Ukraine Fires Officials Amid Corruption Scandal, as Allies Watch Closely

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Several top Ukrainian officials were fired Tuesday amid a widening corruption scandal, the biggest upheaval in the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky since the invasion of Russia began 11 months ago.

Ukraine’s cabinet ministry, which announced the layoffs, did not provide a reason for it, but a series of allegations of government corruption followed, including reports that Ukraine’s military had agreed to pay inflated prices for food intended for its troops, and Zelensky’s promises. to uproot it.

The shakeup came as Ukraine pushed hard for Western countries to provide advanced weaponry such as tanks. the german publication Der Spiegel and other media outlets reported on Tuesday that Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz had agreed, after months of resistance, to supply the coveted Leopard 2 tank to Ukraine, possibly along with the US shipment of its M1 Abrams tank. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

But on Tuesday, US officials said the Biden administration planned to provide 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 approaches the one-year mark, no issue is more critical to Ukraine’s continued survival than the flow of US 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, with some saying it is excessive and should be curtailed.

Even a breath of corruption could be enough to stop what has essentially been an open spigot of arms and billions more in humanitarian aid and financial aid. Few are more sensitive to this than Zelensky, who appears almost daily on 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 sign that the Ukrainian army’s food procurement scandal would implicate the misappropriation of Western military assistance or affect Ukraine’s ability to fight the Russian invasion. But the removal of the officials, which came amid near-daily pleas from Ukraine for more Western support, suggested an effort by Zelensky to clean house and try to reassure Ukraine’s allies that his government would show zero tolerance for the officials. bribery, or even less misconduct.

A deputy defense minister was among those ousted from his post on Tuesday, as was a deputy attorney general who caused a furor by vacationing in Spain with his family during the war. A senior official in Zelensky’s office has tendered his resignation after receiving withering criticism for speeding in an SUV that General Motors had donated for humanitarian missions.

Credit…Press Office of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, via Associated Press

The Biden administration is “not aware of any assistance from the United States” in the corruption allegations, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday. “We take our responsibility to ensure proper oversight of all forms of US assistance we are providing to Ukraine extraordinarily seriously,” he added.

In recent days, Mr. Zelensky had alluded to corruption investigations and a forthcoming shakeup of his government. In his speech Sunday night, after authorities detained a deputy infrastructure minister, the president said he hoped the punishment would be taken as a “sign to all those whose actions or conduct violate the principle of justice,” and He added: “There will be no return to what used to be in the past.”

The corruption allegations have also unsettled many Ukrainians, who find any hint that top officials might be undermining the country’s collective fight against Russia for their own gain is galling, especially if the corruption involves the military.

Over the weekend, a Ukrainian newspaper reported that the Defense Ministry had bought food at inflated prices, including eggs at three times its cost. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called the accusations “absolute nonsense” and the product of “distorted information.”

But on Tuesday, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Vyacheslav Shapovalov, a deputy minister, had “asked to be fired” following the reports. The ministry said in a statement that while the allegations “are baseless and baseless”, relieving Shapovalov of his duties would “preserve the confidence” of Ukrainians and the country’s international partners.

In its statement on Tuesday, the ministry stressed that the “expressed accusations are groundless and unsubstantiated,” but called Mr. Shapovalov’s removal request “a dignified act in the traditions of European and democratic politics, a demonstration that the interests of the defense are higher than any cabinet or chair.”

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

“A new social contract emerged during the war between civil society, journalists and the government: we will not criticize them as we did before the war, but their reaction to any scandal and ineffectiveness must be as harsh as possible,” Shabunin said. . “The position of the defense minister has broken this agreement.”

Also among those sacked on Tuesday were five governors from regions that have seen heavy fighting at various points, including Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The Kyiv governor was also ousted but later reassigned to a position within the presidential administration.

Under wartime rules, governors, who hold appointed positions and serve at the president’s discretion, act as primary liaisons between military and civilian 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 latest layoffs, those that are known, vary. The attorney general’s office announced on Tuesday that it had fired a lawmaker after a protest broke out over his decision to take a vacation in Spain during the war.

The shakeup began over the weekend when Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau detained a deputy infrastructure minister who it said took a $400,000 bribe from a company seeking a government contract to provide generators and other equipment.

What all this portends for the Zelensky government is unclear. Ukraine was struggling to control growing corruption long before the invasion, and Zelensky successfully campaigned in 2019 as an outsider who would clean house. The European Union has made Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc, one of its important long-term goals, contingent on reforms related to the rule of law, justice and corruption.

With the country now so dependent on its foreign partners, with nearly half its budget made up of Western aid, any hint of financial impropriety on a large scale could erode trust among donor nations. From the moment the invasion began, it has been an open question how long Ukraine can count on largely unrestricted Western support.

And while support for Ukraine remains high in the United States and Europe, some US officials have begun to raise concerns about the risk of corruption in postwar reconstruction efforts, while others have raised concerns that weapons Americans can be diverted or stolen for resale, although there has been no evidence of this.

helena cooper, Cassandra Vinograd, michael crowley Y Rum De Pascuale contributed reporting.