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Top Ukrainian officials ousted in anti-corruption sweep

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö following talks in Kyiv on Tuesday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — Several senior Ukrainian officials, including a close adviser of President Volodymyr Zelensky, were swept out of their posts on Tuesday, mainly over corruption allegations, as Kyiv moved swiftly to show zero tolerance for graft that could undermine the confidence of Western nations keeping the country alive with donated weapons and billions in economic assistance.

The dismissals and resignations — notably of Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff, Kyrylo Tymoshenko; Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov; and Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko — represent the biggest shake-up in Ukraine’s leadership since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February.

Five governors were removed outright from their positions, including Oleksiy Kuleba of the Kyiv region and Valentyn Reznichenko of the Dnipropetrovsk region, two of the most prominent regional heads. The governors of the Sumy, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions were also dismissed.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a top Zelensky adviser, tweeted that the president’s “personnel decisions testify to the key priorities of the state … ‘No blind eyes’” — adding that Zelensky “sees and hears society” and is responding to the public’s insistence on “justice for all.”

Another Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly, said that some in the government had for months complained about what they saw as a pattern of corruption, and the official predicted that Zelensky’s moves on Tuesday marked “just the beginning.”

Congressional Republicans, particularly in the House, where they now hold a narrow majority, have raised concerns about accounting for the billions of dollars in aid being sent by the Biden administration to Kyiv. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), prodded by his right flank, has said there should be no “blank checks” for Ukraine, and he has pledged greater oversight.

One senior U.S. official said Tuesday there were no concerns “at this point” that the news could poison the U.S. relationship with Ukraine.

But the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, indicated there were concerns about how the corruption allegations might echo in Washington and beyond. “There is a 100 percent chance that those who are already prone to repeating Kremlin talking points via social media, and willing prime-time talk show hosts, will use this to fuel their isolationist ideologies,” the official said.

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The removal of Shapovalov, the deputy defense minister, was directly connected to reports in the Ukrainian media that food was purchased for the military at inflated prices. Mirror of the Week, a prominent Ukrainian news site, said that a recently concluded $350 million procurement contract listed basic food items, such as eggs and potatoes, at prices between double and triple those found in local stores.

The ministry has denied allegations of wrongdoing but welcomed Shapovalov’s resignation as a confidence-building measure. In its official Telegram channel, the Defense Ministry said Shapovalov “asked to be removed in order not to create threats to the stable support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” because of “accusations related to the procurement of food services.”

However, the ministry also said the accusations were “unfounded and baseless” and called Shapovalov’s resignation “a worthy act in the traditions of European and democratic politics.”

Other officials did not immediately give reasons for their resignations, though several were caught in a swirl of recent allegations.

Tymoshenko, who was a key domestic adviser to Zelensky, has been at the center of two media investigations into his use of elite automobiles during the war. Bihus.info, a local media outlet reported that Tymoshenko commandeered for his personal use a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV that had been donated to the Ukrainian government for humanitarian aid operations.

It was one of 50 Tahoe vehicles that General Motors sent to Ukraine earlier in the year to help distribute aid and to evacuate civilians from the war zone. Tymoshenko confirmed that he drove the car but said it was for official use.

And the news website Ukrainska Pravda reported last month that Tymoshenko was recently spotted driving a new Porsche Taycan, costing about $100,000. Tymoshenko confirmed he drove the car, but said that it belonged to a local Ukrainian business and that he used it three or four times, then returned it a few months ago.

On Tuesday, Tymoshenko thanked a list of government agencies and officials, including Zelensky, for “the trust and the opportunity to do good deeds every day and every minute.” He posted a photo of his resignation letter on Telegram but did not explain his departure.

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Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, announced the resignation of Symonenko on its official Telegram channel but, as in other cases, did not cite a reason.

Symonenko had been embroiled in a scandal in recent weeks following a report that he had left the country over the New Year’s holiday to vacation with his family in Spain.

The incident carried an additional punch in Ukraine, where, since the beginning of the war, Ukrainian men of military age have been barred from exiting the country, unless they obtain official permission by convincing the authorities that they have a well-grounded reason to leave.

Over the weekend, a deputy infrastructure minister, Vasyl Lozynsky, was dismissed in connection with a corruption case. Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau posted on its Telegram channel on Sunday that the deputy minister was arrested for taking a $400,000 bribe in connection with the “purchase of equipment and machinery.” News reports said the scheme involved electrical generators needed in Ukraine to withstand power outages from Russia’s incessant bombing of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

Under pressure from the United States and especially the European Union, Ukraine has worked aggressively in recent years to root out corruption, which had long been pervasive across the government. The new allegations are particularly sensitive because Ukraine is totally reliant on donations from foreign countries of weapons to fight the invasion and money to keep the economy afloat.

In recent days, Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, have reiterated the country’s critical need for more powerful weapons, especially battle tanks.

European countries have been divided on the issue, but on Tuesday three German news outlets reported that Berlin had decided to transfer one company of its own Leopard 2A6 tanks, and would also grant permission for other European nations to send Leopards as well.

A German government spokesman declined to comment on the reports, which followed a report by the Wall Street Journal that the Biden administration was considering sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

The German government must sign off on any transfers of weapons that it produces between countries. About 2,000 of the Leopard 2 tanks are based throughout Europe.

None of the corruption allegations described Tuesday involved weapons.

Oleksandr Novikov, the head of Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention, said the swift action taken in Kyiv was necessary as Ukrainians expect their leaders to directly share in the national sacrifice demanded by the war.

“Despite the war, Ukrainians became more intolerant of corrupt practices and more inclined to behavior of integrity,” Novikov wrote in reply to questions sent by text message. “Before the war, only 40 percent of Ukrainians believed that corruption cannot be justified under any circumstances, now — 64 percent.”

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Some anti-corruption advocates in Ukraine also hailed the firings as a needed step that would send an important message to others in government. “It is an overall healthy sign,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, a Kyiv-based group financed by the United States and the European Union.

In his regular evening address on Monday, Zelensky said he had made “personnel decisions” in the country’s “ministries, central government bodies, regions and law enforcement system.” He also said that Ukrainian officials would be barred from traveling abroad for vacations during wartime.

“If they want to rest now, they will rest outside the civil service,” Zelensky said.

Shane Harris, John Hudson and Dan Lamothe in Washington and Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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