Certain legacies of the Soviet era are still present. In the Soviet period, the oversight function of the security sector in Ukraine was carried out by bodies within the state security structure that were controlled by the Communist Party.[36] After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the quality of oversight and monitoring decreased and the security sector grappled to overcome past inefficiencies and structural deficiencies. The sector was therefore in urgent need of reform, including reinstating internal (inspectors, members of the judiciary, audit institutions, ombudsmen) and external (Parliament, civil society organisations, media, think tanks) oversight mechanisms, in line with Ukraine’s stated objective to pursue democratic governance.[37]

Good governance of the security sector is not only a requirement for Ukraine in light of its aspirations to join the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but also to make its security apparatus more resilient in the face of protracted high-intensity warfare.[38] Various assessments over the years have highlighted that Ukraine needs to institutionalise the mechanisms of public control and oversight in its security sector.[39] But amending legislation alone is not enough; it also needs mechanisms to ensure and monitor its implementation as well as to have a feedback mechanism for shortcomings.[40] Special attention is required with regard to human security issues within the security sector and its depolitisation, in particular the independence of the security sector leadership from the political influence of the ruling party and the President.[41] Several assessments prior to the full-scale invasion also highlighted the importance of the demilitarisation of the sector, i.e., prioritisation of the rule of law above the military command. This is especially relevant for non-military security providers (e.g. the police).[42]

This chapter focuses on the analysis of how public oversight is ensured at the level of the key state governance actors responsible for the reform progress of the security sector: the Government, Parliament and the Office of the President; and on the current state of the reform efforts at the level of external and internal security actors, i.e. the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU), the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

Civilian control over the military

Another step in the right direction towards civilian control over the military was the appointment of Oleksiy Reznikov as the Minister of Defence (MoD) of Ukraine in 2021. He became the first civilian minister to hold the post, following the adoption of the National Security Law in 2018, specifying that Ukraine’s Minister of Defence and key positions are to be held by civilians.[51] This law also increased the accountability of the armed forces towards the President and civil society. Before 2018 key positions at the MoD were held by individuals with military ranks, which in practice meant that the main military organisation of the country was accountable only to itself.

A risk which is usually present when armed forces lack civilian control is that they can be used to seize power and undermine the constitutional order. Interestingly, despite Russian narratives about ‘coups’ and ‘juntas’, in Ukraine only the opposite has happened in recent years. The only serious incident of the military turning against the civilian authorities was in 2014 when senior military commanders refused to comply with the orders of President Yanukovych to deploy the armed forces against the Euromaidan protesters.[52]

Even if the institutional set-up, and particularly the role of Parliament, can be further improved and decision-making during wartime is understandably concentrated in the hands of a limited number of people, there is still democratic control over the armed forces. The key decision-makers outside the military are either directly elected civilians such as President Zelensky himself, or civilians legally appointed by him such as Minister Oleksiy Reznikov and the Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov. Although it is presently unclear when Ukraine would be able to hold new Parliamentary and Presidential elections, for now there are no serious challenges to the democratic legitimacy of both the President and the Government. These challenges will increase if martial law is maintained for a longer period, but for now, the legal and practical difficulties in organizing an election during wartime appear to be greater than the payoff in terms of democratic legitimacy. This is especially the case if they would be held at short notice, under extremely challenging conditions and with an incomplete voter registry.[53]

In addition, civil society itself keeps actively monitoring Ukrainian democracy and is very alert to any developments that would undermine it, regardless of its staunch support for the armed forces. Its capacity to provide oversight has grown exponentially since 2014. Previously the most prominent and professional NGOs were mostly those that served as watchdogs. By now the landscape of non-state actors that are exercising civilian control over Ukraine’s democracy in the state security sector has further expanded and consolidated.[54] Apart from that there is a solid network of experts with a civil servant or a military background, who play a role in the security and military policy development process through consultations with Parliament and security and defence government agencies and through their influence on public opinion.

Obstacles to better cooperation between state and non-state oversight actors

This is not to say that it all works perfectly. While both state and non-state civilian actors legally have many specific rights and functions regarding oversight of Ukraine’s security sector, in reality some obstacles remain. Especially non-state actors frequently encounter obstructions when they try to fulfil these roles due to an institutional and deeply-rooted insistence on secrecy regarding all security-related matters.[55] While this is understandable in wartime, this reflex action was already present before the full-fledged invasion and is particularly present when it comes to civilian oversight of internal security actors, such as the MoIA and the SBU. As the SBU has the mandate to itself determine what type of information should be classified or declassified, on this issue there is little accountability towards external parties.[56] Currently, there is still a tendency to consider almost any information within the government security agencies, such as the SBU, as classified.

This trend of secrecy slowly starts to change as civil society becomes more assertive and the Government feels compelled to respond. Ukraine sometimes struggles to strike an effective balance between democratic demands for transparency and national security imperatives to maintain secrecy. An example is a discussion with the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO) (a Ukrainian NGO that, among other things, focusses on Ukraine’s defence and security sector) on whether the employment selection process and asset and income declarations of the SBU should be considered as classified information, as it can be used to cover corruption practices.[57] It is questionable whether such full transparency on the recruitment and income of the personnel of the security services is desirable or effective; in many EU countries, including the Netherlands, such information is kept classified to protect the intelligence services’ personnel and their families. It might be preferable to have the oversight function executed by a special parliamentary commission, with a specific assignment to exercise control over the security services in a context of confidentiality.[58]

Another point of concern is insufficient coordination between the state and non-state oversight actors in Ukraine which, to be fair, is also a challenge for similar institutions in other European countries as well.[59] NGOs and state oversight agencies seem to work in parallel and almost in an atomised fashion, without communication between them. The new prospects for EU and NATO integration could provide an impetus for increased cooperation in this regard.[60]

Anatoliy Grytsenko, Civil-Military Relations in Ukraine: On the Way from Form to Substance (Kyiv: NATO Fellowship Programme, 2000).
Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, “Security Sector Reform,” DCAF – Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, Accessed August 3, 2023.
European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Ukraine Relief and Reconstruction (Brussels: European Commission, May 18, 2022), 3.; United States Embassy and Consulate in Poland, “Fact Sheet: The 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid,” United States Embassy and Consulate in Poland, Published June 29, 2022.
For more information, see: Fredrik Wesslau, “Guarding the Guardians: Reforming Ukraine’s Security Service,” Security and Human Rights Monitor, Published July 20, 2021.; Philipp Fluri and Leonid Polyakov, “Intelligence and Security Services Reform and Oversight in Ukraine – An Interim Report,” Connections: The Quarterly Journal 20, no. 1 (2021).; Anna Bulakh, Security Sector Reform in Ukraine: Finding the Place for Civil Society (Narva: International Centre for Defence and Security, February 2018).; Olga Oliker et al., Security Sector Reform in Ukraine (Santa Monica: RAND, 2016).; Polina Beliakova and Sarah Detzner, Security Sector Governance in Ukraine: The Key Considerations for Policy Makers in 2023 (Edinburgh: PeaceRep – The Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform, April 14, 2023).
Sarah Detzner, Polina Beliakova and Radmila Šekerinska, Security sector governance (SSG) in Ukraine: International lessons, general principles & Ukraine’s post-2014 progress (Edinburgh: PeaceRep – The Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform, December 14, 2022), 9.
For more information, see: Bulakh, Security Sector Reform in Ukraine.; Cristina Gherasimov and Iryna Solonenko, Rule of Law Reform after Zelenskyi’s First Year: A Return to Business as Usual in Ukraine (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations, May 2020).
For more information, see: Gustav Gressel, “Guarding the Guardians: Ukraine’s Security and Judicial Reforms under Zelensky,” European Council on Foreign Relations, Published August 29, 2019.; Razumkov Centre, National Security and Defence (Kyiv: Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies Named After Olexander Razumkov, 2015).
Svitlana Musiiaka, “Against all Odds: Ukraine’s Defence Reform Process,” DCAF – Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, Published June 29, 2022.; Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy, “Zakon Ukrainy : Pro Natsionalnu Bezpeku Ukrainy” [The Law of Ukraine: On the National Security of Ukraine], Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy: Zakonodavstvo Ukrainy, Accessed August 3, 2023.
Clingendael Policy Interview, Kyiv, April 2023.
Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy, “Zakon Ukrainy: Pro Natsionalnu Bezpeku Ukrainy” [The Law of Ukraine: On the National Security of Ukraine].
Musiiaka, “Against all Odds.”
National Democratic Institute, “Ukrainian Parliament Strengthens Accountability and Cooperation Mechanisms,” National Democratic Institute, Published May 22, 2023.
Independent Anti-Corruption Commission, “The Verkhovna Rad a Created the Commission to Control the use of Western Weapons,” NAKO, Published July 19, 2022.
Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy, “Postanova, Verkhovnoi Rady Ukrainy: Pro Zvit Tymchasovoi Spetsialnoi Komisii Verkhovnoi Rady Ukrainy z Rytan Monitorynhu Otrymannia i Vykorystannia Mizhnarodnoi Materialno-Tekhnichnoi Dopomohy pid Chas dii Voiennoho Stanu” [Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine: On the Report of the Temporary Special Commission of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on Monitoring the Receipt and Use of International Material and Technical Assistance During Martial Law], Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy: Zakonodavstvo Ukrainy, Accessed August 3, 2023.
Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy, “Zakon Ukrainy : Pro Natsionalnu Bezpeku Ukrainy” [The Law of Ukraine: On the National Security of Ukraine].
Andriy Zagorodnyuk. “Why wartime Ukraine’s defense minister must be a civilian”, Atlantic Council, 18 November 2021.
See for example Lee Reany and Joel Wasserman, ‘Wartime Elections in Ukraine are Impossible’, Foreign Policy, 11 July 2023.
Some prominent examples are the NGOs and think tanks like the Ukrainian Institute for the Future (which monitors and advises on the SBU reform and other security sector reforms), the Kharkiv Human Rights Group (which monitors the reform of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and human security issues), the Centre for Defence Strategies, and the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies.
Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy, “Zakon Ukrainy : Pro Natsionalnu Bezpeku Ukrainy” [The Law of Ukraine: On the National Security of Ukraine].
Emiliia Dieniezhna and Oksana Nesterenko, “Transparent and Accountable Security Service of Ukraine: Mission ( Im )Possible?,” NAKO, Published January 15, 2021.
Clingendael Policy Interview, The Hague, July 2023.
Jos Boonstra, Building Civil Society Oversight Capacity of the Security Sector in Ukraine (Groningen: Centre for European Security Studies, December 2019), 6.
An example is the initiative of the Centre for European Security Studies and the Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies to organize ‘networking’ sessions with both state and non-state actors. These sessions reportedly resulted in constructive, working relationships between both oversight parties.