By Tom Balmforth and Oleksandr Kozhukhar
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said personnel changes were being made at senior and lower levels following the most high-profile corruption allegations since the Russian invasion that threaten to dampen Western enthusiasm for the Kiev government.
Reports of a new scandal in Ukraine, which has a long history of shaky governance, come as European countries squabble over giving Kiev German-made Leopard 2 tanks – the workhorse of armies across Europe that Ukraine says it must break through the Russian lines and recapture territory.
“There are already personnel decisions – some today, some tomorrow – regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and law enforcement,” Zelenskiy said in his late-night video address on Monday.
Zelenskiy, who has not identified the officials to be replaced, said his plans include tighter controls on travel abroad for official assignments.
Several Ukrainian media have reported that cabinet ministers and senior officials could be fired in the short term.
On Sunday, anti-corruption police said they had detained the deputy infrastructure minister on suspicion of receiving a $400,000 bribe for generator imports last September, an allegation the minister denies.
A newspaper investigation accused the Department of Defense of overpaying suppliers for food for soldiers. The supplier has said it made a technical error and no money has changed hands.
David Arakhamia, head of Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, said officials should “focus on the war, help victims, cut bureaucracy and stop dubious business”.
“We will definitely be actively jailing this spring. If the humane approach doesn’t work, we’ll do it in accordance with martial law,” he said.
‘SPRING WILL DECIDE’
At the front, the front lines have been largely frozen for two months, despite heavy casualties on both sides.
Ukraine says Western tanks would give its ground forces the firepower to breach Russian defenses and resume their advance. But Western allies have failed to agree on arming Kiev with tanks, fearing moves that could escalate Moscow.
Berlin, which must approve Leopard re-exports, has said it is ready to act quickly if there is a consensus among allies.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose country borders Ukraine, said Warsaw would seek permission to send Leopard tanks to Kiev and tried to get others on board.
Germany is not blocking the re-export of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, the European Union’s top diplomat said on Monday.
US lawmakers have urged their government to export M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine, saying even a token number of European allies would help do the same.
Britain has said it will provide 14 Challenger 2 tanks. French President Emmanuel Macron said he is not ruling out the possibility of sending Leclerc tanks.
Moscow tried to apply its own pressure.
“All countries that directly or indirectly participate in pumping weapons into Ukraine and raising the technological level bear the responsibility” for continuing the conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Ukraine and Russia are both planning spring offensives to break the deadlock in what has become a war of attrition in eastern and southern Ukraine.
“If the major Russian offensive planned for this time fails, it will mean the downfall of Russia and Putin,” Vadym Skibitsky, deputy chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said in an interview with news site Delfi.
One person was killed and two injured in Russian shelling of a residential area of the city of Chasiv Yar on Monday that damaged at least nine high-rise buildings, Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said on Telegram.
“The Russians are deliberately terrorizing and killing the civilian population. And they will pay a high price for that,” he said.
Reuters could not independently verify battlefield reports.
‘ACT AGAINST THE WEST’
In the 11 months since invading Ukraine, Russia has shifted its rhetoric on the war from an operation to “denazify” and “demilitarize” its neighbor to a defense against an aggressive West. Kiev and its Western allies speak of an unprovoked act of aggression.
On Monday, the new general in charge of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine warned that modern Russia had never seen such an “intensity of military hostilities,” forcing it to conduct offensive operations.
“Our country and its armed forces are today acting against the entire collective West,” Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov told the news website Argumenty i Fakty.
Military reforms, announced in mid-January, could be adapted to respond to threats to Russia’s security, including Sweden’s and Finland’s aspirations to join NATO and “the use of Ukraine as a tool for waging a hybrid war against our country,” he said.
Ukraine imposed sanctions on 22 Russians associated with the Russian Orthodox Church for what President Zelensky said was their support of genocide under the cover of religion.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; written by Costas Pitas and Himani Sarkar; edited by Stephen Coates)