December 16, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Administration Targets Corruption in Ukraine’s Judiciary

December 16, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Administration Targets Corruption in Ukraine’s Judiciary

During last week’s Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration imposed sanctions against Oleksandr Tupytskyi, chairman of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine (CCU), and Andriy Portnov, a top aide to former President Viktor Yanukovych. These sanctions aim to support anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine, particularly within its notoriously corrupt judiciary.

The State Department imposed visa sanctions against Tupytskyi, accusing the Yanukovych-appointed judge of “significant corrupt acts,” including bribe-taking. The sanctions, which also apply to Tupytskyi’s wife, bar them from entering the United States.

In October 2020, the CCU struck down key anti-corruption legislation, gutting Ukraine’s asset-declaration regime, among other reforms. A day later, journalists revealed that Tupytskyi himself had failed to declare property in illegally annexed Crimea, creating a conflict of interest.

A constitutional crisis ensued as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to sideline Tupytskyi. Last March, Zelenskyy sacked Tupytskyi and another CCU judge on dubious grounds, only to have Ukraine’s Supreme Court overturn their dismissal. Zelenskyy appealed, but the situation remains unresolved. When announcing its sanctions, State referred to Tupytskyi as “former” CCU chairman, signaling support for Zelenskyy’s position.

According to the Treasury Department, Portnov is a “court fixer” who “has cultivated extensive connections to Ukraine’s judicial and law enforcement apparatus through bribery.” Treasury imposed blocking sanctions against Portnov and his nonprofit, the Andriy Portnov Fund, barring U.S. persons from transacting with them or any entities they majority-own.

Portnov manipulated the judiciary while working for Yanukovych. In January 2014, he initiated so-called “dictatorship laws” designed to suppress the Euromaidan protests. After Yanukovych’s ouster, Portnov fled to Russia and then Austria despite being under EU sanctions, which he later managed to get lifted.

Portnov returned to Ukraine on the eve of Zelenskyy’s May 2019 inauguration and worked to regain his political influence despite being barred from public office by Ukraine’s post-revolution lustration law. He soon launched political shows on TV channels controlled by U.S.-sanctioned pro-Russia oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, amplifying Russian propaganda while railing against reforms and Western influence.

Meanwhile, Portnov worked “to control the Ukrainian judiciary, influence associated legislation,” install “loyal officials in senior judiciary positions, and purchase court decisions,” according to Treasury. He apparently cooperated to that end with Andriy Bohdan, the first head of the President’s Office under Zelenskyy, and Kyiv District Administrative Court chief Pavlo Vovk. For example, the trio allegedly orchestrated the dismissal of the CCU’s then-chairman in May 2019, paving the way for Tupytskyi’s eventual accension. Portnov and Vovk allegedly also worked with Zelenskyy’s then-prosecutor general to oust the head of Ukraine’s Council of Judges, charged with ensuring judicial independence.

During the Summit for Democracy, Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), stressed that sanctions pose a “real threat” to corrupt actors by cutting them off from Western banks, resorts, and other luxuries. Treasury should follow up on State’s visa ban by imposing financial sanctions against Tupytskyi and his wife, the latter of whom reportedly owns U.S. assets. The administration should also encourage Western allies to join those and future sanctions against corrupt Ukrainian officials, such as Vovk.

As AntAC board chief Vitaly Shabunin noted, last week’s sanctions may also represent a warning to the President’s Office not to undermine judicial reforms, particularly the long-delayed selection process for a new chief anti-corruption prosecutor. Oleh Tatarov, deputy head of the President’s Office, is suspected of trying to manipulate the process to block a candidate who previously investigated him for corruption.

To support judicial reform in Ukraine, Biden should nominate, and Congress should quickly confirm, a new U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, after two years without one. With Washington’s full backing, the ambassador should insist that Zelenskyy fight corruption among his allies and enemies with equal vigor.

John Hardie is research manager and a Russia research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from John and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance