On March 1, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MOD) reported that all combat units and some small garrisons (indirectly involved in Joint Forces operations) of the Armed Forces switched to a new meal and food-supply system. The poor quality of soldiers’ meal packs has long been a source of chronic complaints. Supposedly, the old meals are now being taken off the menu and replaced with higher-quality food, supplied to the military under an entirely new catalog system. This long-awaited reform is expected to not only fundamentally change the quality of soldiers’ provisions but also bring Ukraine`s standards closer to those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Under the new system, military service members will choose their own breakfast, lunch and dinner from an online catalog (the updated menu offers a variation of more than 400 products). The main condition is to not go beyond the daily allowance, between 67 and 74 hryvna ($2.41–$2.66) per meal (Mil.gov.ua, March 2).
The MOD has repeatedly emphasized that providing the military with quality meals is an important factor influencing Ukraine’s defense potential; yet, on March 17, First Deputy Minister of Defense Ivan Rusnak announced serious problems with the food supply of the Army and the National Guard (Mil.gov.ua, March 17). According to Rusnak, Pontem.ua LLC, a company that won state tenders to supply food to military personnel, refused to fulfill its obligations due to force majeure circumstances related to quarantine measures introduced across the country to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 (Censor.net.ua, March 18). Rusnak outlined the position of the ministry: companies that caused a problem with the food supply should no longer be permitted to cooperate with the Armed Forces. The first deputy minister entrusted the General Staff, unit commanders, heads of general directorates, the Department of Military Education and Science, as well as the heads of the higher military educational establishments to check their readiness to organize food in mobile field kitchens. He also requested a review of the available stocks of products, fuel and refrigeration equipment needed to carry out training activities for personnel (Mil.gov.ua, March 17).
The MOD likely knew about the supply problems before March 17. According to a letter signed by Hanna Kovalenko (deputy head of the Presidential Office) on March 13, local and state administrations were required to be “prepared to provide assistance to military units in providing food and cooking personnel on a free-of-charge basis” (Apostrophe.ua, March 24).
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Oleksiy Martsenyuk, stated that the situation jeopardized the food supply of about 250 non-combat units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (about 30 percent of total personnel). However, the MOD established appropriate procedures for cooperation between local authorities and military unit commanders in the event of any emergency. Martsenyuk claimed there is currently no threat of a total disruption and no need for food to be provided to military personnel by local executive bodies. As a result of urgent measures taken by the defense ministry, an agreement was reached with current contracted food suppliers to continue deliveries (UNIAN, March 26). Additionally, on March 30, the Ukrainian parliament adopted amendments to the state budget for the 2020 fiscal year that will ensure the uninterrupted food supply to military personnel of the Armed Forces and Interior Ministry Troops (Mil.gov.ua, March 30).
Although it looked as if the problem had been resolved in a rapid manner and that the reform of the military food supply would continue as scheduled, the recent crisis might be viewed as yet another sign of corruption in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Diana Petrenya, the former head of the defense ministry’s Reform Project Office, for example, believes that the blame leveled on the COVID-19 quarantine measures was simply an excuse; in reality, a “political decision” was made to stop food-supply reforms and return to “old corruption schemes” (Novynarnia.com, March 31). Military expert Oleh Zhdanov agrees. In an interview with Apostrophe, he argued, “Instead of making the necessary changes [to the military food supply system], Minister of Defense [Andriy] Taran decided to cancel the entire reform. Especially now that the state machine is flying away. He is a man of the old system, with their connections. Perhaps the reason should be sought there” (Apostrophe, March 26).
It is not quite clear how Pontem.ua—a company that has been involved in repeated scandals related to overpriced food offerings—won the tender to supply the Ukrainian military in the first place. According to open sources, the catering firm was registered in July 2016, and was founded by a Lithuanian concern, the Baltijos Paslaugu Group (Kievvlast.com.ua, accessed March 31, 2020). In February 2017, the company won (though not without controversy) a contract to supply hot meals in some Kyiv city school districts. At the time, that winning bid was “advertised” by then–Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko (Apostrophe, March 26). By 2018, however, Pontem.ua became one of the leaders in a series of school catering standards violations (Verhovenstvo.com, January 21).
Likewise, the company’s attainment of the Armed Forces food supply contract itself proceeded under a black cloud. Eight companies bid on the tender, and the state initially selected the most expensive offer, from Atomservice. According to Ukrainian media, this company is believed to be associated with the well-known criminal Yury Ivanyushchenko, nicknamed “Yura Enakievsky.” The media cited information regarding multiple past attempts by companies related to Ivanyushchenko to become monopoly food suppliers to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. After Atomservice was selected to fulfill the present contract, Pontem.ua appealed to the state’s Anti-Monopoly Committee. Pontem.ua won the suit, and Atomservice dropped its winning bid. A state contract to supply food to the Armed Forces represents a stable, multi-year income stream for any catering firm that succeeds in securing it; thus, Pontem.ua’s ensuing decision to suddenly entirely abandon the contract (allegedly because of coronavirus-related restrictions) was quite unexpected (Apostrophe.ua, March 26).
Although it is not quite clear whether coronavirus or corruption should in fact be blamed for the most recent food-supply problems in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, such developments certainly have serious detrimental effects on a country that continues to fight a low-intensity conflict on its territory. One way or another, essential military reforms will have to be maintained for the country to fulfill its goal of reaching full compliance with NATO standards and practices by the end of 2020.