Ukraine war: why Zelensky’s corruption purge could be key to the outcome of the conflict

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has announced a sweeping clear-out of senior national and regional government officials and the appointment of a new supervisory board for the state-owned natural gas giant, Naftogaz. This is a move to reassure both the Ukrainian public and the country’s western allies that the fight against corruption remains a priority, despite the ongoing war with Russia.

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament – in which Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party has a commanding majority – quickly followed the president’s lead by presenting a draft bill aiming to boost transparency in defence procurement to avoid, for example, artificially inflated prices being paid for troops’ rations.

The move has been likened in the international press to a major reshuffle at the top of Ukrainian politics. Among the senior national government officials to go were the deputy prosecutor general, the deputy ministers of community and territorial development, the deputy minister of social policy, and the deputy minister of defence.

In addition, the heads of four frontline regional administrations – Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – were dismissed. Among them, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentyn Reznichenko, had already been implicated in a scandal around the “Great Reconstruction” project, accused of giving US$41 million (£33 million) of funds earmarked for road reconstruction in his region – 65% of the total allocation – to a company co-owned by his girlfriend, Yana Khlanta.

Another key figure to lose his job is Oleksiy Symonenko, the deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine. Symonenko has been accused of spending a holiday in Spain in late December, which was partially financed by prominent Ukrainian businessman.

Also dismissed was the leader of the Kyiv capital region, Oleksii Kuleba. However, Kuleba was immediately appointed by Zelensky as the deputy head of his presidential office. He replaces the most visible figure to resign, Kyryl Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko was mired in public scandals last year, including about his personal use of a car donated by General Motors to Ukraine for humanitarian purposes.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, has resigned after being allegedly implicated in a corruption scandal.
EPA-EFE/Sergey Dolzhenko

This kind of personal abuse of power and position has long been endemic in Ukraine and didn’t suddenly end with the Russian invasion. But it has infuriated many ordinary Ukrainians.

And it clearly does not reflect well on a government publicly committed to rooting out corruption – not least at a time when official unemployment in Ukraine has reached 30% and real incomes of the population fell by 21%.

Most people have made extraordinary sacrifices in defence of their country, enduring increasing hardship over the past 11 months. In stark contrast are the so-called “Monaco battalion”. These are present and former high-ranking officials and businessmen who used their position to leave the country with their families. Many of these elites took with then significant assets to finance their new luxury lives in resorts in France, Spain, Switzerland and Austria.

Why this matters

Zelensky’s emphatic and swift response to the latest revelations reflects his recognition that ordinary Ukrainians may become disaffected with their president. But up to now corruption scandals have not tainted Zelensky himself who continues to enjoy unprecedented levels of public trust – rising from 27% in December 2021 to 84% in December 2022 as reported by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS). The armed forces were found in the same survey to have the highest trust of any institution in Ukraine at 96%, up from 72% in December 2021.

The “reshuffle” is less sweeping than it seems. As already noted here, many of the national government officials dismissed, for example, were deputy ministers. These are people regarded as more “technical figures” within a minister’s team. So the basic make-up of the current government is unlikely to change and neither will the balance of power in the Ukrainian government. Key figures such as the prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, and the defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, remain in place.

Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmygal, remains in post.
KMU via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

There is no suggestion that either of them was involved in the current corruption scandals, but these episodes clearly happened under their watch – defence procurement, after all, is at the heart of current government business.

Sorting out corruption will remain a key factor in the war – how and when it ends, and what kind of Ukraine will emerge from it. Being able to demonstrate moves to ensure transparency and integrity will also be key for the country’s progress towards EU membership. The Ukrainian president is clearly aware of this – he devoted much of his nightly address to the nation on January 24 to the issue.

This was a message clearly expected and received among key allies, including Democratic and Republican US senators who welcomed Zelenskiy’s purge and promised a continuation of Washington’s support for Kyiv’s war effort.

The subsequent announcement that both Germany and the US would send the main battle tanks that Kyiv has been demanding for so long is clearly linked to the perception that Zelensky is redoubling his anti-corruption efforts.

This in turn signals not only a determination of Ukraine’s western partners to help Kyiv succeed in the war against Russia but also a commitment that a strong and democratic Ukraine emerges from it. Läs mer…

Ukraine war: as Russia falters on the battlefield, Putin is trying to raise the stakes

During a recent visit to St Petersburg, Russian president Vladimir Putin reiterated his confidence in his country’s victory over Ukraine. Visiting a defence contractor, he also took the opportunity to reassure workers that his so-called “special military operation” was in defence of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine against a “neo-Nazi regime” in Kyiv. In other words, Russia is acting in the tradition of the “great patriotic war” that saved Europe from Nazi Germany.

At a press conference in Moscow meanwhile, Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, spoke along similar lines:

Like Napoleon, who mobilised nearly all of Europe against the Russian empire, and Hitler, who occupied the majority of European countries and hurled them at the Soviet Union, the United States has created a coalition of nearly all European member states of Nato and the EU and is using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia with the old aim of finally solving the ‘Russian question’, like Hitler, who sought a final solution to the ‘Jewish question’.

This is now a well-established narrative – mostly for domestic consumption – seeking to convince Russians that the war is justified and winnable. But such statements also send signals to Ukraine and its allies about Russia’s determination to continue fighting and, by invoking parallels with the second world war, about an unshakeable belief that Russia will prevail.

This could easily be dismissed as propaganda if not for a number of other recent developments that underline that the Kremlin is willing and able to escalate, on the battlefields in Ukraine and beyond.

Russia is thought to have ambitions in Moldova and has troops stationed in the breakaway enclave of Transnistria.
Wikimedia Commons

Russia keeps a contingent of troops in Transnistria, a small breakaway region wedged between Ukraine and Moldova. At the end of December 2022, Russia was the only one among 57 participating states of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) to oppose the customary extension of the mandate of its Mission to Moldova. Eventually, a compromise was found, extending the mission until the end of June and enabling it to carry on with its mediation in the conflict.

Transnistria is a reminder of the fact that if Russia can establish full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine, Moldova would be a likely next target in what Putin calls his mission to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers.

Read more:
Ukraine invasion: ’stage two’ of Russia’s war is ringing alarm bells in nearby Moldova – here’s why

Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, is sufficiently worried about Russian destabilisation efforts – which have included fomenting anti-government protests and staging various false-flag provocations in the Transnistria region – to ask the country’s western partners for air surveillance and defence systems.

Second front?

Repeated signals from Moscow that a second front in the war against Ukraine might be reopened from Belarus could be considered fanciful in light of Russia’s humiliating retreat from the outskirts of Kyiv a few months into the invasion. Yet, Putin’s end-of-year visit to Minsk and recent joint airforce drills create just enough ambiguity for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to warn that Russia may launch another ground invasion from Belarus.

Putin has also restructured his military leadership in Ukraine, replacing the airforce general, Sergei Surovikin, with the long-serving chief of the Russian general staff, Valery Gerasimov.

New leadership: Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu (left) with the chief of Russia’s general staff,Valery Gerasimov. Gerasimov has just been appointed chief of the Russian forces in Ukraine.
EPA-EFE/Gavril Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Gerasimov oversaw the military operation that led to the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, and was the chief architect of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This involved Russian forces attacking from occupied areas in Donbas and invading from the south via Crimea and the north via Belarus.

Putting Gerasimov in overall charge now, after almost a year of at best mixed success for Russia, is another not-so-subtle signal of Moscow raising the stakes.

War of words

Meanwhile, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (who served a term from 2008 to 2012 after Putin’s first two stints) added further oil to the fire by yet again raising the spectre of a nuclear escalation. And Putin’s official spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, signalled Russia’s willingness to end the war provided Kyiv accepts Moscow’s terms for a settlement (without specifying what these are).

Again, these comments could be dismissed as meaningless, But they are part of the bigger picture of how Russia is conducting this war by trying to raise tensions even further, in and out of Ukraine.

In his gloomy new year address, Putin again framed the war in Ukraine as a civilisational struggle between Russia and the west. Much of his signalling, therefore is directed at western leaders, currently gathered in Davos and debating, among other things, what additional military equipment should be delivered to Ukraine.

Russia’s information war clearly has some effect on at least some western decision makers. Debates on how much to arm Ukraine continue. As a result, Kyiv still lacks sufficient artillery and air defences. And its requirements for another major offensive are far from fulfilled: more substantial western supplies, especially of tanks and other armoured vehicles, are only slowly being agreed between the US and Germany.

Rather than allowing themselves to be unsettled by Russia’s use of distraction and misinformation, Ukraine’s allies should take them as threats to be countered. Doing so effectively will require them to supply Kyiv with more and better weapons systems and ammunition.

Without that, Ukraine will not be able to liberate Russian-ocuppied territories. This is the best-case scenario. The worst case is that Putin may be presented with a realistic option for a new offensive either while the ground in the next few months is still frozen or later in the spring. Läs mer…

Ukraine war: Kremlin’s campaign of misinformation keeps Kyiv and its allies guessing

During a recent visit to St Petersburg, Russian president Vladimir Putin reiterated his confidence in his country’s victory over Ukraine. Visiting a defence contractor, he also took the opportunity to reassure workers that his so-called “special military operation” was in defence of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine against a “neo-Nazi regime” in Kyiv. In other words, Russia is acting in the tradition of the “great patriotic war” that saved Europe from Nazi Germany.

At a press conference in Moscow meanwhile, Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, spoke along similar lines:

Like Napoleon, who mobilised nearly all of Europe against the Russian empire, and Hitler, who occupied the majority of European countries and hurled them at the Soviet Union, the United States has created a coalition of nearly all European member states of Nato and the EU and is using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia with the old aim of finally solving the ‘Russian question’, like Hitler, who sought a final solution to the ‘Jewish question’.

This is now a well-established narrative – mostly for domestic consumption – seeking to convince Russians that the war is justified and winnable. But such statements also send signals to Ukraine and its allies about Russia’s determination to continue fighting and, by invoking parallels with the second world war, about an unshakeable belief that Russia will prevail.

This could easily be dismissed as propaganda if not for a number of other recent developments that underline that the Kremlin is willing and able to escalate, on the battlefields in Ukraine and beyond.

Russia is thought to have ambitions in Moldova and has troops stationed in the breakaway enclave of Transnistria.
Wikimedia Commons

Russia keeps a contingent of troops in Transnistria, a small breakaway region wedged between Ukraine and Moldova. At the end of December 2022, Russia was the only one among 57 participating states of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) to oppose the customary extension of the mandate of its Mission to Moldova. Eventually, a compromise was found, extending the mission until the end of June and enabling it to carry on with its mediation in the conflict.

Transnistria is a reminder of the fact that if Russia can establish full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine, Moldova would be a likely next target in what Putin calls his mission to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers.

Read more:
Ukraine invasion: ’stage two’ of Russia’s war is ringing alarm bells in nearby Moldova – here’s why

Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, is sufficiently worried about Russian destabilisation efforts – which have included fomenting anti-government protests and staging various false-flag provocations in the Transnistria region – to ask the country’s western partners for air surveillance and defence systems.

Second front?

Repeated signals from Moscow that a second front in the war against Ukraine might be reopened from Belarus could be considered fanciful in light of Russia’s humiliating retreat from the outskirts of Kyiv a few months into the invasion. Yet, Putin’s end-of-year visit to Minsk and recent joint airforce drills create just enough ambiguity for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to warn that Russia may launch another ground invasion from Belarus.

Putin has also restructured his military leadership in Ukraine, replacing the airforce general, Sergei Surovikin, with the long-serving chief of the Russian general staff, Valery Gerasimov.

New leadership: Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu (left) with the chief of Russia’s general staff,Valery Gerasimov. Gerasimov has just been appointed chief of the Russian forces in Ukraine.
EPA-EFE/Gavril Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Gerasimov oversaw the military operation that led to the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, and was the chief architect of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This involved Russian forces attacking from occupied areas in Donbas and invading from the south via Crimea and the north via Belarus.

Putting Gerasimov in overall charge now, after almost a year of at best mixed success for Russia, is another not-so-subtle signal of Moscow raising the stakes.

War of words

Meanwhile, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (who served a term from 2008 to 2012 after Putin’s first two stints) added further oil to the fire by yet again raising the spectre of a nuclear escalation. And Putin’s official spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, signalled Russia’s willingness to end the war provided Kyiv accepts Moscow’s terms for a settlement (without specifying what these are).

Again, these comments could be dismissed as meaningless, But they are part of the bigger picture of how Russia is conducting this war by trying to raise tensions even further, in and out of Ukraine.

In his gloomy new year address, Putin again framed the war in Ukraine as a civilisational struggle between Russia and the west. Much of his signalling, therefore is directed at western leaders, currently gathered in Davos and debating, among other things, what additional military equipment should be delivered to Ukraine.

Russia’s information war clearly has some effect on at least some western decision makers. Debates on how much to arm Ukraine continue. As a result, Kyiv still lacks sufficient artillery and air defences. And its requirements for another major offensive are far from fulfilled: more substantial western supplies, especially of tanks and other armoured vehicles, are only slowly being agreed between the US and Germany.

Rather than allowing themselves to be unsettled by Russia’s use of distraction and misinformation, Ukraine’s allies should take them as threats to be countered. Doing so effectively will require them to supply Kyiv with more and better weapons systems and ammunition.

Without that, Ukraine will not be able to liberate Russian-ocuppied territories. This is the best-case scenario. The worst case is that Putin may be presented with a realistic option for a new offensive either while the ground in the next few months is still frozen or later in the spring. Läs mer…