Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is trying to stamp out widespread reports that he’s about to replace his defence minister in the wake of a corruption scandal that has touched a nerve with the public in this embattled country.
In an address to parliament Tuesday, Zelenskyy called for an end to “rumours or any other pseudo-information” about whether Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov will be dismissed.
His statement was meant to douse the first major political fire his administration has experienced since Russia launched its full-scale invasion almost a year ago.
The president said that conjecture about Reznikov’s fate only undermines national unity at a critical time in the war.
Zelenskyy pointed out that only the president can dismiss a minister.
“We are taking personnel and institutional steps at various levels in the defence and security sector that can strengthen Ukraine’s position,” Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegram post, citing his remarks to lawmakers.
His silence to this point has only fuelled the speculation, however.
David Arakhamia, a senior member of parliament who also happens to be an important supporter of the president, was quoted on Sunday saying Reznikov would be shuffled out of defence and given another portfolio in response to a corruption scandal at the defence ministry involving food supplies for soldiers.
The following day, Arakhamia appeared to partially walk back his comments when he said that there would be no personnel changes “this week.”
Other members of the Ukrainian parliament have publicly defended Reznikov’s record.
Oleksandr Musiienko, the head of the Center for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, said the minister himself faces no personal allegations of corruption. What has been playing out for the past week or more has been an exercise in political accountability, he said.
Zelenskyy is determined to show that Kyiv can be a safe steward for billions of dollars in allied aid — and also a safe place for western investment as his government struggles to keep the economy afloat.
Musiienko said the government is caught between a rock and a hard place, politically. Conventional wisdom, he said, insists that if there is “corruption in [Reznikov’s] ministry, so under his ministry he needs to resign.”
But Musiienko said there’s no clear-cut consensus in parliament on what should happen to Reznikov.
Late last month, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) announced it had broken up a large-scale embezzlement scheme intended to siphon public funds earmarked for the purchase of food for the military.
In a statement posted on Telegram on Feb. 3, the SBU said the fraud had cost the defence ministry more than 119.5 million Hryvnia — about $3.24 million US, or about $4.3 million Cdn.
The acknowledgement followed allegations in local media that the ministry overpaid suppliers for the food. The company at the centre of the scandal insisted it was a technical mistake and no extra money actually changed hands. The defence ministry dismissed the media reports as baseless allegations.
As the scandal was growing, Zelenskyy said nothing. But faced with headlines on Tuesday alleging “turmoil” in the defence ministry, the president chose to speak out.
“It is only by helping our country, not allowing the enemy to play with the emotions of our people and doing everything possible for our warriors to have more weapons, that we can ensure Ukraine’s success,” he told Ukraine’s parliament. “And we will!”
The deliberation over Reznikov’s future was the first public crack in the solid front of Ukraine’s wartime leadership.
Musiienko said the timing is bad, coming ahead of next week’s regular gathering of the allied nations that supply Ukraine with military equipment. Ukraine is expected to go into that meeting arguing forcefully for western warplanes.
“He has good relations with our allies,” Musiienko said of Reznikov. “That is important.”
The scandal also comes at an awkward time for the war effort itself. Russia has been signalling that it is prepared to go on the offensive in the run-up to the one-year anniversary of the invasion.
Musiienko said the investigation of the food contracts is continuing and the discovery of possible irregularities is a sign in itself that Ukraine’s “anti-corruption structures” are working.