Why Ukraine’s backers are selling defense chief’s exit as a victory

TBILISI, Georgia — Ukraine’s strongest supporters are rallying around Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to remove the country’s wartime defense minister after a series of corruption scandals have plagued the ministry. 

Kyiv’s backers say Zelensky’s ousting of Oleksii Reznikov is a sign that Ukraine views the fight against corruption as a necessary part of its war to push out Russia’s invading forces.

And they are softening blows against Reznikov, pointing out that the minister was not directly implicated in any of the corruption scandals, and he is reportedly being considered for a senior diplomatic posting.

“There’s no indication Reznikov had a problem with corruption; he had a problem with the ministry,” William Taylor, the vice president of the Russia, Ukraine program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Monday at an international conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. 

“It has to be clear that there is no tolerance for corruption; it has to be clear this is part of a broader effort … the anticorruption institutions in Ukraine are now succeeding.” 

Taylor added that he was exchanging messages Monday with Reznikov. “He says his wife is very happy that he’s not in that same job. But he also has great confidence in Minister [Rustem] Umerov,” Taylor said, referring to Zelensky’s replacement pick. 

Taylor was speaking at a conference rallying support for Ukraine and other victims of Russian aggression, titled “Defeating Putinism,” where his sentiments were widely shared.

But critics are likely to seize on the Ukrainian government shake-up as another example of what they say is endemic corruption, which underscores their opposition to military and financial support to the country. 

Lawmakers in Washington are considering a request from President Biden for $24 billion in aid for Ukraine, part of a $40 billion supplemental budget request. A small but vocal group of Republican lawmakers oppose aid for Ukraine, spurring some concern in Europe about ongoing American support for Kyiv. 

“People who are dead set against helping Ukraine are going to do what they always do, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, this just shows that Ukraine hasn’t changed,” said Tom Malinowski, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey and now a visiting fellow with the McCain Institute, one of the co-sponsors of the conference.

“But in fact, it shows just how much Ukraine has changed. Five or 10 years ago, the idea that a defense minister would be fired because something bad happened on his watch, even though he himself wasn’t responsible for it, would be unbelievable.” 

Zelensky’s announcement Sunday that he would be replacing Reznikov came after months of speculation about Reznikov’s future. 

Reznikov outlasted a potential firing in February after an investigation in January revealed that the Ministry of Defense was overpaying for the purchase of food at between two and three times its normal price. A deputy defense minister and a procurement officer were reportedly arrested connected to the food scandal. 

And then in April, an investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty found more price gouging for food provisions.  

Further, The New York Times reported in June that Ukraine had paid contractors hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons that were not delivered. Some of that money was clawed back, the Times reported.  

Reznikov said in July he would take steps to address corruption over the procurement of food in his ministry. 

But last month, an investigation by the Ukrainian publication ZN.UA revealed that the ministry had overpaid for more than 200,000 light-weight coats that were deemed unfit to protect soldiers for winter. Ukraine paid $20 million to import the coats from Turkey, and ZN.UA reported that the ministry overpaid by three times the actual price.

In ideal conditions, there is no place for corruption in highly developed and democratic state. Unfortunately we’re living not in an ideal world,” Alexander Shulga, chargé d’affaires of the Ukrainian Embassy in Georgia, said on a panel at the conference. 

“In such circumstances for Ukrainians, state of war, with zero tolerance to corruption and with fighting against corruption in Ukraine, all these steps are essential for our future victory over Russian Federation.”

Kurt Volker, distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, said that it was not Reznikov’s “job to micromanage the ministry procurement process. People below him are in charge of that.”

Reznikov’s firing is “many things at once,” he added. It’s Zelensky demonstrating that he’s taking accountability, that he’s paying attention to corruption issues and willing to make changes. 

“It’s a chance for Reznikov to do something else after 18 months leading the Ministry of Defense in wartime,” he added.  

Rebecca Harms, a German politician who served as a member of parliament for the European Union, described the corruption scandals in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as deadly serious, but echoed the view that Reznikov’s dismissal signaled steps towards accountability.  

It is a good sign that even in this horrid war Ukrainian journalists are doing their job. And it is another good sign that the president draws the right conclusions,” she said. 

If the scandals around procurement would not lead to consequences for the leadership in the Ministry this would become a burden for the brave men and women who are risking their lives for their country.”

She added that it’s also important for Zelensky to signal to Ukraine’s international supporters that “war is not an excuse for neither mismanagement or corruption.”

Zelensky said Sunday that he had decided to replace Reznikov because the ministry “needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large.”

He nominated Umerov, a Ukrainian parliamentarian member of the political party “Voice”, and who is from the minority community of Crimean-Tatar, Muslims. 

“The fact that Ukraine has a Jewish president who appointed an ethnic minority Muslim defense minister, tells you a lot about what Ukraine is. This is a patriotic country, but one in which patriotism isn’t based on ethnicity or religion. It’s based on an idea. It’s based on democracy,” Malinowski, the former Democratic congressman, said. 

Reznikov is reportedly being considered to serve as ambassador to the United Kingdom, replacing the previous ambassador, Vadym Prystaiko, who was fired by Zelensky in July.

The president’s office did not give a reason for Prystaiko’s dismissal at the time, but that came after the former ambassador gave an interview where he said Zelensky’s criticism of western supporters at the NATO Summit was not “healthy.”  

Volker, of CEPA, said that Reznikov’s reported consideration for the London diplomatic posting shows Zelensky still holds him in his confidence.  

“Offering him another position shows they are happy with him,” Volker said.

Disclosure: The author had her travel and accommodation paid for by the conference, which was sponsored by The McCain Institute, The George W. Bush Institute and the Economic Policy Research Center.

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