Ukraine’s Defense Ministry in turmoil at a key moment in the war
KYIV — Ukraine sent mixed messages on Monday about the fate of its defense minister, leaving a key position in its war effort in doubt even as it prepares for a new Russian offensive.
A day after announcing that Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov would be replaced, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to backtrack for now, saying no personnel changes in the defense sector would be done this week.
David Arakhamia, head of the parliamentary bloc in Zelensky’s party, had said Reznikov would be named minister of strategic industries, while military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov would take over as head of the defense ministry.
But Zelensky has remained silent on the matter, while Reznikov himself said on Sunday that he had not been informed of any decision and would reject the strategic industry post if offered.
Doubt over the minister’s fate comes as Russian forces advance for the first time in six months in fierce battles in the east. A regional governor said Moscow was sending reinforcements to eastern Ukraine for a new offensive that could take place as early as next week.
Two senior lawmakers noted on Monday that rules require Ukraine’s defense minister to be a civilian, which would appear to stand in the way of the immediate appointment of Budanov, a 37-year-old military officer.
Reznikov’s withdrawal, which was warmly welcomed in Western capitals including Paris last week, would be the most high-profile reshuffle in a string of resignations and firings in recent weeks, some of them following corruption scandals.
Ukraine has had a reputation for corruption for decades, and Zelensky is under pressure to demonstrate that the country can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western military and civilian aid. In announcing a staff purge last month, Zelensky pledged to uphold Western standards of clean governance.
Reznikov, a lawyer by profession, has not been publicly implicated in any scandal. But one of his deputies and several other officials left, and prosecutors announced an investigation into allegations that a Defense Department contract overpaid for food for troops.
“WAR IMPOSES CHANGES”
Arakhamia said Ukraine’s armed forces should not be overseen by politicians in wartime, but by people with defense or security training.
“The war dictates changes in personnel policy,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday.
Reznikov said on Sunday that any decision on a reshuffle was up to Zelensky, but told Ukrainian online media Fakty ICTV that a planned transfer to a new ministry was news to him.
“If I suddenly received such an offer from the Ukrainian president or the prime minister, I would refuse it, because I don’t have the expertise,” Reznikov said.
Budanov, identified by Arakhamia as Reznikov’s replacement, is an enigmatic young officer decorated for his role in covert operations, who quickly rose through the ranks to lead the army’s Main Intelligence Directorate.
The possible reshuffle coincides with Ukrainian fears that Russia is planning a major new offensive this month. Ukraine is preparing its own counter-offensive but awaits Western deliveries of battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
“We see more and more (Russian) reserves being deployed in our direction, we see more equipment being brought in,” said Serhiy Haidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, adding that the shelling was no longer 24 hours. on 24. .
“They are slowly starting to save, preparing for a full-scale offensive,” he said on television. “It will probably take them 10 days to gather supplies. After February 15, we can expect (this offensive) at any time.
MILITARY AID MONITOR
Asked on national television on Sunday evening about the likelihood of a reshuffle, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said: “Reznikov has been extremely efficient in terms of communication with our partners. And this is a very important element in this case.
As wartime defense minister, Reznikov, 56, maintained ties to Western defense officials and helped oversee the receipt of billions of dollars in military aid to help Kyiv repel the Russian invasion.
Podolyak said Reznikov’s “wonderful” personal relationships with his allies helped with military supplies.
“Negotiations are not only mathematical formulas but also personal relationships. And trust. Unfortunately, today we are losing some self-confidence,” Podolyak said.
Reznikov designated Ukraine’s “de facto” integration into the NATO military alliance as a top priority, even if joining the bloc was not immediately possible.
During his tenure as defense minister, he spoke out forcefully on wartime corruption, which he said amounted to “marauding”.
But in recent weeks his ministry has been embroiled in a bribery scandal over a military food contract which included paying hugely inflated prices. This caused a public outcry.
The emergence of this scandal was followed by a major reshuffle which saw the exit of a range of regional governors, deputy ministers and other officials.
Reznikov held a press conference on Sunday afternoon, where he said Ukraine expected a possible major Russian offensive this month, but Kyiv had the resources to hold them off.
He also said his ministry’s anti-corruption department needed an overhaul and had not done what it was supposed to.