The Kiev Purge: What has spurred a wave of resignations among senior Ukrainian officials?

26 Jan, 2023 20:03 / Updated 6 months ago

By Petr Lavrenin, political journalist and expert on Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.

Turmoil in the capital and the regions may be a result of the West’s dissatisfaction with how things are unfolding

On January 23, in the course of his customary evening video address, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky announced major personnel changes in his government. The decision is linked both to his wish to demonstrate anti-corruption measures to the West and a rise in domestic political conflicts. 

The resignations affected not only representatives of the Ukrainian elite, such as the deputy head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Kirill Tymoshenko, but also governors of regions near the front line. RT explores what led to the scandal, and the consequences of Ukraine’s domestic policy changes in the middle of an armed conflict.

On the way out

The Kiev government has once again been shaken by staffing dramas. On January 24, three high-ranking officials resigned in one day: Deputy Head of the Office of the President Kirill Tymoshenko, Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, and Deputy Prosecutor General Aleksey Symonenko.

Four bosses of regional administrations were also dismissed – in Dnepropetrovsk (Valentin Reznichenko), Zaporozhye (Aleksandr Starukh), Kherson (Yaroslav Yanushevich) and Sumy (Dmitry Zhivitsky). It’s worth noting that all these areas are in close proximity to the front and the Russian border, which may indicate that the Ukrainian authorities are preparing for a new stage of hostilities.

According to local media, the list is not limited to the above-mentioned names. Resignations may affect other senior officials, including Prime Minister Denis Shmigal.

The personnel changes were preceded by a series of corruption scandals involving senior officials. This led to a sharp escalation of conflict in Ukraine’s domestic politics and talk of major reform in the leadership of the Office of the President of Ukraine, the government, and certain law enforcement agencies.

Accused of purchasing food supplies for the army at allegedly inflated prices (the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine called these claims manipulative), Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov resigned. The situation also threatened the current defense minister, Alexey Reznikov, but for now, the profile committee of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has decided to keep him in office.

The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) also conducted raids, detaining Vasily Lozinsky, the deputy minister for the development of communities, territories, and infrastructure (a protege of Shmigal), while another colleague of Lozinsky’s, Ivan Lukerya, resigned.

Meanwhile, another political scandal resounded across Ukraine. Pavel Khalimon, a deputy from the president’s Servant of the People party was accused of buying an estate worth 10 million Grivna ($273,000) in the center of Kiev during wartime and will be dismissed from his post as the deputy head of the parliamentary faction. The situation was made public by journalists from Ukrainska Pravda. The outlet, according to experts at the Ukrainian Institute of Politics, is under the patronage of Americans and the team of former President Pyotr Poroshenko.

Another scandal centers on former Zelensky adviser Aleksey Arestovich, who has become a popular blogger since the beginning of the armed conflict. Arestovich claimed a missile which fell on a residential building in Dnepropetrovsk (Dnepr), earlier this month,  had been shot down by Ukrainian air defense. This caused a major political scandal, and he was fired. The dispute was used to discredit the popular Arestovich and lower his political rating, a favorable turn of events for certain members of Zelensky’s team and Ukraine’s political system.

These aren’t the first scandals and corruption accusations that Ukraine has dealt with since Russia’s military operation began, but up to now, they have not led to resignations. On the contrary, government opponents and corruption whistleblowers were instead said to “work for the enemy,” sowing confusion among the people in difficult times. Now, the situation has changed dramatically. In his recent address, President Vladimir Zelensky stressed that any evidence of corruption will elicit “a powerful response.”

The front is getting closer

The anti-graft stories are being driven by media outlets connected with Ukraine’s Western partners and Poroshenko, who has become Zelensky’s main competitor, since the latter had opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk jailed. For example, on January 23, a number of pro-Western journalists launched a direct attack on Andrey Yermak – the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine and a key player in the system.

The Bihus.Info project published an investigation into his ties with ‘pro-Russian’ deputies Vadim Stolar and Medvedchuk from the Opposition Bloc – For Life party. Popular Ukrainska Pravda journalist, Mikhail Tkach, appealed to President Vladimir Zelensky to dismiss and punish the politicians. 

There are suggestions that Washington and its allies want to limit Zelensky’s power. Western media occasionally expresses dissatisfaction with his dominant position in domestic politics, and it follows that, as the Ukrainian outlet ‘Strana.ua’ [banned by Zelensky] claims, limiting Zelensky thus demonstrates that the US and EU intend to retain control over how the multibillion-dollar aid that goes to Ukraine (presently, about 50% of the national budget) is spent. Under such circumstances, the Kiev authorities would be forced to respond to accusations of corruption under pressure from the West.

The US was able to convince the Office of the President of Ukraine to fill the post of the director of NABU, according to the chairman of the Servant of the People party, David Arahamiya. This means that Ukraine could soon establish a power structure independent of the decision-making center.

For his part, Zelensky is trying to ease the pressure from his Western backers by dismissing a number of deputies. However, he likely plans on keeping the main figures in office – at least the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andrey Yermak, and Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov. Any damage to their reputations would seriously weaken the position of the president.

At the same time, Zelensky has already dismissed an important member of his team, Deputy Head of the Office of the President Kirill Timoshenko. The authorities reportedly received information that NABU considers him a suspect in a number of corruption cases. For example, he met with a wave of criticism for personally using an American SUV which General Motors provided for humanitarian missions to rescue Ukrainian citizens from combat zones. Timoshenko claims he used the vehicle for official trips.

An alternative version of events also exists. Ukraine’s corruption scandals are not favorable for the Biden Administration. They fuel Republican criticism of the Democrats over uncontrolled assistance to Ukraine and support accusations that the plundering of funds allocated to Ukraine is ongoing.

According to this version, the scandals are highlighted by activists and journalists for their own purposes, such as gaining additional influence over the decision-making process in Kiev. Amidst the military hostilities, such scandals may cause a rise in distrust of the authorities. Political struggles create tension in society and open a second, internal front. Put together, these factors may lead to a severe internal political crisis in Ukraine.

Whats next?

Against the background of Ukraine’s high-profile political scandals, staff changes in the government are being actively discussed. Among the officials considered next in line for dismissal are Minister of Energy German Galushchenko, Minister of Youth and Sports Vadim Gutzeit (who recently headed the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine), as well as Minister of Strategic Industries Pavel Ryabikin. However, none of these officials have been involved in corruption scandals, so these resignations, should they happen, would likely be for different reasons.

All of this leads some journalists to ponder possible large-scale shifts in the government. Lozinsky and Shmigal worked together in the Department of Economic Development in the Lviv Regional State Administration. After Shmigal was appointed deputy prime minister in February 2020, he appointed Lozinsky as his first deputy.

The prime minister’s resignation, which would entail the resignation of the entire government, would indeed look like a powerful Zelensky response to corruption scandals. However, this course of events carries serious risks for the authorities, and there are enough to ruin such an intention.

For one, the resignation of the government amid corruption scandals creates risks of a political split in the Verkhovna Rada. Furthermore, if the government were to resign, Western countries could set strict conditions on coordinating candidates for the new government. This happened in 2014, when US citizen Natalia Yaresko was appointed finance minister in Arseny Yatsenyuk’s government, and Lithuanian Aivaras Abromavicius was made minister of economic development and trade.

All this can shake up the system of power and lead to the president’s administration having much less influence over political processes. The current political system is clearly biased towards a single structure: The Office of the President of Ukraine. Following the early parliamentary elections in 2019 and the formation of a majority in the Verkhovna Rada, the entire vertical alignment of power was structured around Zelensky and Yermak, the influence of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine was eliminated, and the information space cleared.

The combat operations in Ukraine merely accelerated these processes. In fact, only three powers can now speak out against the Zelensky-Yermak team – Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko and his cabinet, the army led by Valery Zaluzhny, and US-controlled structures such as NABU and media affiliated with them. At the same time, decisions regarding resignations are made exclusively by Zelensky and Yermak, who by all means wish to hush up the scandals.

Changes are imminent. The Ukrainian president is being pushed towards structural reform from several sides, including his own officials, the government, the power structures, and particularly, foreign benefactors. Major corruption scandals may lead to fall in the Western public’s support of Kiev. 

After all, Ukraine is a very expensive project, regardless of its geopolitical value. In addition to risky investments and painful costs, its financiers need clarity in terms of internal management control. The US government regularly says that it will finance Ukraine until its victory, but it also has to account for the money it’s splurging.

Of course, the quality of work is evaluated by the employer, not the employee, and in this case the Americans are the undoubted bosses.