Fighting on two fronts: Zelenski fights against corruption and Russia | War news of Russia and Ukraine

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

Scores of top officials have resigned or been fired since Sunday after Ukrainian newspapers reported a corruption scheme involving food supplies to the military.

The scandal was followed by progress in Ukraine’s quest for the military’s Holy Grail – some of the world’s most sophisticated tanks from Germany whose arrival on the front lines could change the course of the war.

The publication reported last week that the food prices listed in the Defense Ministry contract it procured were up to three times higher than in supermarkets in Kyiv.

“Back Front MoD Rats Steal More Food From Armed Forces Than In Peace,” read the headline.

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov criticized the publication, saying the prices were higher because of the logistical hassles involved in delivering goods to the front lines.

He kept his job, but heads began to roll, and the list of dismissed officials is getting longer every day.

It includes his deputy, the 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 Timoshenko holds a message written on a piece of paper as he tenders his resignation, asking President Volodymy Zelensky to remove him from office [Kyrylo Tymoshenko via Telegram/via Reuters]
Kyrylo Timoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, holds his resignation letter asking Zelensky to remove him from office on January 24, 2023. [Kyrylo Tymoshenko via Telegram/via Reuters]

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

The media speculated that three more ministers and even Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal could receive pink slips.

“I want to be clear – things will not be the same again,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address on Sunday, pledging a zero-tolerance approach to corruption.

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

After months of rejection, resistance and deliberation, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised on Tuesday to secure 14 tanks and allow other European states that have them to deliver them to Kiev.

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

Germany has sold hundreds of Leopard 2s to more than a dozen European countries, as well as Canada and Indonesia. They participated in conflicts from Kosovo to Syria.

Leopard 2 interactive

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

For months, Kyiv has pushed for Leopards and other Western tanks and armored 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.

Possible connection

For an observer with extensive knowledge of German and Ukrainian politics, there is no coincidence between the firing of Ukrainian officials and the German promise of tanks.

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

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

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

“And after that, the Ukrainian elites fell to a strong and sudden earthquake caused by only one [newspaper] story,” said Mitrokhin.

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

“Everything is different now,” Mitrokhin said. “The main tank owners and their manufacturer have reached a serious agreement, plus the US, which refused to supply the tanks for some really unknown reasons, is reconsidering its decision.”

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

The tanks are slightly better than the Leopard 2, but require constant maintenance and usually run on jet fuel, not diesel like other tanks. Their crews also need extensive training.

“And since the Germans like to connect different things in one big decision, the possibility that the package included the elimination of corruption in the army and in the humanitarian commissions cannot be ruled out,” said Mitrokhin.

But Ukrainian experts disagree with that.

“There are two reasons [for the dismissals] – or inefficiency or suspected corruption,” Igar Tyshkevych, an analyst from Kiev, told Al Jazeera.

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

Once found guilty, corrupt officials “should face much more severe punishment. A quick investigation should be carried out,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko told Al Jazeera.

The layoffs were “caused by the need to increase the efficiency of the administration and remove ‘spots of corruption’ during the war,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kiev-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Especially because there is a demand for it internally as well [Ukrainian] public and from Western partners,” he said.

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

Some Ukrainian soldiers cautiously warn that food sent by Western allies is occasionally stolen and ends up in civilian stores.

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

But the ongoing scandal is not the first in Ukraine.

Ukroboronprom, the state-run arms producer consortium mired in corruption, is undergoing serious reforms to increase the transparency and accountability of its subsidiaries.

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

The scandal led to public protests and lowered Poroshenko’s approval rating ahead of that year’s presidential election.

Zelenskyy, a popular comedian with no political background, won the election by promising to eradicate corruption.

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