KYIV — Several top Ukrainian officials were fired Tuesday amid a ballooning corruption scandal, in the biggest upheaval in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government since Russia’s invasion began 11 months ago.
Ukraine’s Cabinet ministry, which announced the firings on the Telegram social messaging app, provided no details about the reason, but they followed a number of allegations of government corruption — including reports that Ukraine’s military had agreed to pay inflated prices for food meant for its troops — and general bad behavior.
A deputy defense minister was among those removed from their posts, as was a deputy prosecutor general who caused a scandal by taking a wartime vacation to Spain. And a senior official in Zelensky’s office tendered his resignation after coming under withering criticism for zipping around in an SUV that General Motors donated for humanitarian missions.
There was no sign the army procurement scandal involved the misappropriation of Western military assistance or would affect Ukraine’s ability to fight the Russian invasion. But the removal of the officials, coming amid almost daily pleas from Ukraine for more Western support, suggested an effort by Zelensky to clean house and to try to reassure Ukraine’s allies that his government would show zero tolerance for graft.
As the war nears the one-year mark, no issue is more critical for Ukraine’s continued survival that the billions of dollars and advanced weaponry provided by Western allies. Russia is gearing up for a new offensive expected in the spring or earlier, and the Ukrainians are counting on Challenger 2 tanks promised by Britain and Bradley Fighting Vehicles pledged by the United States to counter Moscow and launch their own offensives.
But even a whiff of malfeasance could be enough to slow what has been essentially an open spigot of aid. Few are more sensitive to this than Zelensky, who appears almost daily on video calls with foreign leaders and legislatures dressed in a drab green military shirt always asking for the same thing: more weapons.
In recent days Zelensky had alluded to the corruption investigations and a coming shake-up in his government. In his nightly address on Sunday, he said he hoped that punishment would be taken as a “signal to all those whose actions or behavior violate the principle of justice,” and added: “There will be no return to what used to be in the past.”
The corruption allegations have also unsettled many Ukrainians, for whom any hint that top officials might be undermining the country’s collective struggle against Russia for their own gain is galling, especially if the corruption involves the military.
Over the weekend, a Ukrainian newspaper reported that the Ministry of Defense had purchased food at inflated prices, including eggs at three times their cost. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called the allegations “absolute nonsense” and the product of “distorted information.”
But on Tuesday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said that Viacheslav Shapovalov, a deputy minister, had “asked to be fired” following the reports. The ministry said in a statement that while the accusations “are unfounded and baseless,” relieving Shapovalov of his duties would “preserve the trust” of Ukrainians and the country’s international partners.
Still, that it took three days for Shapovalov to step down raises serious questions about the Ministry of Defense’s commitment to rooting out corruption, said Vitaliy Shabunin, the director of operations for the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based nongovernmental organization.
“A new social contract emerged during the war between civil society, journalists and the government: We will not criticize you like we did before the war, but your reaction to any scandal and ineffectiveness must be as tough as possible,” Shabunin said. “The position of the defense minister has broken this agreement.”
Also among those dismissed on Tuesday were five governors from regions that have at various points seen intense fighting, including Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The governor of Kyiv was also dismissed but then reassigned to a position within the presidential administration.
The deputy head of Zelensky’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, resigned amid criticism of his use of the donated GM SUV. Tymoshenko was well known domestically and internationally, often tasked with providing updates on the war. But Ukrainian journalists had raised questions about his lavish lifestyle and use of government resources.
The shake-up began over the weekend, when Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau detained a deputy infrastructure minister who was caught receiving a $400,000 bribe from a company seeking a government contract to provide generators and other equipment.