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Ukrainian corruption scandal costs top officials their jobs

By ANDREW MELDRUM - Associated Press | Jan 24, 2023

In this undated photo Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Viacheslav Shapovalov pose for a photo in Kyiv, Ukraine. Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov resigned, local media reported Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, alleging his departure was linked to a scandal involving the purchase of food for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Office via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Several senior Ukrainian government officials lost their jobs as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought Tuesday to contain a burgeoning corruption scandal amid the nearly 11-month-old Russian invasion.

The high-level shakeup came as Poland formally requested permission from Germany to transfer a modest number of its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. Germany builds the high-tech armor and Warsaw needs Berlin’s permission to send them to a non-NATO country.

Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long plagued by graft, and the new allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight against Moscow.

The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, quit as Zelenskyy pledged to address allegations of graft — including some related to wartime spending — that embarrassed authorities and could slow Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO.

Tymoshenko asked to be relieved of his duties, according to an online copy of a decree signed by Zelenskyy and Tymoshenko’s own social media posts. Neither cited a reason for the resignation.

Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov also resigned, local media reported, alleging his departure was linked to a scandal involving the purchase of food for Ukraine’s armed forces. Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko also quit.

In all, four deputy ministers and five regional governors were set to leave their posts, the country’s cabinet secretary said on the Telegram messaging app.

Authorities did not announce any criminal charges against the outgoing officials. There was no immediate explanation.

The departures thinned the government’s wartime ranks as Zelenskyy already had lost his interior minister, who oversaw Ukraine’s police and emergency services, and others in the ministry’s leadership in a helicopter crash last week.

Tymoshenko joined the presidential office in 2019, after working on Zelenskyy’s media and creative content strategy during his presidential campaign.

He was under investigation relating to his personal use of luxury cars and also was among officials linked in September by an investigator working with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine to the embezzlement of humanitarian aid worth more than $7 million earmarked for the southern Zaporizhzhia region. He has denied all the allegations.

On Sunday, a deputy minister at the infrastructure ministry, Vasyl Lozynsky, was fired for being part of a network allegedly embezzling budget funds.

Lozynsky was relieved of his duties after Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency detained him while he was receiving a $400,000 bribe for helping to fix contracts related to restoring facilities battered by Russian missile strikes, according to Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov.

In his nightly video address Sunday, Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s focus on the Russian invasion would not stop his government from tackling corruption.

“I want to be clear: There will be no return to what used to be in the past,” Zelenskyy said.

Analysts say he wanted to send a message that corruption won’t be tolerated.

Zelenskyy “really does a lot in order to get the support from Western countries,” said Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, a nonprofit organization that fights corruption.

“And it’s very hard to save the country when there’s a lot of corruption,” he told The Associated Press.

Last June, the EU agreed to put Ukraine on a path toward membership in the bloc. In order to join, countries must meet economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.

Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO, too, but the military alliance is not about to offer an invitation, because of the country’s contested borders, defense establishment shortcomings and, in part, its corruption issues.

Meanwhile, the delivery of an expected 14 Leopard tanks from Poland appeared to be a foregone conclusion, with the main outstanding question being when it will happen.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Sunday that Berlin wouldn’t seek to stop Poland providing the versatile tanks to Kyiv if it asked, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday the Poles — and other Western allies he didn’t identify — are already training Ukrainian soldiers in Poland on the Leopards.

German officials confirmed to the dpa news agency they had received the Polish application and said it would be assessed “with due urgency.”

Poland is a leading advocate in the EU for giving military aid to help Ukraine. Though Germany has become one of Ukraine’s main weapons suppliers, other Western allies — especially Poland and the Baltic countries on NATO’s eastern flank that feel especially threatened by Russia — have shown impatience with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s perceived slowness to act.

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak appealed to Germany “to join the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks” — a reference to pressure on Berlin to send some of its own tanks. Germany has hesitated to take that step, despite Ukraine’s pleas.

“This is our common cause, because it is about the security of the whole of Europe!” Błaszczak tweeted.

Morawiecki aimed another political broadside at Berlin.

“I hope the response from the German side comes quickly this time, because the Germans are lingering, dodging, acting in a way that is difficult to understand,” Morawiecki said. He claimed Germany was unwilling to defend Ukraine more broadly, speculating: “Does it mean fear, some not entirely comprehensible dread or faith that a return to normal relations with Russia is possible?”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for the speedy delivery of new weapons to Ukraine, where a broad battlefield stalemate in winter is expected to give way to new offensives in the spring.

“At this crucial moment in the war, we need to provide Ukraine with heavier and more advanced systems, and we need to do it faster,” Stoltenberg said Tuesday after talks with German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius in Berlin.

Polish officials have indicated that Finland and Denmark are ready to join Warsaw in sending Leopards to Ukraine. Poland wants to send a 14-strong company of the tanks, but these would barely make an impression in a war that involves thousands of tanks. If other countries contribute, Warsaw reckons, the tank detachment could grow in size.

Also on Tuesday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto suggested his country may consider joining NATO without neighboring Sweden if Turkey continues to block their joint bid to enter the military alliance. Although he later backpedaled, his comments were the first time a leading government official in either Nordic country appeared to raise doubts about becoming NATO members together at a time when the alliance is seeking to present a united front in the face of the war in Ukraine.

Sweden and Finland rushed to apply for NATO membership following Moscow’s invasion, abandoning long-standing nonalignment policy. Their accession needs the approval of all existing NATO members, including Turkey, which has so far blocked the expansion, saying Sweden in particular needs to crack down on exiled Kurdish militants and their sympathizers.

In other developments:

Ukraine’s presidential office said at least five civilians were killed and seven others were wounded over the previous 24 hours. One Russian rocket hit a school in eastern Ukraine, killing one person, Donetsk region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Russian forces shelled nine towns and villages in the northern Sumy region, which borders Russia, hitting a house where a woman was killed and three other people were wounded, Gov. Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said on Telegram.

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