Ukraine fires officials amid corruption scandal as allies watch closely

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KYIV, Ukraine — Several senior Ukrainian officials were fired on Tuesday amid a burgeoning corruption scandal, in the biggest upheaval in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government since the Russian invasion began 11 months ago.

The Ukrainian ministry, which announced the sackings, did not provide a reason, but they followed a number of allegations of government corruption – including reports that the Ukrainian military had agreed to pay inflated prices for food for his troops – and for Mr. Zelensky’s wishes to root him out.

The upheaval has come as Ukraine pushes for Western countries to supply advanced weapons like tanks. The German publication The Spiegel and other news outlets reported on Tuesday that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had agreed, after months of resistance, to supply the coveted Leopard 2 tank to Ukraine, possibly in conjunction with the US sending United of his M1 Abrams tank. Reports cannot be independently confirmed.

But on Tuesday, US officials said the Biden administration plans to supply Ukraine with Abrams tanks for the first time. The Pentagon also announced a six-fold increase in the production of heavy artillery shells to meet demand in Ukraine.

As the war draws closer to a year, no issue is more critical to Ukraine’s survival than the flow of United States military aid and other Western allies – so far about $40 billion worth of weapons and other equipment. Republicans in the US Congress have called for an audit of how aid is used, and some have said it is excessive and should be limited.

Even a whiff of corruption could be enough to slow down what has essentially been an open gun spigot, and billions more in humanitarian aid and financial aid. Few are more sensitive to it than Mr. Zelensky, who appears almost daily in video calls with foreign leaders and lawmakers dressed in a drab green military shirt, always asking for the same thing: more weapons.

Russia is preparing for a new offensive expected in the spring or sooner, and the Ukrainians say they need hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles to counter Moscow’s forces and launch their own offensives to drive the Russians out of occupied territory.

There was no indication that the Ukrainian military food supply scandal involved the diversion of Western military aid or affected Ukraine’s ability to fight off the Russian invasion. But the removal of the officials, coming amid almost daily pleas from Ukraine for more Western support, suggested an effort by Mr Zelensky to clean house and try to reassure Ukraine’s allies that his government would have zero tolerance for corruption, or even less for misconduct.

A deputy defense minister was among those removed from office on Tuesday, as was a deputy attorney general who caused a stir by taking a war vacation in Spain with his family. A senior official in Mr Zelensky’s office has tendered his resignation after coming under heavy criticism for driving in an SUV that General Motors donated for humanitarian purposes.

Credit…Ukrainian Ministry of Defense Press Office, via Associated Press

The Biden administration “is not aware of any U.S. aid being involved” in the corruption allegations, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday. “We take extremely seriously our responsibility to provide proper oversight of all forms of U.S. assistance we provide to Ukraine,” he added.

In recent days, Mr. Zelensky had hinted at corruption investigations and a coming shake-up in his government. In his late-night address on Sunday, after authorities arrested a deputy infrastructure minister, the president said he hoped the sanction would be seen as a “signal to anyone whose actions or behavior violates the principle justice”, and added: “There will be no return to what was in the past.

Corruption allegations have also unsettled many Ukrainians, for whom any hint that senior officials could undermine the country’s collective fight against Russia for their own gain is infuriating, especially if the corruption involves the military.

Over the weekend, a Ukrainian newspaper reported that the Defense Ministry purchased food at inflated prices, including eggs three times as expensive. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called the allegations “absolute nonsense” and a product of “distorted information”.

But on Tuesday, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Viacheslav Shapovalov, a deputy minister, had “asked to be fired” following the reports. The ministry said in a statement that while the charges “are unfounded and groundless”, removing Mr Shapovalov from office “maintains the trust” of Ukrainians and the country’s international partners.

In its statement on Tuesday, the ministry stressed that the “accusations expressed are unfounded and baseless”, but called Mr Shapovalov’s request for dismissal “a dignified act in the traditions of European and democratic politics, a demonstration that the interests of defense are superior to any cabinet or chair.

Yet the fact that it took Mr Shapovalov three days to resign raises serious questions about the Defense Ministry’s commitment to rooting out corruption, said Vitaliy Shabunin, director of operations at the Anti-Corruption Action Center. Corruption, a non-governmental organization based in Kyiv. .

“A new social contract emerged during the war between civil society, journalists and the government: we will not criticize you as we did before the war, but your reaction to any scandal and inefficiency must be as harsh as possible,” said Mr. Shabounine. . “The position of the Minister of Defense has broken this agreement.”

Also among those sacked on Tuesday were five governors of regions that have at various times experienced heavy fighting, including Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The governor of Kyiv was also sacked and then reassigned to a post within the presidential administration.

Under wartime rules, governors, who hold appointed positions and serve at the pleasure of the president, act as the primary liaison between military and civil authorities.

The deputy head of Mr Zelensky’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, has resigned amid criticism over his use of the donated General Motors SUV. Mr Tymoshenko was well known nationally and internationally, often tasked with providing updates on the war. But Ukrainian journalists had raised questions about his lavish lifestyle and use of government resources.

The reasons for the recent layoffs, those that are known, vary. The attorney general’s office announced on Tuesday that it had fired a deputy after an outcry erupted over his decision to take a war vacation in Spain.

The upheaval began over the weekend, when Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested a deputy infrastructure minister who it says was caught receiving a $400,000 bribe. dollars from a company seeking a government contract to supply generators and other equipment.

What all this portends for Mr. Zelensky’s government is unclear. Ukraine was struggling to control thriving corruption long before the invasion, and Mr Zelensky campaigned successfully in 2019 as a political outsider who would clean house. The European Union has made Ukraine’s candidacy to join the bloc – one of its important long-term goals – dependent on reviews regarding the rule of law, justice and corruption.

With the country now so dependent on its foreign partners, with almost half of its budget made up of Western aid, any sign of large-scale financial irregularity could erode the confidence of donor countries. Since the start of the invasion, the question has remained open as to how long Ukraine can count on largely unfettered Western support.

And while support for Ukraine remains high in the United States and Europe, some American officials have begun to worry about the risk of corruption in postwar reconstruction efforts, while others have expressed their concern that American weapons might be diverted or stolen for resale, although there was no evidence of this.

Helen Cooper, Cassandra Vinograd, Michael Crowley and Ron DePasquale contributed report.