How parliament will scrutinize military procurement – MP interview

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, has recently established a temporary select committee to oversee the use of state funding for battlefield fortifications and military drone procurement.

One of the committee’s members, Mykhailo Bondar (European Solidarity party), spoke to NV on May 22 to discuss what the committee might find.

NV: Please explain the lead-up to the committee being set up in the first place.

Bondar: All MPs who have comrades or relatives who are on the front line, who are fighting, they communicate, they know what’s happening with drones and fortifications.

I’m a direct participant in hostilities, I have comrades on the front lines, my family is serving, and I’m also on the front line almost every week. That’s why I saw what was happening with my own eyes.

I just want to tell you one thing: unfortunately, this a select committee, not an investigative one. This limits its possibilities. But this is probably some kind of compromise that the current government agreed to. Because, you see, they don’t want to get to the bottom of it all, because they know that an investigative committee would show where the abuses, embezzlements, or corruption scandals are, both on fortification construction and the procurement of drones.

But, as they say, we have what we have. Even as a select committee, we will try to show our citizens, in particular during the report to parliament, where the abuses are. And I’m sure they exist. It’s enough that the procurement of drones is carried out by the State Special Communications Service of Ukraine (SSSCIP), and not by the Defense Ministry or its Procurement Department.

At one point, the then SSSCIP head [Yuriy Shchyhol], told us that “we do it faster, better and more reliably.” And we saw that just a week later, he faced criminal charges for illegal enrichment. If I’m not mistaken, he’s still in pretrial detention.

NV: It seems he’s already out. Please clarify the difference between a select and an investigative committee. Does this mean you won’t have access to certain documents?

Bondar: Basically, yes. Because a select committee can come up with some proposals. That is, we won’t have the right to subpoena anyone. Although, I think that such proposals will come from opposition parties and groups. But looking at who was elected as the chair — a person with background in entertainment, no way related to the military... I’ll have many questions whether the leadership of this committee and the rest of its members (the majority will be from the ruling Servant of the People party) agree to issue subpoenas.

Read also: Ukrainian Parliament moves to probe state spending on fortifications and drones

NV: Former SSSCIP head Yuriy Shchyhol, who is suspected of embezzling over UAH 62 million ($1.5 million) of state funds, was released on a UAH 25 million ($626,245) bail. How do you explain that SSSCIP continues to oversee drone procurement after such a high-profile corruption scandal?

Bondar: Because I’m sure that Shchyhol isn’t the only one who was close to the authorities and who was involved in this. Therefore, they probably removed Shchyhol, quickly posted bail for him, and the other party probably continues to operate the scheme.

Let me remind you that funds are allocated not only for the purchase of drones, but also for their manufacture. They have certain companies [that assemble drones], I’m sure associated with them. Because when we talked to them, we asked about the number, and they said: “About 200 companies.” We say: “What are the criteria, how do you choose them?” No one said anything about the criteria, everyone kept silent.

Therefore, I think these are companies close to the authorities, and they also purchase spare parts for them. That’s why, I believe funds are embezzled not only on procurement, but in particular on the purchase of all components for drones. That’s why, I think, the process remains with SSSCIP.

Moreover, remember, when the military income tax revenue was taken away from local governments, it was stated the funds would be diverted to SSSCIP for the purchase of drones. That is, they announced it in advance.

NV: When asked to produce transparent reporting on how state funds are allocated to these programs, the government often cites security reasons for keeping the books closed. What do you think of this rationale?

Bondar: The government is hiding behind “national security” as a mantra. They talk about different things: that the enemy will look for the families [of those involved], will attack them, if there’s transparent reporting, and it will be possible to find out where the manufacturing is located.

But it’s all nonsense. People don’t need, for example, information about where this plant is located. It would be enough to tell the volumes of purchased items and their price, so that anyone could compare those to component pricing available via the Internet.

Read also: Anti-corruption group reveals fake companies in Kharkiv fortification contracts

NV: Turning to battlefield fortifications. Given your first-hand experience, how would you describe the situation in Kharkiv Oblast, where Russian troops were able to rapidly advance up to 10 kilometers deep this month?

Bondar: My colleagues travelled there and documented the construction in Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts, even before the [enemy’s] latest attempts to break through. It turned out that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy came to the same site afterwards. Essentially, some fortifications were built for demonstrative purposes, and they could come there, take photos, and that was the only site the officials would visit. On other sections of the front, some construction work was rushed, some unfinished, and at some places nothing was done at all.

Sometimes no defenses were built at all. The guys in these areas were assured they could fall back on a second line of defenses, only to find bare terrain there, having to dig basic trenches themselves.

NV: There’s also the question of priorities in what gets built where. Do you think we’ve arrived at a rational way to distribute resources to various types of construction across the country?

Bondar: I don’t think it’s rational. For example, recreation complexes are being built in Zakarpattya Oblast (construction is currently underway there in full), with metal, gravel, sand, and other materials are supplied there — everything that the front line currently needs. That’s why there is no balance, I’m sure.

I don’t want to say that it shouldn’t be done. Yes, we must do it, we must show that we’re a country that is ready and will receive tourists in the picturesque Zakarpattya Oblast, in Crimea, everywhere. But we must win the war first, we must establish peace in this country through victory, and then start building. “Everything for victory” should be our national motto now.

Why couldn’t construction businesses work for the defense industry? Why can’t the same company that builds in Zakarpattya Oblast go and build fortifications near front? They can do it. They would earn money, there would be jobs, and tax revenue. We just need to prioritize where to direct available resources and labor.

NV: Let’s summarize. What’s the point of this select committee? With limited authority and access, would it not become a performative tool, unable to clearly identify the actual problems?

Bondar: I’ll say the following: we must hope for the best. I’m still convinced that if we (and it will happen) find abuses on the part of the authorities in the procurement of drones or the construction of fortifications, we, as members of this committee from opposition parties, will push to expand it into being an investigative committee. And we’ll prove our point to the Speaker, to MPs, behind closed doors if necessary.

We are getting into this battle, determined to do everything possible to show the public how the state uses their money to protect the country, the military, and the civilian population.

Read also: Cabinet allocates $392 million for military drone procurement

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine