Transparency in Arms Support to Ukraine: Missing in Action?

By James Durso

Throughout the U.S. effort to support war-torn Ukraine, Republican politicians asked where the money was going in Ukraine, and who was profiting from it.

President Joe Biden and the Democrats accused anyone who raised questions about the aid package of siding with Russia.

In a joint op-ed, U.S. Senators Kyrsten Sinema and John Kennedy raised questions regarding the destination and beneficiaries of aid directed towards Ukraine: “If the American people want to keep track of all the different streams of military, financial and humanitarian aid flowing into Ukraine, we need a dedicated team of regional experts following every penny,” the senators emphasized. They proposed the “Independent and Objective Oversight of Ukrainian Assistance Act,” aiming to establish a special inspector general to ensure efficient and intended use of aid provided to Ukraine.

These sentiments were reinforced by Congressman Mike Rogers, who stressed the necessity for unprecedented oversight given the unique nature of the Ukraine train-and-assist mission. “The American people deserve full knowledge of what weapons are being sent and proof that aid is being used as intended: to kill Putin’s mercenaries,” Rogers asserted.

The call for transparency and accountability in aid distribution resonated widely, with Senators Risch, Wicker, Collins, and McConnell also advocating for heightened scrutiny of assistance to Ukraine.

We are seeing something similar play out in Europe. Europeans are closer to the action, and they too are asking for transparency. Some are hinting at corruption in government procurement. Complaints are becoming louder in the runup to the European Parliamentary Elections in June, and accountability for Ukraine assistance is already a central issue in the Czech Republic.

The government of the Czech Republic created an initiative to buy artillery ammunition for Ukraine. They announced recently that they have secured commitments of $1.5 to $3 billion from 20 countries to buy 152mm (Soviet standard) and 155mm (NATO standard) ammunition.

But, mixed messaging and a lack of detail about the procurements by the Czech executive created an opportunity for Andrej Babiš, former prime minister and current leader of the ANO opposition movement to decry the lack of transparency in the process. Babiš has alleged that the rounds are sold to Ukraine with a gross margin of $1,000 per round. (Unsaid is that the $1,000 may be shared between corrupt Czech and Ukrainian officials.)

The Czech defense minister, Jana Cernochova, has sharply criticized Babiš and defended the program, but the president and prime minister have not helped as they contradicted each other about the amount of ammunition secured and the price paid. In fact, a Czech government representative said about the prices, “I can’t say the exact amount, because first of all the prices move, it’s the market…” That is a worrying sign the ammunition may be being procured from murky private arms dealers instead of via a government-to-government sale which would be at a firm fixed price.

The Czechs are fighting a war on two fronts: to supply ammunition to Ukraine, and to not lose the confidence of the Americans, who are the security guarantors of Europe.

The fact that securing ammunition in an emergency resembles a scavenger hunt is a warning to Europeans that they must make a serious effort to become self-sufficient in the production of seemingly mundane stuff like artillery ammunition. As the Ukrainians learned to their dismay, the U.S. has a higher priority than Ukraine, i.e., Israel, which will be privileged in future arms shipments.

Also, the Europeans must get serious about self-defense. The Continent has had it easy since 1945 as the American taxpayers funded Europe’s defense while its leaders splurged on social welfare programs and industrial protection schemes. Aside from Israel, Washington must also think about a possible war with China which will leave little or nothing for Europe.

In the U.S., the Pentagon recently revived concerns about lack of competition in the defense sector. In a 2022 report, “State of Competition within the Defense Industrial Base,” the Pentagon identified munitions as one of five “Priority Industrial Base Sectors.” Europe need not cut-and-paste the U.S. effort, but it needs to commit the strengthening its defense industrial base and facing the financial trade-offs required.

The Pentagon also reviewed the surety of its supply chains and in another recent report, “Securing Defense-Critical Supply Chains,” the department recommended action to “Build domestic production capacity,” something Europe has not mastered – as the impromptu ammunition project demonstrates. In fact, the U.S. may need to do more here itself, as an April fire at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant may temporarily halt the production of 155mm artillery rounds.

If the Americans see allies backsliding on (finally) building their own capacity, that will strengthen the position of critics in the U.S. who see Europe as congenitally unable to act in its own interest even when Russian Federation forces are rapidly moving West.

While the Czech Minister of Defense is grandstanding for the benefit of everyone she met at the Munich Security Conference, and accusing Babiš of siding with Russia, the Czech government still must address the main issue of transparency. Especially since Babiš had a solid track record as Prime Minister of expelling Russian diplomats, extraditing criminals to the U.S., and buying American helicopters.

Instead, the Minister of Defense should simply publicize the buying and selling prices of the ammunition. Even if Ukraine sides with the minister, there is no national security argument for keeping prices secret. The best way for the Minister to address the concerns raised by Babiš is to make the pricing transparent. Absent such transparency, Mr. Babiš is right to be suspicious. Transparency International has warned the Czech Republic still suffers from corruption, and if the government continues to obstruct and be non-transparent, then the U.S. Congress should investigate whether Ukraine is being abused.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security who served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

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