KYIV – Ukraine sent mixed messages on Monday over the fate of its defense minister, throwing a key position in its war effort into doubt even as it braces for a new Russian attack.
A day after announcing that Defense Minister Oleksiy Riznikov would be replaced, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared to be backtracking for now, saying there would be no personnel changes in the defense sector this week.
David Arakamiya, head of the Zelenskyi party’s parliamentary bloc, said Reznikov would be made minister of strategic industries, while Kirill Budanov, head of military intelligence, would take over the defense ministry.
But Zelenskiy remained silent on the matter, while Rezinkov himself said on Sunday that he had not been informed of the move, and would turn down the Strategic Industries job if offered.
The minister’s fate is in doubt as Russian forces advance in relentless fighting in the east for the first time in half a year. Moscow is sending reinforcements for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine that could come as soon as next week, a regional governor said.
Two senior lawmakers noted on Monday that rules require Ukraine’s defense minister to be a civilian, which would appear to block the immediate appointment of Budanov, a 37-year-old military officer.
The removal of Reznikov, who was warmly welcomed in Western capitals including Paris last week, would be the latest in a string of resignations and sackings in recent weeks, some of which followed corruption scandals.
Ukraine has a decades-long reputation for corruption, and Zelensky is under pressure to demonstrate that the country can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western military and civilian aid. In announcing the purge of officials last month, Zielinski pledged to meet Western standards of clean governance.
Reznikov, a lawyer by profession, has not been publicly involved in any scandals. But one of his deputies and several other officials have since left, and prosecutors have announced an investigation into allegations that a Defense Ministry contract corruptly overpaid for troops’ meals.
‘War brings changes’
Arakamiya said that Ukraine’s armed forces should not be overseen by politicians in times of war, but by people with a defense or security background.
“War dictates changes in personnel policy,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday.
Rezinkov said on Sunday that any decision on the reshuffle was up to Zelenskyi, but he told Ukrainian Facti ICTv online media that the planned transfer to a new ministry was news to him.
“If I suddenly received such an offer from the president or prime minister of Ukraine, I would refuse it, because I don’t have the skills,” Reznikov was quoted as saying.
Budanov, identified by Arakamiya as Reznikov’s replacement, is an enigmatic young officer decorated for his role in covert operations, who quickly rises through the ranks to head the army’s Main Directorate of Intelligence. happened
The possible change coincides with Ukrainian fears that Russia is planning a major new offensive this month. Ukraine is planning its own response but is awaiting Western supplies of battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
“We’re seeing more and more (Russian) reserves being deployed in our direction, we’re seeing more equipment being brought in,” said Sirhi Hedai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region. He further said that shelling does not happen 24 hours a day.
“They are slowly starting to back up, getting ready for an all-out attack,” he said on television. “Most likely it will take them 10 days to collect the reserves. We can expect (this offensive) any time after February 15.
Military Aid Overseer
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak, when asked on national television Sunday night about the likelihood of a reshuffle, said: “Riznikov was very effective in terms of communicating with our partners, and that’s the case. I am a very important component.”
As wartime defense minister, Reznikov, 56, fostered ties with Western defense officials and helped oversee the receipt of billions of dollars in military aid to help Kyiv stave off Russian aggression.
Podoliak said that Rezinkov’s “excellent” personal relations with the Allies had helped with military supplies.
“Negotiations are not just mathematical formulas, but also personal relationships. And trust. Unfortunately, today we are losing a measure of trust in ourselves,” Podoliak said.
Reznikov called Ukraine’s “de facto” integration into the NATO military alliance a top priority, even if joining the bloc is not immediately possible.
During his tenure as defense minister, he spoke strongly about wartime corruption, which he described as tantamount to “marauding”.
But in recent weeks his ministry has been embroiled in a corruption scandal over an army food contract that was supposed to pay for huge inflation. This created a frenzy among the people.
After the revelation of the scandal, there was a major reshuffle that saw the exit of regional governors, deputy ministers and other officials.
Reznikov hosted a news conference on Sunday afternoon, in which he said Ukraine expects a possible major Russian attack this month, but that Kyiv has the resources to deter them.
He also said that his ministry’s anti-corruption department needed to be replaced and that it had not done what it should have done.