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Zelensky Says He’ll Replace Oleksii Reznikov as Ukraine’s Defense Minister


President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that he was replacing his minister of defense, the biggest shake-up in the leadership of Ukraine’s war effort since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February last year, citing the need for “new approaches” as the war stretches toward a second year.

The fate of the defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, had been the subject of increasing speculation in Ukraine as financial improprieties in the ministry came to light and the government started several investigations into official corruption.

Mr. Zelensky said in a statement that Mr. Reznikov, who has not been personally implicated in the widening investigations into mishandling of military contracts, would be replaced by Rustem Umerov, the chairman of Ukraine’s State Property Fund. Mr. Zelensky said he expected Ukraine’s Parliament, which must approve the change, to sign off on his request.

“Oleksii Reznikov has gone through more than 550 days of full-scale war,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement announcing his decision on Sunday night. “I believe that the ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large.”

The decision to replace Mr. Reznikov atop the Defense Ministry comes as Ukraine is in the midst of a major counteroffensive that has made grinding progress in recent weeks, slowly gaining territory in the south and the east. Last week, Ukrainian officials said they had captured the southern village of Robotyne, suggesting that the offensive had penetrated the first layer of minefields, tank traps, trenches and bunkers Moscow has deployed between Ukraine’s forces and Russian-occupied Crimea.

The shake-up arose from an understanding that Ukraine will need new leadership as the war drags on, from Mr. Reznikov’s own requests to step down and from the din of criticism from Ukrainian civil society groups and media over the contracting scandals, said an official in the president’s office, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the dismissal.

Mr. Umerov, a former investment banker, was tapped to replace Mr. Reznikov even though he served in Parliament for Holos, a party in opposition to Mr. Zelensky’s government. He is a Crimean Tatar, a member of the ethnic group persecuted under Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.

There was no immediate comment from Mr. Reznikov, who has repeatedly faced questions about his future in recent weeks, including about whether he would move to a diplomatic role, ambassador to Britain. Mr. Zelensky’s announcement made no mention of any future assignment for Mr. Reznikov.

Mr. Reznikov had won praise for negotiating the transfer of vast quantities of donated Western weaponry under the Ramstein talks with allies, named for the city in Germany where they began last year. He oversaw the expansion of the army and its transition from an arsenal of Soviet-legacy armaments to Western systems even as his country was under attack.

Ukraine’s army rebuffed Russia’s invasion with foreign military assistance limited mostly to shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons in the first month of the war, but has since incorporated a wide-ranging arsenal of Western heavy weaponry. In its counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions in the country’s south, Ukraine relies on U.S. and European armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and guided rockets.

But the Ministry of Defense has been buffeted this year by a string of allegations of mishandling military contracting and corruption as its budget ballooned during the war. At one point, $986 million worth of weaponry the ministry had contracted for was undelivered by dates specified in contracts, according to government figures. Some deliveries are months late.

Ukrainian investigative journalists have found other woes with military contracting, seeming to show huge overpayments for basic supplies for the army such as eggs, canned beans and winter coats.

Mr. Reznikov had said the ministry was suing to recoup money lost in the weapons contracts. Government officials have said many of the problems had arisen in the early, chaotic days of the war in Ukraine’s frantic scramble to buy weapons and ammunition and have since been fixed. Two ministry officials — a deputy minister and head of procurement — were arrested over the winter after the reports of overpriced eggs.

Even so, the contracting scandals prompted calls for Mr. Reznikov’s resignation.

Last week, the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with three high-ranking Ukrainian officials to discuss efforts to stamp out wartime corruption, as some critics of the war in the United States have used graft as an argument for limiting military aid to Ukraine. Mr. Sullivan met the heads of a specialized investigative agency, prosecutorial office and court set up with help from the United States after Ukraine’s Western political pivot in the Maidan street uprising in 2014.

But it appears that the change was not anticipated. As of Friday, Mr. Reznikov was scheduled to visit the Pentagon this later this week to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III. The two men had regular contact and spoke “relatively frequently,” according to a U.S. official who spoke on background as the news was breaking on Sunday. It is believed that they last met in person at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.

Corruption has plagued Ukraine for most of its post-independence history but had improved over the past decade, according to assessments by Transparency International, a global anti-corruption group. Mr. Zelensky campaigned on an anti-corruption platform before winning the presidency in 2019, and efforts to fight graft have been widely acknowledged as crucial to Ukraine’s efforts to move closer to its Western allies, including its hopes of joining the European Union.

In recent weeks, Mr. Zelensky has stepped up measures against wartime graft, firing all the country’s recruitment officers after bribery scandals and proposing a law that would punish corruption as treason under martial law.

In May, the head of Ukraine’s Supreme Court was detained in a bribery investigation. And on Friday, Ukrainian media reported that and a court set bail at more than $25,000 for a former deputy minister of economy accused of embezzling humanitarian aid.

The allegations dogging the ministry are not related to Western weapons transfers but to domestic weapons procurement, which is not directly financed by aid from allies. These countries transfer weapons and ammunition directly to the Ukrainian army while financial aid is directed to nonmilitary spending. Ukrainian tax revenues fund defense procurement, where the accusations of mismanagement arose.

In an earlier shake-up last summer, Mr. Zelensky had dismissed the director of his domestic intelligence agency and prosecutor general, also in the wake of allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Carol Rosenberg and Daniel Victor contributed reporting.


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