Earlier this week I recorded our usual Compliance Into the Weeds podcast with my friend and colleague Tom Fox, plus a special guest: Timur Khasanov-Batirov, a compliance officer and anti-corruption officer in Ukraine. Given the importance of the war in Ukraine, our conversation with Khasanov-Batirov deserves its own written post as well. Several points are worth discussing at length.
First, a bit about Khasanov-Batirov himself. He is a Ukraine native, and over the years has held compliance officer jobs in Ukraine for companies such as DTEK Energy, Dr. Reddy’s Labs, and the STADA Group. He also has been co-chair of the compliance group for the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, and a lawyer with law firm Baker McKenzie. Most recently Khasanov-Batirov has been partner and head of the compliance practice at Eterna Law, a law firm operating in Kyiv.
I’ve known Khasanov-Batirov (“Tim” to his friends) for years, and had the treat of going to dinner with him in Moscow once when I was visiting the city in 2016. He is a leading voice on ethics and compliance issues in Ukraine, Russia, and the surrounding region.
I encourage everyone to listen to the podcast that Fox and I recorded with Khasanov-Batirov, so you can hear his story directly from him. Suffice to say that within the first days of the invasion, Khasanov-Batirov decided he should leave Ukraine immediately. Then came a difficult 28-hour taxi ride from Kyiv to the border, and he subsequently made his way to the Netherlands. He is there now, helping other Ukrainian refugees with resettlement issues.
What were my big impressions from our conversation? Two come to mind.
There is a straight line from the corruption that ethics and compliance programs try to fight, to the horrors Vladimir Putin has unleashed.
Corporate corruption encourages political corruption; it provides the sustenance corrupt governments need to flourish. Those corrupt governments then systematically dismantle other institutions that might serve as checks on the government’s predations. Without those checks, the corrupt government descends into despotism and the country itself becomes a failed state. Finally, for lack of any other way to project legitimacy, those corrupt and failed leaders engage in reckless exploits such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
That horrible sequence of events might take decades to unfold, but it’s all the same sequence; it all exists on the same spectrum. When we — politicians, businesses, governments, countries — take those first steps to tolerate and participate in corruption, we’re taking the first steps on a path that can bring the world to places like where we are today.
Hence corporate ethics and compliance programs are so important — even though they often come up short, even though they’re difficult to implement, even though the world will never be fully free of corruption. We need to slog forward to that ideal every day.
Or, as Khasanov-Batirov said: “Corruption is a cancer for the state. Eventually they can’t do anything except corruption.”
The leadership of President Zelenskyy demonstrates principles of corporate culture and trust that can benefit any organization.
There is a school of thought in military strategy that in successful campaigns, senior officers only set a few big strategic objectives and spend most of their time fostering strong lines of communication and trust within the battle unit. Junior officers get to make most tactical decisions, which lets them respond to shifting battlefield conditions more quickly. The more responsive you are, the more you can outmaneuver your opponent.
I see a lot of parallels between that idea and Zelenskyy’s leadership. He has defined the core objectives: preserve the Ukrainian state and protect the Ukrainian people. Through his heroic commitment to defending Ukraine, he has fostered deep bonds of trust with his people. But the actual defense of Ukraine — that, it seems, he is leaving to local military units and brave civilians across the country.
Meanwhile, Putin has done pretty much the opposite. He has defined no clear reason for invading Ukraine, beyond some half-baked delusions of a new Russian empire or something. He hasn’t fostered clear lines of communication, and he never built bonds of trust among the Russian Army. On the contrary, the corruption that ravaged so much else in Russia ravaged the Army too, with faulty equipment, outdated rations, shabby uniforms, and a dozen other problems.
So should we really be surprised that Ukraine, under Zelensky’s leadership, has held on so successfully and valiantly against a larger foe? Perhaps not.
Corporate leaders would do well to consider those same lessons about leadership. The more senior leaders define what the organization is all about, and encourage clear lines of communication and trust, the better your organization’s performance will be.
Then corporate leaders need to turn those ambitions for strong leadership to a commitment to avoid corruption wherever possible. The world, today and tomorrow, will thank you for it.