Zelensky Cleans House in Corruption-Plagued Defense Ministry

Two weeks after replacing its defense minister, Ukraine dismissed all six of its deputy ministers on Monday, deepening the housecleaning at a ministry that had drawn criticism for corruption in procurement as the military budget ballooned during the war.

The shake-up in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wartime leadership team came as he headed to the United States, keen to demonstrate to American officials and other Western leaders that his government is not squandering — on either graft of mismanagement — the tens of billions of dollars in aid they have sent to Ukraine.

Mr. Zelensky is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in person on Tuesday in New York, and later in the week to meet with President Biden and members of Congress in Washington in his ongoing efforts to shore up support for military aid. He is expected to argue that defending Europe’s borders from an expansionist Russia in Ukraine serves Western interests in preventing a wider war and the destabilization of the European Union.

In Ukraine’s fight to take back territory seized by the Russian invasion, the chain of command for battlefield decisions runs directly from Mr. Zelensky to the military’s uniformed general staff, largely bypassing the civilians at the defense ministry, so the turnover is not expected to have an immediate effect on the course of the war. The ministry’s role is primarily not in tactics but logistics — procurement, salaries and benefits — where changes may not be felt right away.

Ukrainian anti-corruption groups said the dismissals, though not all of them from positions related to procurement, sent a positive signal about oversight and a crackdown on wartime profiteering.

Much of the Western aid to Ukraine has been in arms, gear and training — not cash — supplied directly to the military, and there have been no documented instances of diversions of weaponry. Ukraine’s allies have also supplied billions in financial aid, helping shore up a depleted government and battered economy, but that money has not gone to the defense ministry, whose budget is drawn from Ukrainian tax revenues.

A pro-Ukrainian symbol, “V,” is painted on a destroyed car in Svyatohirsk in eastern Ukraine on Sunday.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Even so, some U.S. critics of spending on Ukraine — notably a faction of Republicans in Congress — have said that reports of corruption were a reason to place stricter limits on military aid, and some members of the NATO are nervous that weapons could be illicitly rerouted from their intended purpose.

The decision to dismiss the deputies was made at a cabinet meeting, according to a Ukrainian government statement posted on the Telegram messaging app on Monday. The government did not give a reason for the move.

Mr. Zelensky and top aides have described turnover as seeking fresh leadership after more than a year and a half of war. The Ukrainian military pushed Russian forces back in three successful counteroffensives that reclaimed about half the territory Russia seized in the full-scale invasion that began in February 2022. It is now locked in a bloody, slow-motion fight in the country’s south intended to cut Russian supply lines to the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Earlier this month, Mr. Zelensky dismissed Oleksii Reznikov, the defense minister, after a din of criticism from the Ukrainian news media and civil society groups about inflated prices in contracts and financial mismanagement. At that time, Mr. Zelensky, who named Rustem Umerov as the new minister, cited the need for “new approaches” 18 months into the war.

Mr. Reznikov, who had won praise for his diplomatic efforts to coordinate a vast flow of weaponry and ammunition into Ukraine, was not personally implicated. Anti-corruption groups have, however, singled out lower-level officials for mismanagement in military contracting, or for failing to tackle corruption on their watch.

The deputy defense ministers removed on Monday were not the first to lose their jobs during the war. In January, one was dismissed and arrested after reports of the department paying drastically inflated prices for food for the military. Another was replaced last year, and months later a Ukrainian news outlet released what it said was police video of a search of the minister’s home, with officers pulling wads of cash out of a sofa.

Last month, Mr. Zelensky fired all 24 chiefs of Ukraine’s regional military recruitment offices, after the government acknowledged that dozens of recruitment officers were under investigation for accepting bribes to mark eligible men as exempt from service. And there have been waves of anti-corruption raids and dismissals involving other parts of the government, as well.

Recruits from Ukraine’s Third Brigade rest between drills in the Donetsk region in July. Last month, Mr. Zelensky fired all 24 chiefs of Ukraine’s regional military recruitment offices.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Daria Kalenyuk, the executive director of the Kyiv-based Anticorruption Action Center, said that Monday’s dismissals were a “positive step” that showed that Mr. Zelensky recognized the problems in the ministry and was intent on finding remedies.

“The ministry of defense is one of the least reformed ministries in our country, and it is not able to cope with the challenges of the war,” she said in an interview. The timing of the announcement, she added, sent a signal to Ukraine’s allies in Washington ahead of Mr. Zelensky’s trip that his government was committed to overhauling the military bureaucracy.

Along with the deputy ministers, Kostiantyn Vashchenko was also dismissed, according to the government statement. He had served as the state secretary for defense, which is a senior managerial position at the ministry. The statement did not name any replacements.

The deputy defense ministers released from their posts on Monday included Hanna Maliar, who has emerged in recent months as one of the most prominent government communicators of the daily movement of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Hours before her dismissal was announced, Ms. Maliar continued to post updates on Telegram about the war.

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