KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Several senior Ukrainian officials, including front-line governors, lost their jobs Tuesday in a corruption scandal plaguing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government as it grapples with the nearly 11-month-old Russian invasion.
Ukraine’s biggest government shake-up since the war began came as U.S. officials said Washington was poised to approve supplying Kyiv with M1 Abrams tanks, with international reluctance eroding toward sending tanks to the battlefront against the Russians.
Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft, and the new allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight against Moscow.
Officials in several countries, including the United States, have demanded more accountability for the aid, given Ukraine’s rampant corruption. While Zelenskyy and his aides portray the resignations and firings as proof of their efforts to crack down, the wartime scandal could play into Moscow’s political attacks on the leadership in Kyiv.
On the capital’s streets, Serhii Bochkarev, a 28-year-old translator, welcomed the moves.
“Corruption during war is totally unacceptable because people are giving their lives to fight Russians and to defend the motherland,” he said.
The shake-up even touched Zelenskyy’s office. Its deputy head, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, prominent for his frequent battlefield updates, quit as the president pledged to address allegations of graft — including some related to military spending — that embarrassed authorities and could slow Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO.
Tymoshenko asked to be relieved of his duties. He didn’t cite a reason.
Local media said Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov also resigned, in connection with a scandal involving the purchase of food for Ukraine’s armed forces. Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko also quit.
In all, four deputy ministers and five governors of front-line provinces were set to leave their posts, the country’s cabinet secretary said on the Telegram messaging app.
Authorities did not announce any criminal charges. There was no immediate explanation.
The departures thinned government ranks already diminished by the deaths of the interior minister, who oversaw Ukraine’s police and emergency services, and others in the ministry’s leadership in a helicopter crash last week.
Tymoshenko joined the presidential office in 2019 after working on Zelenskyy’s media strategy during his presidential campaign. He was under investigation in connection with his personal use of luxury cars and was among officials linked in September to the embezzlement of humanitarian aid worth more than $7 million earmarked for the southern Zaporizhzhia region. He has denied the allegations.
On Sunday, a deputy infrastructure minister, Vasyl Lozynsky, was fired for alleged participation in a network embezzling budget funds. Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency detained him while he was receiving a $400,000 bribe for helping to fix contracts for restoring facilities battered by Russian missile strikes, according to Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov. He was put under house arrest, told to surrender his passport, ordered to wear a monitoring device, and told not to communicate with witnesses.
In a video address Tuesday, Zelenskyy said, “Any internal problems that hinder the state are being cleaned up and will be cleaned up. It is fair, it is necessary for our defense, and it helps our rapprochement with European institutions.”
Analysts say his message was that corruption won’t be tolerated.
“It’s very hard to save the country when there’s a lot of corruption,” Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, a nonprofit organization that fights corruption, told The Associated Press.
Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AP the shake-up was “intended to remind officials of the entire (power) vertical that the authorities plan to continue to fight corruption in Ukraine, especially during the war, when literally everything in the country is in short supply.”
Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta Center independent think tank, said Ukrainian authorities and Western officials couldn’t “turn a blind eye on latest scandals.” He said the corruption involved supplies for the army so the shake-up was “intended to calm Western partners and show Brussels and Washington that their aid is being used effectively.”
Transparency International, in its 2021 report on worldwide corruption, ranked Ukraine 122 out of 180 countries, with 180 representing the most corrupt. Russia ranked even lower, 136.
Entrenched corruption long has made foreign investors and governments wary of doing business with Ukraine. Allegations by Ukraine’s journalists and nonprofits about corruption at high levels of government, in courts and in business have lingered under Zelenskyy, despite a proliferation of anti-corruption panels and measures, according to a U.S. State Department 2020 country report.
A major corruption scandal could endanger the tens of billions of dollars the U.S. and its allies are pouring into Ukraine to keep Ukraine’s fighters armed, civil servants paid and the lights on. It could risk sinking what has been bipartisan popular and political support for Ukraine from the United States.
“We welcome the quick action that President Zelenskyy is taking in this case, as well as the effective action of Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions, civil society, and media, to ensure effective monitoring and accountability of public procurement and to hold those in positions of public trust to account,” the White House National Security Council said in a statement.
Last June, the EU agreed to put Ukraine on a path toward membership in the bloc. To join, countries must meet economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.
Ukraine has applied to join NATO, too, but the military alliance is not about to offer an invitation, because of the country’s contested borders, defense establishment shortcomings and, in part, its corruption issues.
Meanwhile, in what would be a reversal, U.S. officials said the Biden administration is set to approve sending M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The decision that could be announced as soon as Wednesday, though it could take months or years for the tanks to be delivered.
The U.S. announcement is expected in coordination with Germany stating that it will approve Poland’s request to transfer German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, according to one official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been made public.
German officials declined to comment on the reports of a deal. The news weekly Der Spiegel reported Tuesday, without citing a source, that Germany will provide Ukraine with at least one company of Leopard 2 tanks from its own army’s stock.
Zelenskyy, in his video address Tuesday, appeared concerned that the number of tanks to be sent would be insufficient. “It is not about five, or ten, or 15 tanks. The need is greater,” he said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due on Wednesday to address lawmakers, many of whom have been pressing the government to join allies in providing the tanks.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday the Poles — and other Western allies he didn’t identify — are already training Ukrainian soldiers in Poland on the Leopards.
Also on Tuesday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto suggested his country may consider joining NATO without neighboring Sweden if Turkey blocks their joint bid to enter the military alliance. Although he later backpedaled, his comments were the first by a senior official in either Nordic country raising doubts about becoming NATO members together while the alliance is seeking to present a united front to counter Russia’s invasion.
Sweden and Finland rushed to apply for NATO membership following Moscow’s invasion, abandoning their long-standing nonalignment policy. Their accession needs the approval of all NATO members, including Turkey, which has blocked the expansion, saying Sweden must crack down on exiled Kurdish militants and their sympathizers.