Ukraine Replaces Defense Minister amid Corruption Scandal
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Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who has held his post since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, will be replaced by military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov to “strengthen military-industrial cooperation,” according to leaders of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party. 

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has been dealing with a string of corruption scandals, the latest one concerning excessive payments for food. Other allegations included dubious military contracts with under-the-table kickbacks to deputy ministers, the sale of military equipment – including American hardware – to international buyers, and embezzlement from the national winter aid budget.

Reznikov’s deputy Vyacheslav Shapovalov was among the dozen officials who resigned last month. Shapovalov insisted the allegations of corruption against him, for contracts that required the Ukrainian military to pay up to triple the supermarket rate for food, were baseless, but his resignation was welcomed by the Defense Ministry as a step toward rebuilding trust in the military.

Reznikov said in January that the wildly inflated food payments were caused by a “technical error” from a government contractor, dismissing reports to the contrary as “nothing but manipulations” by the media. 

On Sunday, Reznikov said an “internal audit” of all military procurement contracts has been launched. He disputed reports that President Zelensky would fire him or demand his resignation, but he also mused that “no one is in the chair for his whole life.”

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov arrives for an official visit at the Hotel de Brienne, the French Ministry of Armed Forces, in Paris on January 31, 2023. ( JULIE SEBADELHA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian parliamentary majority leader David Arakhamia said later on Sunday that 56-year-old Reznikov will be transferred to another ministerial position and replaced by Budanov, a 37-year-old rising star in the Ukrainian government. Among other resume enhancements, Budanov predicted Russia would launch a full-scale invasion, rather than the more limited territory-grabbing intervention anticipated by many Ukrainian officials.

“War dictates changes in personnel policy. Times and circumstances require strengthening and regrouping. This is what is happening now and will happen in the future,” said Arakhamia.

Arakhamia posted a further message on the secure messaging platform Telegram on Monday stating that “personnel changes in the field of defense will not take place this week.”

Arakhamia suggested Reznikov could become minister of strategic industries – a position Reznikov, a lawyer by profession, specifically said he was unqualified to hold. Other possibilities suggested by Ukrainian media included naming Reznikov as justice minister or making him a special diplomatic envoy.

Zelensky has not commented on the reports of Reznikov’s impending reassignment as of Monday afternoon, adding to the air of confusion surrounding the defense ministry.

Some observers said Reznikov had to go, even though he has not been publicly accused of wrongdoing himself, in order to demonstrate that corruption would not be tolerated by Zelensky’s administration – an important message to send given the huge amounts of foreign aid Ukraine continues to seek for its struggle against Russia.

Others objected that Reznikov has been “the face of Ukraine at international meetings when allies have pledged billions of dollars in arms and has been warmly received in Western capitals including Paris just last week,” as Reuters put it on Monday.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Iceland’s Foreign Minister Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjord Gylfadottir and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stand together prior to a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base on January 20, 2023 in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

This means replacing Reznikov might not be reassuring to foreign donors, and it risks “destabilizing the political class that has stood together since Russia’s invasion.”

Another obstacle noted by Reuters is that Ukrainian law currently requires the Defense Minister to be a civilian. If Budanov is to be Reznikov’s replacement, he may need to resign his military commission first.

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