Estimated reading time 4 minutes 4 Min

Ukraine defence ministry in turmoil as Russia advances

There is confusion about the fate of Ukraine’s defence minister following a crackdown on alleged corruption while Russian forces gain in the country’s east.

February 7, 2023
7 February 2023

Ukraine has sent mixed messages about the fate of its defence minister, leaving a key post in its war effort in doubt as it braces for a new Russian offensive.

The questions left dangling over Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov were the first public sign of serious disarray in Ukraine’s wartime leadership, until now remarkably united during almost a year of all-out Russian military assault.

A day after announcing that Reznikov would be sidelined, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to row back and said no personnel changes in the defence sector would be made this week.

David Arakhamia, chief of the parliamentary bloc of Zelenskiy’s party, had said the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, would take over the defence ministry while Reznikov would be made minister of strategic industries.

But Zelenskiy remained silent on the issue while Reznikov said on Sunday he had not been informed of any move and would reject the strategic industry job if offered it.

The confusion caps a two-week crackdown on alleged official wrongdoing in Ukraine that has led to the biggest shakeup since Russia’s invasion.

Central and regional officials were fired or quit, security forces raided a billionaire’s home and investigations were launched into suspected fraud at the main oil company and refinery. 

The defence ministry was caught up in accusations it contracted to overpay for food although Reznikov was not personally accused of any wrongdoing.

Zelenskiy says the actions are intended to show that Ukraine can be a safe steward of billions of dollars of foreign aid. 

But they risk destabilising the political class that had stood together against Russia’s invasion.

Meanwhile, Russian forces have been advancing for the first time in six months in relentless battles in the east. 

A regional governor said Russia was pouring in reinforcements for a new offensive that could come as soon as next week.

Reznikov, a 56-year-old lawyer, has been the face of Ukraine at international meetings when allies have pledged billions of dollars in arms, and has been warmly received in European capitals including Paris just last week.

One obstacle to replacing him with Budanov, an enigmatic, fast-rising 37-year-old military intelligence officer decorated for operations that remain secret, is a rule requiring the defence minister be a civilian.

Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta think tank, said he expected Budanov to request retirement from the military before his appointment while Reznikov could be given a post of special envoy, making use of his stature abroad.

“Everything will be resolved,” Fesenko told Reuters.

In announcing plans for the change, Arakhamia said Ukraine’s armed forces should be overseen by people with a background in defence or security in wartime: “War dictates changes in personnel policy,” he wrote on Telegram.

The war is reaching a pivotal point as its first anniversary approaches, with Ukraine no longer making gains as it did in the second half of 2022 and Russia now pushing forward with hundreds of thousands of mobilised reserve troops.

Ukraine is planning its own counter-offensive but waiting on promised foreign battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

Russia was sending more reserves and equipment into eastern Ukraine, Serhiy Haidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region said on television, adding that shelling was no longer round-the-clock as Russian forces prepare for a full-scale offensive.

“After February 15 we can expect (this offensive) at any time,” he said.

Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had taken control of Mykolaivka, a small village in the adjoining Donetsk region, according to state media. 

There was no immediate response from Ukraine, which has disputed other Russian battlefield reports.

Russia’s main target has been the town of Bakhmut, where its state media said the Wagner mercenary group had gained a foothold.

A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside Bakhmut said earlier that Ukrainian forces were still in control of the town although more Russian forces were appearing daily.

More in Top Stories