Zelensky removes top officials in shake-up of Ukraine’s government to fight corruption allegations

UKraine’s president  Volodymyr Zelensky (AP)
UKraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky (AP)

President Volodymyr Zelensky has forced out a number of top officials in Ukraine’s government as he launches a renewed crackdown on corruption.

Mr Zelensky made fighting corruption a central pillar of his presidential election campaign, before Russia's invasion of Ukraine became the focus of his attention. As the war reaches its first anniversary, with Kyiv worried about fresh offensives from Moscow’s forces as we move out of the harshest part of winter, the Ukrainian president appears to be taking the opportunity for a reset of officials, either via dismissal or resignation.

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Deputy head of the president’s office Kyrylo Tymoshenko, who has faced a scandal over the use of expensive cars, resigned this morning. He had helped run President Zelensky’s 2019 election campaign and more recently had a role in overseeing regional policy. As did the deputy defence minister, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who cited what he called baseless “media accusations” of corruption. A statement on the defence ministry’s website said that Mr Shapovalov’s resignation was “a worthy deed” that would help retain trust in the ministry.

A deputy to the prosecutor general, Oleksiy Symonenko, was also removed from his post as part of the shakeup. The statement announcing his removal gave no reason for the decision but said it had been “according to his own wish”. Mr Symonenko had been under fire in Ukrainian media for taking a holiday in Spain.

Mr Zelensky’s cabinet secretary, Oleg Nemchinov, also said that the head of five areas have been dismissed – Valentyn Reznichenko, of Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Oleksandra Starukha of Zaporizhzhia oblast, Oleksiy Kuleba of Kyiv oblast, Dymtro Zhivytskyi, Sumy oblast and Yaroslav Yanushevich, of Kherson oblast. Two deputy ministers responsible for regional development were also among the others who left.

On Sunday, anti-corruption police said they had detained the deputy infrastructure minister on suspicion of receiving a $400,000 (£325,000) kickback over the import of generators last September, an allegation the minister denies.

A Ukrainian newspaper also accused the Defence Ministry of overpaying suppliers for soldiers’ food. The supplier has said it made a technical mistake and no money had changed hands.

Another presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the personnel shakeup showed that Mr Zelensky was reacting to a “key public demand” that justice should apply to everyone. “Zelensky’s personnel decisions testify to the key priorities of the state... The president sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand of “justice for all,” he said on Twitter.

David Arakhamia, head of Mr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, said officials should “focus on the war, help victims, cut bureaucracy and stop dubious business”.

“We’re definitely going to be jailing actively this spring. If the humane approach doesn’t work, we’ll do it in line with martial law,” he said.

As the shake-up unfolded, Ukraine’s prime minister Denys Shmyhal told a cabinet meeting that Ukraine was making progress in its anti-corruption campaign. “It is systemic, consecutive work which is very needed for Ukraine and is an integral part of integration with the EU,” he said.

Mr Zelensky had given notice of the changes – not all of them linked to corruption allegations – in a late-night message on Monday. “There are already personnel – some today, some tomorrow – regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and in law enforcement,” he said. In a possible nod to the situation involving he announced a ban on officials taking holidays abroad.

As the intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces continues in the eastern regions in Ukraine, the frontlines in the war have been largely frozen in place for two months despite heavy losses on both sides. However, Moscow has claimed a number of incremental advances during the past two weeks. Mr Zelensky will no doubt wanting to keep the public with him. Particularly if he envisions Russia to up its offensives in the coming weeks and months.

Ukraine says Western tanks would give its troops the firepower to break Russian defensive lines. But Western allies have been unable to reach an agreement on arming Kyiv with tanks, wary of action that could trigger Russian escalation.

Poland announced on Thursday that Berlin had officially received a request from Warsaw to re-export German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and that it will ask the European Union for compensation for the cost of the tanks it wants to send Ukraine.

“We will apply for reimbursement to the European Union, it will be another test of goodwill,” Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, told a news conference.

Poland has been one of the nations putting real pressure on Berlin and Germany’s Der Spiegel reported on Thursday evening that German chancellor Olaf Scholz has decided to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries such as Poland to do so. The decision concerns at least a company of Leopard 2 tanks, Der Spiegel said.

A German government spokesperson declined to comment. The defence ministry was not immediately available for comment.

Reports also suggested that the US is potentially dropping its opposition to sending some of its own M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. While the Abrams is considered less suitable than the Leopard for Ukraine due to its heavy fuel consumption, Germany has said it wants Washington to send tanks too.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report