Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accepted the resignation of his deputy chief of staff and removed several other top officials on Tuesday, taking a tough line toward a series of corruption scandals at a time the country is appealing for more Western military support.
In addition to the departure of Kyrylo Tymoshenko – one of the most prominent faces inside Mr. Zelensky’s administration – deputy defence minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov and deputy prosecutor-general Oleksiy Symonenko submitted their resignations. Three other deputy ministers were dismissed, and the military governors of the Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Sumy and Kherson regions were also replaced.
All five regions have seen heavy fighting this year, making the shake up – exactly 11 months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a surprise. No specific reasons for those dismissals were given, but Mykhailo Podolyak, another aide to Mr. Zelensky, said through his Twitter account that the moves were a response to public desire for accountability.
“No ‘blind eyes.’ During the war, everyone should understand their responsibility. The President sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand – justice for all,” Mr. Podolyak wrote.
In a Monday night video address, Mr. Zelensky offered only an oblique explanation for the personnel moves he said would come on Tuesday. “Ukraine will not show weakness. The state will not show weakness.”
The recent series of money scandals, though small in scale, is unfolding at a particularly awkward time. Ukraine’s military is asking for fresh donations – including tanks, artillery and ammunition – from its allies in Europe, the United States and Canada ahead of an expected large-scale Russian offensive this spring.
A senior Ukrainian government official said that Mr. Zelensky’s moves were intended to impress Western governments by demonstrating his unwillingness to tolerate corruption. The fact that the scandals were revealed by Ukrainian journalists and civil society also highlighted that Ukraine remains a fundamentally democratic state, even after 11 months of martial law. The Globe and Mail is not naming the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the topic.
The departure of Mr. Tymoshenko, who was in charge of communications for Mr. Zelensky’s office, and worked on his 2019 election campaign, was the most unexpected. The 33-year-old had been criticized online for living a flashy lifestyle – residing in what the Ukrainian media has described as a “mansion” and driving a Porsche sports car around Kyiv – while the country is at war.
“I thank President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky for trust and the opportunity to do good things every day and every minute,” Mr. Tymoshenko wrote in a resignation letter that he posted online.
Mr. Shapovalov resigned after the independent ZN.UA website revealed that the Defence Ministry was buying food such as eggs, potatoes and chicken thighs from its supplier – a shell company called Active Company LLC – at prices two to three times higher than what the same food cost at a high-end grocery store in Kyiv. The country’s official National Anti-Corruption Bureau says it has opened a criminal investigation into the affair.
Some argued that Mr. Shapovalov’s boss, Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, should have been the one to lose his job.
“The one to apologize should be the Ministry of Defense headed by Oleksiy Reznikov: during the great war it seems to have increased its appetite for embezzlement,” Yurii Nikolov, the journalist who broke the story, wrote in a follow-up piece on Tuesday. He noted that former defence minister Yurii Yekhanurov had resigned over a near-identical scandal in 2009 over curiously priced purchases by the ministry.
On Monday, Mr. Reznikov dismissed the inflated food prices as “a technical error,” and suggested the media report was “an attempt to undermine the confidence in the Ministry of Defence at a very important moment.”
Daria Kaleniuk, the head of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Centre, agreed that Mr. Reznikov should resign. “Reznikov must take political responsibility, not just pushing one of his 12 deputies to resign,” she said. “This is not the minister we need during wartime.”
Mr. Symonenko, the deputy prosecutor, was forced to quit after the Ukrainska Pravda website revealed that the 46-year-old had taken a holiday in Spain in December and January. Under the state of martial law that the country has been under since the start of the war, all Ukrainian males between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country unless a special exemption is granted.
Mr. Zelensky said he had signed an additional decree specifically barring all government officials and MPs from travelling abroad for vacations. “If they want to rest now, they will rest outside the civil service,” he said.
Ukraine has a long history of high-level corruption, and despite years of reform efforts it only ranked 122nd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries last year (those at the top of the list are perceived as the least corrupt).
On Tuesday, the Polish government said it had sent a formal request to the German government, seeking permission to donate some of its German-made Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine. Should Germany agree to the re-export, the Ukrainian government has said it will ask Canada, among other countries, to follow suit.
Defence Minister Anita Anand travelled to Kyiv last week to meet with Mr. Reznikov and to announce that Canada would give Ukraine an additional 200 armoured personnel carriers. “Canada will continue to provide Ukraine with the aid that it needs to fight and win this war,” she said.
Ottawa has not yet said whether it will send any of the military’s more than 80 Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine.