Zelenskiy Swaps Defense Minister in Wartime Cabinet Shakeup

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced his most significant wartime cabinet shakeup yet, tapping a new defense minister as Kyiv ramps up an anti-graft crackdown and presses a grinding offensive in the country’s occupied south.

(Bloomberg) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced his most significant wartime cabinet shakeup yet, tapping a new defense minister as Kyiv ramps up an anti-graft crackdown and presses a grinding offensive in the country’s occupied south.

Zelenskiy named Rustem Umerov, the head of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, to replace Oleksii Reznikov, who has battled allegations of graft in military procurement by subordinates on his watch.

Reznikov, who has denied wrongdoing and informed the president this summer that he was overworked, shook up top positions in the ministry in February to weed out sleaze. He submitted his resignation on Monday, he said in a post on X, formerly called Twitter.

The UK government now expects him to be named as Kyiv’s ambassador to London, although the appointment has yet to be confirmed, according to people familiar with the situation. He wasn’t personally involved in corruption and isn’t under investigation, a person familiar with Ukraine’s graft probe said.

“I think the ministry needs new approaches and another format of cooperation with the military and with society,” Zelenskiy said Sunday in his daily video address. “The parliament will be asked to approve the decision this week.”

Zelenskiy has ramped up a crackdown on corruption, which remains a major concern for allies as they continue to pour weapons and cash into Ukraine to help it beat back Russia’s invasion, retake occupied territory and stabilize the war-ravaged economy.

The president fired all of the army’s top draft officers last month, following the dismissal of a number of lawmakers, including from his own party. A court also ordered the detention of Igor Kolomoiski, one of Ukraine’s richest men, for 60 days on suspicion of embezzlement. He has denied wrongdoing.  

Reznikov’s removal may help give Zelenskiy cover against concern that corruption is undermining the armed forces as Ukrainian soldiers fight Russia at the front.

Umerov, 41, has been praised by anti-corruption activists for his efforts to clean up graft at the State Property Fund.

He’s been involved in war-related talks, including about prisoner swaps and the grain deal that allowed Ukraine to export food via the Black Sea before Russia pulled out in July. A fluent Turkish speaker, he worked for the leader of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatars after Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014 and has focused on the protection of human rights of its indigenous people.

He also has extensive ties in Turkey and the Middle East, where countries often seek to play go-betweens with the Kremlin and Kyiv.

“If after a thousand visits there you are not treated as a brother, it means you might be some kind of wretch,” he said in an interview with Ukrayinska Pravda, referring to his dealings in Turkey. “Plus, I speak Turkish.”

US President Joe Biden, asked by reporters near his home in Delaware, said he’s aware that Zelenskiy intends to replace his defense minister. He declined to comment further.

Reznikov has faced increased pressure in recent weeks over allegations by activists and the media that the ministry overpaid for food and military uniforms. 

He has rejected the accusations, which have come at a critical time as Kyiv’s forces battle in a counteroffensive aimed at cutting off Moscow’s land bridge to Crimea in southern Ukraine.

“I believe it will not have an immediate impact on the battle field,” Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur of Estonia, which has donated more equipment to Ukraine in comparison with the size of its economy, said in an interview. “The responsibility of the minister is first and foremost to get western help to Ukraine. This is why I believe it’s more important for the new minister immediately to get into contact with the biggest allies.”

Officials from Ukraine and its allies have announced advances in the two-month campaign, and White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Friday that Ukrainian forces had made “notable progress.”

Last month, the president began a new round of talks with allies on weapons systems that could strengthen Ukraine’s defenses and boost a slow-moving offensive to take back land occupied by Russia.  

The US has committed almost $77 billion to Ukraine’s defense, and Biden has asked Congress to approve an additional $13 billion for Ukraine war costs as part of a $40 billion supplemental spending request.

Conservatives in the US House have threatened a government shutdown over the spending package and vowed to oppose any “blank check” for Ukraine. 

In February, Reznikov confronted speculation that he would be removed from his post after allegations that ministry officials were skimming money off food supplies for the army.

–With assistance from Stephanie Lai, Alex Wickham and Alberto Nardelli.

(Updates with Kolomoisky context, Estonian defense minsiter quote, starting in seventh paragraph.)

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