Fighting on two fronts: Zelenskyy battles corruption and Russia

Ukraine restarts the war on graft, and Western nations promise battle tanks. Could the two events be linked?

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy
As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reshuffles his cabinet, aiming to root out corruption, he is awaiting the arrival of battle tanks he says are needed to win against Russia [Efrem Lukatsky/AP]

Kyiv, Ukraine – This has become the biggest political shake-up in wartime Ukraine – and it doesn’t seem to be over.

A slew of top officials have resigned or been sacked since Sunday after a Ukrainian newspaper reported a corruption scheme involving food supplies to the military.

The scandal was followed by a breakthrough in Ukraine’s search for a military Holy Grail – some of the world’s most sophisticated tanks from Germany whose arrival at the front lines may change the war’s odds.

The publication reported last week that food prices quoted in a Ministry of Defence contract it acquired were up to three times higher than in supermarkets in Kyiv.

“The rear front rats from the Defence Ministry steal more food from the armed forces than in peacetime,” the headline read.

Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov lambasted the publication, saying the prices were higher because of the logistical ordeals involved in delivering goods to the front lines.

He has kept his job, but heads began to roll, and the list of sacked officials is growing longer by the day.

It includes his deputy, a deputy head of the presidential administration, three other deputy ministers, five governors and five prosecutors in their regions, and two heads of government agencies.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko holds up a note written on a sheet of paper as he tenders his resignation, asking President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to relieve him of his duties [Kyrylo Tymoshenko via Telegram/via Reuters]
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, holds up his resignation letter asking Zelenskyy to relieve him of his duties on January 24, 2023 [Kyrylo Tymoshenko via Telegram/via Reuters]

Six of them have allegedly been involved in corruption, according to media reports and anti-corruption authorities.

Media outlets have speculated that three more ministers and even Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal may get pink slips.

“I want it to be clear – things won’t be the same anymore,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address on Sunday as he pledged a zero-tolerance approach to graft.

After the sackings began, Ukraine scored one of its biggest breakthroughs on the battlefield: Germany agreed to supply its advanced Leopard 2 battle tanks.

After months of refusals, resistance and deliberations, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged on Tuesday to provide 14 tanks and allow other European nations that have them to deliver them to Kyiv.

Leopards weigh more than 60 tonnes, fire 120mm shells and have two 7.62mm machine guns, one of which can hit aircraft.

Germany has sold hundreds of Leopard 2s to more than a dozen European nations as well as Canada and Indonesia. They have taken part in conflicts from Kosovo to Syria.

Leopard 2 interactive

Both Ukraine and Russia have used Soviet-designed tanks in the current war, which began in February.

Kyiv had pleaded for months for Leopards and other Western tanks and armoured vehicles, arguing they could be a game-changer in the worst armed conflict Europe has seen since World War II.

Ukraine’s supreme commander, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, reportedly said in December that he needed 300 tanks, 600 to 700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 Howitzers to push Russian forces back to Ukraine’s pre-war borders.

A possible connection

To an observer with extensive knowledge of both German and Ukrainian politics, there is no coincidence between the firings of Ukrainian officials and Germany’s pledge of tanks.

“This explosion [of dismissals] is too sudden and systemic at the same time,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.

He said German officials may have given their Ukrainian counterparts an ultimatum during January 20 talks of Ukraine’s allies at the Ramstein military base in Germany.

Dozens of nations pledged to boost their military aid to Ukraine at those talks, but Germany said it would withhold the tanks, shocking both Kyiv and Berlin’s allies.

“And after that, Ukrainian elites fell to a strong and sudden shake-up provoked by just one [newspaper] story,” Mitrokhin said.

President Zelenskyy
Zelenskyy speaks over video link with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a meeting of Ukraine’s allies at Ramstein Air Base in Germany [Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/handout via Reuters]

“Now everything is different,” Mitrokhin said. “The main owners of tanks and their producer achieved a serious agreement, plus the US that refused to supply tanks for some really unknown reasons is reconsidering its decision.”

On Tuesday, Washington also agreed to supply its M1 Abrams tanks and increase the production of heavy artillery shells for them sixfold.

The tanks are slightly superior to Leopard 2s but need constant upkeep and typically operate on jet fuel, not diesel like other tanks. Their crews also need extensive training.

“And as Germans like to tie together various matters in one big decision, one can’t rule out that the package included elimination of corruption in the military and in humanitarian commissions,” Mitrokhin said.

But Ukrainian pundits disagree.

“There are two reasons [for the dismissals] – either ineffectiveness or suspected corruption,” Igar Tyshkevych, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

The former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said the dismissals have nothing to do with the tanks.

Once found guilty, the corrupt officials “should face a much tougher punishment. There should be a swift investigation,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko told Al Jazeera.

The dismissals were “caused by the need to boost the effectiveness of administration and eliminate ‘corruption spots’ during the war”, Aleksey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Especially since there is a demand for it both within the [Ukrainian] public and from Western partners,” he said.

People walk in the street as smoke rises.
Smoke rises in the air after shelling in Odesa, Ukraine [File: Petros Giannakouris/AP]

Some Ukrainian servicemen have been cautiously warning that the food sent by Western allies has occasionally been stolen and ended up in civilian stores.

“You get a new batch of humanitarian aid and two days later see the same cans with the same logos in a nearby supermarket,” one serviceman told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

But the ongoing scandal is by far not Ukraine’s first.

Ukroboronprom, a state-run consortium of arms manufacturers that was mired in corruption, is undergoing serious reforms to increase transparency and accountability of its branches.

And back in 2019, an investigative report described how the son of then-President Petro Poroshenko’s childhood friend and ally Oleh Hladkovskiy organised a scheme to smuggle used military components from Russia and sell them to Ukraine’s military at double or even triple their price.

The scandal led to public protests and tanked Poroshenko’s approval ratings ahead of that year’s presidential vote.

Zelenskyy, a popular comedian with no background in politics, won the election, promising to root out corruption.

Source: Al Jazeera