022 (although it spent far more going to war there in the first place). “By the end of this year, we will have spent more money in Ukraine than we did to do the entire Marshall Plan after World War II,” Sopko said.
“By the end of this year, we will have spent more money in Ukraine than we did to do the entire Marshall Plan after World War II.”
SIGAR issued dozens of audits and assessments over its ongoing mandate, often despite stonewalling by government agencies that are legally required to disclose information to its investigators. While the reports occasionally made headlines for the exorbitant waste they exposed, they did little to change the trajectory of U.S. spending in Afghanistan, in part because there were plenty who benefitted financially from it and because of a short-sighted system — including annual appropriations schedules and brief deployments — that incentivized fast spending over effective investment.
In Afghanistan, Sopko said, the U.S. never developed a workable, coherent strategy as priorities and approaches kept shifting. There was also no coordinated effort between agencies, he added, noting that, that is likely going to be an even greater problem in Ukraine, where more actors, states, and international organizations are involved.
Currently, individual agencies are tasked with monitoring different elements of the U.S. government’s assistance to Ukraine. Speaking alongside Sopko last week, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, noted those offices are under-resourced and have a poor track record. “In order to ensure that the Ukrainian people receive the support that the U.S. are sending them, we need far stronger systems in place here in the U.S.,” she said.
It’s not just the money that needs monitoring: In Afghanistan, the U.S. lost track of expensive and dangerous equipment, including some $7.1 billion worth of defense articles the Pentagon left behind when it pulled out of the country. In Ukraine, there has been some reporting of misplaced equipment, but because most U.S. monitoring programs were not designed for war zones, there are few people on the ground who are able to track it.
Brian called out the Defense Department’s abysmal oversight, with the Pentagon unable to account for some 61 percent of its assets in 2021. Earlier in the war in Ukraine, she noted, defense officials learned that U.S.-issued small arms and bulletproof vests had ended up in the hands of criminals only after Ukrainian intelligence services discovered that. She also noted that key oversight positions at other agencies have long remained vacant, hindering individual agency efforts at better monitoring aid in the absence of a more comprehensive approach. (The White House just announced nominees for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development watchdogs last week.)
Brian contrasted lawmakers’ opposition to an inspector general for Ukraine to their passage of emergency procurement powers in the annual defense budget, allowing the Pentagon to enter into multiyear contracts to buy munitions to send to Ukraine.
“More money does not solve acquisition issues. It exacerbates existing ones and creates a path for more waste, fraud, and abuse,” she said. “Lawmakers cannot allow the war in Ukraine to become another pathway for contractors to pursue excess profits at the expense of the Pentagon and taxpayers.”
While Ukraine has a long history of corruption, over the last decade, the country has developed a strong infrastructure to fight that corruption, leading, for instance, to the creation of a system of tracking public procurements that some watchdogs note is far more transparent than its U.S. counterparts. Chesno, Dumanska’s group, is part of a burgeoning Ukrainian civil society that’s grown exponentially in the aftermath of the Maidan Uprising in 2013.
But following Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, many Ukrainian groups found themselves softening their criticism of their own government in order to focus on Russia’s crimes and avoid feeding Russian propaganda. It was “self-censorship” in a moment of crisis, Dumanska told me during a recent interview in Kyiv. “We had in civil society some kind of consensus not to criticize the government. We were working together with the state, begging for military help, closing the sky and everything, so there was unity there, and we were trying not to focus on troubles inside the country.”
With the war now well into the second year and no clear end to the fighting in sight, however, Dumanska noted that Ukrainian civil society is beginning to once again focus on internal corruption and abuses of power, even as they fear alarming the international donors the country desperately needs.
“If nobody is saying anything, then the situation becomes even worse, and those in power can feel that nobody’s watching corruption, nobody is monitoring them,” said Dumanska. “We do understand that it might influence the position of international partners, because at every international meeting, they are asking us about corruption, and if they understand that we have a lot of corruption scandals, a lot of money stolen, and that money is coming from their taxpayers, that’s not very good.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also taken a hard line on corruption, firing some senior officials and issuing increasingly stern warnings that there will be no tolerance for those seeking to profit from the conflict. But Zelenskyy himself has faced corruption scandals in the past, and despite significant improvement over the last decade, Ukraine remains low on Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
That’s not an argument against aid as much as in favor of stronger guardrails to ensure it reaches the Ukrainian people it is actually intended for, something Ukrainians themselves are increasingly calling for. In the devastation brought by Russia’s invasion, and as the country prepares to embark on what will be a massive reconstruction effort, some there see an opportunity to rebuild the country more equitably.
“With the war, we had huge changes in our oligarch structure: some oligarchs lost their assets, some oligarchs moved, some were prosecuted,” said Dumanska. “We can expect that during reconstruction, we will see new oligarchs. Those who are close to the president, they might create a new pool of oligarchs. Now the question is, do we build a new oligarch structure? Or do we refuse the oligarch approach and develop something else?”