Zelenskiy sacks Ukraine’s defence minister in military corruption crackdown

Zelenskiy sacks Ukraine’s defence minister in military corruption crackdown
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has sacked Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov in a military shake-up to crack down on corruption. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews September 4, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced he was replacing Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov with Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar and Muslim, on September 3, in the most significant shake-up in Ukraine's defence establishment since Russia's invasion in February 2022.

The decision comes as Ukraine launches a new conscription drive to replenish numbers on the front line, where fighting is brutal after Ukraine went on the offensive two months ago, and tries to punch through Russian defences to reach the Sea of Azov on the southern front.

In a televised address to the nation, Zelenskiy announced his plan to dismiss Reznikov and nominate Umerov, the head of Ukraine's privatisation fund, as his replacement. The decision must be confirmed by the Rada, which is expected to meet today.

Reznikov, who has been defence minister since November 2021, played a crucial role in securing Western military aid to support Ukraine's war efforts. However, his tenure has been dogged by corruption scandals. He was caught up in accusations that the ministry was massively overpaying for soldiers’ rations in January in a $326mn procurement deal and that officials were skimming off the excess money. More recently, Ukrainian media accused his ministry of corruption in procuring overpriced winter coats for the army.

And only last week Zelenskiy decried corruption in military medical exemptions where hefty bribes can be paid to exclude men from the draft on medical grounds.

The Ukrainian Military Pages reported on September 3 that Ukraine's Defence Ministry has amended the list of medical conditions that exempt Ukrainians from military service, taking many mild complaints off the list, including clinically cured tuberculosis, viral hepatitis,  slowly progressing blood diseases, thyroid gland diseases, HIV and mild mental illness, among others.

Zelenskiy said last week the National Security and Defence Council had studied data showing the extent of false exemptions, bribe-taking and flight abroad since the February 2022 invasion. The investigation into dubious medical exemptions was still being conducted, he said.

"There are examples of regions where the number of exemptions from military service due to medical commission decisions has increased tenfold since February last year," Zelenskiy said in one of his nightly video addresses.

Last week, Bankova announced that all the heads of Ukraine’s recruitment officers had been dismissed in a large-scale shake up designed to stamp out the rampant corruption. This was reminiscent of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to sack Georgia’s entire traffic police staff in a successful attempt to stamp out bribe taking.

By dismissing Reznikov, Zelenskiy is implicitly laying the blame on him for failing to stamp out the corruption, and has launched a major shake-up to crack down on rampant corruption in the military. Reznikov consistently denied any wrongdoing and attributed the accusations to a smear campaign.

Zelenskiy told the nation in his nightly address: "I believe the ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society as a whole."

The president expects Parliament to endorse Umerov's appointment, who has no military experience, highlighting his prior experience and contributions to sensitive negotiations, such as the Black Sea grain deal.

Umerov, a 41-year-old former lawmaker and Crimean Tatar, was born in Uzbekistan and has been lauded for his work at the State Property Fund, overseeing state asset privatisation and combating corruption.

Reznikov had been effective in procuring arms from the West in multiple negotiations with Ukraine’s Nato allies. He was key in the talks to obtain the German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks and HIMARS rocket artillery that have been a boon to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Now Ukraine is poised to receive US-manufactured F-16 fighter jets, but still remains badly undersupplied with advanced weaponry and artillery shells.

The Pentagon has refrained from commenting on Reznikov's replacement, asserting that it's an internal matter for the Ukrainian government.

Reznikov's departure comes after months of media speculation following his departure following the various corruption scandals. Despite not being personally implicated, he faced calls to take political responsibility. Ukraine’s press speculates that he will be appointed Ambassador to the UK, one of Ukraine’s most ardent military supporters.

On the same day, Zelenskiy's office issued an order that a raft of mild medical conditions would no longer count as grounds for military service exemptions, including tuberculosis, HIV infections and mild mental illnesses among other conditions. Bankova also ordered all nurses, pharmacists and other medical services personnel, mostly women, to register with the military authorities for possible active service.

Another loophole that is being closed is a rule that students with two degrees are exempt from military service. Fedir Venislavsky, President Volodymyr Zelensky's representative in Parliament, has submitted a bill that would end mobilisation exemption for students over 30 who obtain two or more full-time university diplomas.

“During martial law, both the Constitution and international documents allow the restriction of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen,” Venislavsky said. According to Venislavsky, the number of students over the age of 25 studying from 2019 to 2021 in Ukraine reached about 40,000.

In just one year, this number increased to 106,000 students, some of whom are allegedly using a loophole in existing legislation to avoid mobilisation.

“This means that 60,000 men decided to use this opportunity to avoid being drafted into the military,” Venislavsky said as cited by the Kyiv Independent. 

Ukraine’s casualty figures are mounting, according to US intelligence reports, and the AFU is believed to have suffered heavy losses in the counter-offensive and is reportedly suffering from manpower shortages. According to a recent report in The New York Times (NYT) Ukraine has lost 70,000 men killed in action and over 100,000 wounded, which combined is just under a third of the fighting force of an estimated total of half a million men.

As reported by bne IntelliNews, the AFU has finally started to make progress in the counter-offensive on the southern front, after it changed tactics following a secret meeting  with Nato’s top commanders at the start of August; however, the Kyiv Independent posted a harrowing report from the northern front near Kharkiv of under-trained, under-equipped Ukrainian forces facing well-armed and well organised Russian forces that were keeping the AFU under intense pressure, as all the best equipment and soldiers appear to be concentrated on the southern front.

Russia is also suffering from manpower shortages and has also stepped up its recruitment drive. However, with three times the population, the Kremlin has a much larger pool of men to draw on and the Russian army is now estimated to contain 750,000 men.

Reluctant to conscript men into the army by force since the partial mobilisation that started in September last year, since June the Russian Ministry of Defence has been trying to attract citizens of neighbouring Central Asia to enlist to fight in Ukraine by offering high salaries. Armenia and Kazakhstan have both been the focus of military recruitment drives.