Ukraine needs a government of national unity

Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and the author of the forthcoming book, “Battleground Ukraine: From Independence to the War with Russia” (Yale University Press).

In recent weeks, discourse about the war with Russia has turned deeply pessimistic in Ukraine.

A difficult Ukrainian counter-offensive, with lesser results than anticipated, has fueled deeply dark discussions about a deadlocked and bloody long-term war with Russia. Meanwhile, analysts and politicians have started to snipe at Ukraine’s military and political leaders, blaming them for the war effort’s failure and even speculating about defeat.

Further feeding this atmosphere of pessimism is evidence of tension between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s military command, as well as delays in military aid from the United States. And these pressures now need to be addressed.

Clearly, the period of euphoria propelled by major Ukrainian military victories and territorial advances is over. So, too, is the period of grandiose promises by Ukrainian officials.

Last winter, an official spokesman for the president had proclaimed he expected to spend the next summer in Crimea. No less extravagant a promise was echoed by the head of military intelligence, who predicted Crimea would be liberated within six months, bringing official promises of a major spring counter-offensive with significant territorial gains along with it.

Early battlefield success also contributed to near universal approval for Zelenskyy among Ukrainians. Despite slow Russian advances in the Donbas and scant Ukrainian victories later on, happy talk on the state-dominated TV “marathon” — joint programming produced by the bulk of the country’s main television networks — continued to promote frontline success, helping Zelenskyy maintain his popularity.

All this changed, however, when Ukraine’s 2023 counter-offensive stalled. The massive loss of fighters amid meagre gains and a slow-moving positional war eroded public trust in the president and his team for the first time since the war began.

A subsequent mid-November poll gave Zelenskyy a trust rating of only net 32 percent plus — meaning two-thirds of Ukrainians trusted the president, while a third now did not. This was a steep decline from polls earlier in the year, and far below the trust ratings of the armed forces and their commander, General Valery Zaluzhny.

A later poll conducted for the President’s Office and leaked to the Ukrainska Pravda news site showed Zelenskyy was neck and neck with Zaluzhny in a hypothetical race for president. Moreover, Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party — which currently holds over two-thirds of the seats in parliament — would see its presence shrink dramatically if elections were held today.

And as Zelenskyy’s support weakens, Ukraine now faces a number of challenges and difficult decisions. These include a deadlock on the front, a rapidly depleting supply of munitions, some erosion of support from Europe, and an impasse in the U.S. Congress over a bill to provide for the military needs of both Ukraine and Israel. His star power notwithstanding, Zelenskyy faces new difficulties in maintaining high levels of military and financial support for Ukraine both in North America and in Europe.

Additionally, the ranks of Ukraine’s armed forces — initially populated by experienced military professionals with combat experience and highly motivated volunteers — have suffered mass casualties during these brutal two years of war. Аs a result, military recruiters — now called “people snatchers” — are scouring cities and villages in search of males aged 18 to 60 for military service. Sometimes, these recruiters are not merely using coercive tactics against draft dodgers but detaining and pressuring those not called or exempt from service into signing on. And such tactics are contributing to justifiable public anger toward the authorities

In addition to such unpopular tactics, Zelenskyy will soon likely need to need to dramatically widen the national military mobilization and shift social spending toward military expenditures, if only to hedge against any decline in, or interruption of, financing from key allies. Both moves will be highly unpopular.

All this doesn’t mean Russia will prevail. Indeed, Ukraine has basically fought Russia to a standstill. Taking minor territorial losses in the Donbas, while gaining modest territory in the south and forcing Russia’s navy to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea, it has effectively restored freedom of navigation for commercial vessels in the sea’s west.

Zelenskyy has also been a courageous and successful wartime leader. But much of this was dependent on steadfast public support. Near-universal domestic approval gave him political carte blanche to shape policy and strategy. But while Ukrainians remain united in their aim of defending the country, unqualified support for Zelenskyy and his policies is declining. And the embattled democracy is subsequently witnessing a revival in national politics.

Zelenskyy’s team itself has contributed to this politicization. After Zaluzhny soberly spoke about the difficulties of Ukraine’s war effort, while providing a road map that could ensure victory, his public comments were shot down by officials from the President’s Office.

In early November, Zelenskyy’s foreign policy advisor Ihor Zhovkva went on national television to assert that Zaluzhny’s statement “eases the work of the aggressor” by stirring “panic,” adding there should be no public discussion of the situation at the front. Zelenskyy himself then chided the general in an interview, warning the military not to engage in politics.

Deputy Head of the Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence Maryana Bezuhla piled on, alleging Zaluzhny had ignored U.S. General Mark Milley’s recommendations to mine Ukraine’s border with Russian occupied Crimea back in 2021 — an act of negligence, she implied, that cost Ukraine large swaths of territory in the south. However, Zelenskyy is unlikely to seek Zaluzhny’s dismissal, as it would instantly launch the soldier on a political career.

And that’s not all. On the heels of this kerfuffle, Zelenskyy’s allies in parliament then blocked a visit to Poland and the U.S. by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The ostensible reason behind this was a report from Ukraine’s security service suggesting Poroshenko’s trip would be exploited by Russian propaganda. Of particular concern was a planned meeting between Poroshenko and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The idea that a seasoned leader like Poroshenko, whose tenure as president earned Western praise for his diplomatic skills, could be manipulated is, on the face of it, preposterous. And it later turned out that Zelenskyy himself would be meeting Orbán and didn’t want to be preempted.

These clear fractures need to be dealt with now.

Furthermore, as importantly, as domestic support erodes, Zelenskyy’s term in office is due to formally expire in May 2024, while the parliament’s four-year term expired in October. New elections are well-nigh impossible with millions of voters outside the country, a million engaged at the front and millions more internally displaced or under Russian occupation. Elections amid bloody combat and constant missiles and drone attacks on urban centers are unlikely, and would require both legislative and constitutional changes.

This issue of expiring mandates would be moot were the ratings of Zelenskyy and his party unassailable, but polls show a creeping disenchantment with both.

In this context, the time is ripe for Ukraine’s president to consider establishing a broad-based government of national unity. Opening the government to opposition and civil society leaders in this way would instantly provide legitimacy to the leadership team, reduce opposition criticism and widen the circle of voices that have the president’s ear.

There are compelling precedents for such a step too. For example, as World War II began, Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood Britain faced an existential threat that required sustaining national unity and created a broad-based coalition government. Churchill installed his main rival — Labour leader Clement Attlee — as deputy prime minister, and added Labour’s Ernest Bevin, a former trade union leader, to the national unity cabinet.

Similarly, this practice was followed most recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered opposition party leaders a place in a unity government after Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks. The proposal was accepted by centrist Benny Gantz.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Zelenskyy has relied on an exceedingly narrow circle of trusted advisors. But while he meets with his top military command, intelligence officials, visiting Western leaders and the media, he has largely shut himself off from civic leaders, political critics and rivals — including some with important foreign policy, national security and economic experience.

Their inclusion in leadership posts would offer Zelenskyy additional input on policy options, allow for discussions of alternative tactics and contribute to new approaches when it comes to external relations. With national unity showing signs of fraying, a government that includes the opposition would truly give it a boost.

The only questions are whether Zelenskyy is flexible enough to overcome his contempt for most opposition leaders, and change his style of governing from highly centralized decision-making to more broad-based consensus-building.

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How Ukraine lost its battle for a NATO membership commitment

VILNIUS — Ukraine wanted this year’s NATO summit to end with a clear declaration that it will become an alliance member once the war ends, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is leaving Lithuania without that ultimate prize.

For weeks, Ukrainian officials pushed their counterparts in the United States and Europe to draft language that offered a timeline and clear path toward membership. The communiqué allies released Tuesday fell short of that, stating instead that “we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine when allies agree and conditions are met.”

That line proved a deep disappointment for Kyiv, which raged behind the scenes as the U.S. and Germany resisted pressure to offer Ukraine concrete pledges. It was particularly upset at the vague reference to conditions, seeing it as a potential arbitrary roadblock to membership.

Ukraine’s leadership reached out to Washington and Berlin to make its displeasure felt, ending in Zelenskyy firing off an irritated tweet on Tuesday referring to the confidential draft text as “unprecedented and absurd.”

“It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” the president fumed to his 7.3 million followers. 

The battle over the communiqué left Kyiv unhappy with the process. 

Ukrainians were “disappointed with how NATO works” and felt there was “no real dialogue” with the alliance on the issue, said a Ukrainian official familiar with the negotiations. 

Ukraine’s backers, to the tune of billions in military and economic assistance, were blindsided by Zelenskyy’s anger. 

Even some of Kyiv’s closest friends within NATO were taken aback, seeing the blunt social media criticism from Ukraine’s president as unhelpful and unwarranted during the sensitive diplomatic negotiations. 

“We take the tweet as an unfortunate expression of frustration,” said a senior diplomat from Northern Europe.

The tweet, coming just as NATO leaders were preparing to meet in Vilnius, added more tension to diplomats’ last-minute efforts to finalize the contentious text, which was ultimately published on Tuesday evening. 

“We saw his tweet same time as everyone else did,” said a senior Biden administration official. “I think everyone understands the pressure he is feeling, and we’re confident that the commitments made at Vilnius will serve the long-term defense needs of Ukraine.”

Backing off

But by Wednesday, everyone was making an effort to tone down emotions. 

Officials highlighted the package NATO leaders agreed for Ukraine, which includes a multiyear program to help forces transition to Western standards and the creation of a new NATO-Ukraine Council, along with a decision to drop the need for a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) — a path of reforms ahead of joining.  

And in a gesture intended to underline Western governments’ backing for the Ukrainian cause, G7 leaders issued a declaration on Wednesday afternoon on long-term security commitments for Ukraine. That will see governments making bilateral deals to provide security assistance, training and other support. 

“I believe the package for Ukraine is good and a solid basis for a closer relationship on the path to membership,” said the senior diplomat from Northern Europe. 

An angry Kremlin said of the G7 action: “We believe that it’s a mistake and it can be very dangerous.”

In the end, the specter of Russia’s aggression proved to be a unifying force.

“The tweet did not change anything in that sense,” the senior diplomat said, adding that the G7 declaration was “also positive and many allies already said they will join” and that “the mood today was very warm and friendly.”

French officials, meanwhile, were keen to showcase understanding and empathy for the Ukrainian leader. 

“He’s in his role as head of a state at war and war chief. He’s putting pressure on the allies,” French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu told French TV on Tuesday. 

“You have to put yourself in his shoes, there was a commitment in Bucharest, and we know what happened next,” he added, referring to a NATO summit in 2008 when the military alliance made vague promises Ukraine would eventually become a member. 

For French President Emmanuel Macron, the Vilnius summit was a key moment to show unwavering support for Kyiv — after months of being perceived by Central and Eastern European leaders as being too conciliatory to Moscow. 

“It’s legitimate for the Ukrainian president to be demanding with us,” Macron told reporters on Wednesday. 


On the Ukrainian side, there was also an acknowledgment that Wednesday’s talks brightened the mood. 

“The meetings with the NATO leaders were really good,” said the Ukrainian official. The country “got the clear signals that our membership in NATO will not be a bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia … this was the main fear.”

“So, despite the lack of clarity in the text of declaration on Ukraine’s membership path, the meetings showed that there is the commitment to deepen the relations,” the official said. But, they noted: “Of course, it’s not the same as clear fixed commitment in the joint declaration.” 

Zelenskyy himself, who was in Vilnius to attend the first meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, also took a more positive tone in press appearances, expressing his thanks for the decision to drop the MAP requirement, gratitude for allies and praising the G7 commitments. 

“I haven’t changed my point of view,” he insisted when probed about the difference in tone from the previous day.

“What’s most important is that we have a common understanding on the conditions on when and under which conditions Ukraine would be in NATO — maybe not all the details were communicated, but for me it was very important that it depends on the security.”

And asked about fears in Kyiv that NATO membership could end up as a chip in future negotiations with Russia, he was firm that this would not be acceptable. 

“I’m sure that there won’t be betrayal from [U.S. President Joe] Biden or [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz,” Zelenskyy said, “but still I need to say that we will never exchange any status for any of our territories — even if it’s only one village with the population of one old man.”

Speaking to a crowd in Vilnius on Wednesday evening, Biden stressed that the West is there for Kyiv. 

“We will not waver. I mean that. Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken,” Biden said.

And as the summit wrapped up, many officials were quick to try to put the tensions behind them. 

“I consider this episode closed,” said a senior diplomat from Eastern Europe. “It is more important to look forward. We have a process in front of us. Let’s work on it!” 

“It’s all ended well,” quipped a senior NATO official, adding: “that will do for me” 

Laura Kayali and Alex Ward contributed reporting.

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In Ukraine, it’s not hatred they feel, its wrath

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

“We were invisible before, and to become visible is a huge step,” historian Olena Dzhedzhora said, as we discussed how Ukraine has drawn the attention of the rest of Europe and the United States.

The dignified, gray-haired historian joined the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv as it was being founded in 2002 — the first Catholic university to open anywhere in the former Soviet Union — just 11 years after the country declared independence. And since Russia’s invasion, Dzhedzhora, an archeologist-turned-medievalist, has been busy making darkness visible, along with around 30 volunteers — students, lecturers and others — who’ve been video recording and transcribing war testimonies gathered from people of all walks of life in Ukraine.

Last year, Lviv became a sort of Noah’s Ark, crowded with the displaced. And Dzhedzhora’s university stopped functioning for months — sheltering war refugees, feeding them, collecting medicine and raising cash for those who wanted to move west as Europe opened its doors.

“When I looked in their eyes, or talked with them, I had a feeling that I must capture their stories somehow,” she said. “We started to listen to these people and, with their permission, film them. Right now, we have 157 long video interviews and are busy translating them. They include volunteers, drivers, military men, medical personnel, people who teach and who make art and play music, and also those who experienced Russian occupation,” she added.

The project set out with two aims — to record war testimony for posterity, and to show the wider world what’s happening to Ukrainians. “The challenge, initially, for us, personally, was that none of us had any experience interviewing people suffering deep trauma. We have always stayed away from children because we fear retraumatizing them,” she said. “I am the only historian in the group, but all of us are very good listeners.”

Discussing the testimonies, Dzhedzhora remarked that “people say funny things in the interviews; they say very deep things, and they say very unexpected things. Some people, after a couple of months, reread their interviews and say, ‘Did I say that? That’s very interesting. I already forgot about that.’ People often forget or repress their first reactions to trauma.”

And she teared up recalling some of their stories — one, of a deeply traumatized 45-year-old woman who endured the three-month-long siege of Mariupol, and remained there during the early days of Russia’s occupation before being able to flee. “At first, she didn’t want to talk, saying she couldn’t, but eventually she did, and what most shocked the woman was how some of her neighbors welcomed the Russians, and started to point out people who were Ukrainian-oriented. They were among the earliest also to loot apartments,” Dzhedzhora said. And to the woman’s disgust, she later saw one of the looters interviewed on Ukrainian television, claiming to be a patriot.

Another painful interview for the historian was with artist Ivanka Krypyakevych — the partner of Mykhailo Dymyd, a professor at the university — on the loss of their oldest son, Atemi. Atemi died fighting in Donetsk in June, and Ivanka gave her testimony two days after his funeral. “Yes, I knew him, and know the family well. Atemi was such an excellent, such an interesting young man,” Dzhedzhora added.

Through these experiences, she said she found most interviewees didn’t harbor personal hatred toward Russians. “They understand that would be very destructive for themselves. So it’s not the hatred — it’s something I don’t even know how to express it in English.” Then it came to her: “It is more Biblical. Something much more powerful than hatred. It is wrath,” she said.

Righteous judgement.

Back in Kyiv, I then sat down with a young American, a veteran of the U.S. army named Eric, who’s seen plenty of war and joined the international legion of foreign volunteers in April. “When the invasion happened, I was like, ‘the Russians suck’ . . . But I thought it is not my fight. Then they started the terror bombing and attacking malls, hospitals and schools and stuff like that, and I thought, ‘I can do something about this.’”

Eric served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he admits he enlisted to fight in Ukraine for prosaic reasons too. He left the army realizing that with America’s “forever wars” winding down, he might not see action again. “I do miss getting shot at. That was enjoyable when it started happening again,” he said.

“I know what I am. I’m a soldier. I’m a dude who goes and fights wars, kills people, all that stuff, gets paid for it. It’s, like, objectively speaking, not a morally healthy thing. But there’s still standards, there’s rules, laws. There’s like a code, and you’re supposed to adhere to [it]. I mean, it’s war. It’s brutal. There’s none of this, like, ‘Yeah, man, you know, as long as they fly a white flag.’ A lot of times, if somebody’s trying to surrender, you’re not going to realize that. You see movement. You see a guy. You shoot,” he added.

The foreign legion in Ukraine now numbers around a thousand, and most of the wannabe heroes, the unfit and the fantasists who initially flocked to join in the early weeks have been booted out — or “dipped out,” in Eric’s words — once they went through their first bombardment or firefight, and realized “it’s real life and dangerous.”

“We still get some nutters — the vetting process isn’t great,” he grimaced, recalling how some German neo-Nazis had joined up last year, but they “dipped out because nobody wanted to work with them. We’re literally fighting fascists here. That’s what Russia is. Fascist. Their squad nickname was Wehrmacht. It was really stupid,” he said.

Eric, who asked to withhold his last name as he doesn’t want exposure, also echoed other American legionnaires when discussing the differences between various foreign fighters. The Belarusians, Chechens and Georgians are seen as much more ideological, viewing the war as a way toward freeing their own countries from Russia’s control, while most of the Americans and the British, as well as Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, are more like Eric — veterans whose chief motivation for being in Ukraine is to avoid civilian life, although they stress the rightness of the Ukrainian cause.

Motivations aside, the highly combat-experienced Americans and Brits are often used in especially risky commando and reconnaissance missions. And it was on such a mission that Eric and his entire squad was wounded near Bakhmut last year. He got shot in the chest — the bullet partly penetrating his body armor — and was then hit by two fragmentation grenades during a vicious close-quarter skirmish.

“I was bleeding in a bathroom — in the same building I got wounded in, with the Russians still inside. So, me and another guy, and then later another guy, were balls to the wall, trading fire with the Russians and tossing grenades at each other. I couldn’t move my arm and my leg, so I was, like, handing off magazines to the others, and then losing blood and passing out.” Another of the legion’s platoons was ordered to mount a rescue, “but they were busy making Instagram videos about the BTR [Russian armored personnel carrier] we’d all blown up earlier,” he said, chortling.

Meanwhile, among the many unintended consequences Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has triggered — including prodding Sweden and Finland to join NATO, wrecking the Moscow-tied Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was once a useful Kremlin tool of influence, and volunteering foreign fighters — there’s now another that will likely infuriate the homophobic leader: boosting support for gay rights in Ukraine.

“If Putin hates gays, we should support them,” announced Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Kozhemiakin to the surprise of many last month. Kozhemiakin previously served as an officer in the Soviet Navy from 1982 to 1988, and he was in the Russian KGB for several years.

His support for LGBTQ+ rights came during a committee hearing on a bill introduced in April by Inna Sovsun, an opposition lawmaker from the liberal, pro-European Holos party. Sovsun’s bill seeks to legalize same-sex civil partnerships, granting LGBTQ+ civil partners the same rights as married heterosexual couples. According to Sovsun, the war has helped shift public opinion, with many recognizing the inequity of the partners of LGBTQ+ soldiers not having any legal rights when their loved ones get wounded or killed — including making medical decisions on their behalf, burying them or receiving any state benefits.

Over a hundred soldiers have so far come out as LGBTQ+, and thousands more are estimated to be serving. “Kozhemiakin’s speech was the most impressive I’ve seen in the parliament, and was the least expected,” Sovsun said. But she also cautioned: “I think if the parliament were to vote on this today, it would fail. My feeling is that the parliament is more conservative than our society because 56 percent of Ukrainians actually support it.”

And public support is growing still, but the government doesn’t yet have an official position. “Zelenskyy does things when it’s clear the public wants him to do it. He hasn’t quite worked out what the public’s position is yet” on this, she said.

But she hopes he will . . . and soon.

CORRECTION: This article was updated to correct the number of years after Ukraine’s independence that the Ukrainian Catholic University was founded.

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Heads roll in Ukraine graft purge, but defense chief Reznikov rejects rumors he’s out

KYIV — Heads are rolling in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s expanding purge against corruption in Ukraine, but Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov is denying rumors that he’s destined for the exit — a move that would be viewed as a considerable setback for Kyiv in the middle of its war with Russia.

Two weeks ago, Ukraine was shaken by two major corruption scandals centered on government procurement of military catering services and electrical generators. Rather than sweeping the suspect deals under the carpet, Zelenskyy launched a major crackdown, in a bid to show allies in the U.S. and EU that Ukraine is making a clean break from the past.

Tetiana Shevchuk, a lawyer with the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a watchdog, said Zelenskyy needed to draw a line in the sand: “Because even when the war is going on, people saw that officials are conducting ‘business as usual’. They saw that corrupt schemes have not disappeared, and it made people really angry. Therefore, the president had to show he is on the side of fighting against corruption.”

Since the initial revelations, the graft investigations have snowballed, with enforcers uncovering further possible profiteering in the defense ministry. Two former deputy defense ministers have been placed in pre-trial detention.

Given the focus on his ministry in the scandal, speculation by journalists and politicians has swirled that Reznikov — one of the best-known faces of Ukraine’s war against the Russian invaders — is set to be fired or at least transferred to another ministry.

But losing such a top name would be a big blow. At a press conference on Sunday, Reznikov dismissed the claims about his imminent departure as rumors and said that only Zelenskyy was in a position to remove him. Although Reznikov admits the anti-corruption department at his ministry failed and needs reform, he said he was still focused on ensuring that Ukraine’s soldiers were properly equipped.

“Our key priority now is the stable supply of Ukrainian soldiers with all they need,” Reznikov said during the press conference.

Despite his insistence that any decision on his removal could only come from Zelenskyy, Reznikov did still caution that he was ready to depart — and that no officials would serve in their posts forever.

The speculation about Reznikov’s fate picked up on Sunday when David Arakhamia, head of Zelenskyy’s affiliated Servant of the People party faction in the parliament, published a statement saying Reznikov would soon be transferred to the position of minister for strategic industries to strengthen military-industrial cooperation. Major General Kyrylo Budanov, current head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, would head the Ministry of Defense, Arakhamia said.

However, on Monday, Arakhamia seemed to row back somewhat, and claimed no reshuffle in the defense ministry was planned for this week. Mariana Bezuhla, deputy head of the national security and defense committee in the Ukrainian parliament, also said that the parliament had decided to postpone any staff decisions in the defense ministry as they consider the broader risks for national defense ahead of another meeting of defense officials at the U.S. Ramstein air base in Germany and before an expected upcoming Russian offensive.  

Zelenskyy steps in

The defense ministry is not the only department to be swept up in the investigations. Over the first days of February, the Security Service of Ukraine, State Investigation Bureau, and Economic Security Bureau conducted dozens of searches at the customs service, the tax service and in local administrations. Officials of several different levels were dismissed en masse for sabotaging their service during war and hurting the state.     

“Unfortunately, in some areas, the only way to guarantee legitimacy is by changing leaders along with the implementation of institutional changes,” Zelenskyy said in a video address on February 1. “I see from the reaction in society that people support the actions of law enforcement officers. So, the movement towards justice can be felt. And justice will be ensured.” 

Yuriy Nikolov, founder of the Nashi Groshi (Our Money) investigative website, who broke the story about the defense ministry’s alleged profiteering on food and catering services for soldiers in January, said the dismissals and continued searches were first steps in the right direction.

“Now let’s wait for the court sentences. It all looked like a well-coordinated show,” Nikolov told POLITICO.  “At the same time, it is good that the government prefers this kind of demonstrative fight against corruption, instead of covering up corrupt officials.”

Still, even though Reznikov declared zero tolerance for corruption and admitted that defense procurement during war needs reform, he has still refused to publish army price contract data on food and non-secret equipment, Nikolov said.

During his press conference, Reznikov insisted he could not reveal sensitive military information during a period of martial law as it could be used by the enemy. “We have to maintain the balance of public control and keep certain procurement procedures secret,” he said.

Two deputies down

Alleged corruption in secret procurement deals has, however, already cost him two of his deputies.  

Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who oversaw logistical support for the army, tendered his resignation in January following a scandal involving the purchase of military rations at inflated prices. In his resignation letter, Shapovalov asked to be dismissed in order “not to pose a threat to the stable supply of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a result of a campaign of accusations related to the purchase of food services.”

Another of Reznikov’s former deputies, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who managed defense procurement in the ministry until December, was also arrested over accusations he lobbied for a purchase of 3,000 poor-quality bulletproof vests for the army worth more than 100 million hryvnias (€2.5 million), the Security Service of Ukraine reported.  If found guilty he faces up to eight years in prison. The director of the company that supplied the bulletproof vests under the illicit contract has been identified as a suspect by the authorities and now faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.

Both ex-officials can be released on bail.  

Another unnamed defense ministry official, a non-staff adviser to the deputy defense minister of Ukraine, was also identified as a suspect in relation to the alleged embezzlement of 1.7 billion hryvnias (€43 million) from the defense budget, the General Prosecutors Office of Ukraine reported.  

When asked about corruption cases against former staffers, Reznikov stressed people had to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Reputational risk

At the press conference on Sunday, Reznikov claimed that during his time in the defense ministry, he managed to reorganize it, introduced competition into food supplies and filled empty stocks.

However, the anti-corruption department of the ministry completely failed, he admitted. He argued the situation in the department was so unsatisfactory that the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption gave him an order to conduct an official audit of employees. And it showed the department had to be reorganized.

“At a closed meeting with the watchdogs and investigative journalists I offered them to delegate people to the reloaded anti-corruption department. We also agreed to create a public anti-corruption council within the defense ministry,” Reznikov said.

Nikolov was one of the watchdogs attending the closed meeting. He said the minister did not bring any invoices or receipts for food products for the army, or any corrected contract prices to the meeting. Moreover, the minister called the demand to reveal the price of an egg or a potato “an idiocy” and said prices should not be published at all, Nikolov said in a statement. Overpriced eggs were one of the features of the inflated catering contracts that received particular public attention.

Reznikov instead suggested creating an advisory body with the public. He would also hold meetings, and working groups, and promised to provide invoices upon request, the journalist added.

“So far, it looks like the head of state, Zelenskyy, has lost patience with the antics of his staff, but some of his staff do not want to leave their comfort zone and are trying to leave some corruption options for themselves for the future,” Nikolov said.

Reznikov was not personally accused of any wrongdoing by law enforcement agencies.

But the minister acknowledged that there was reputational damage in relation to his team and communications. “This is a loss of reputation today, it must be recognized and learned from,” he said. At the same time, he believed he had nothing to be ashamed of: “My conscience is absolutely clear,” he said.

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