Ukraine sent mixed messages over the fate of its defense minister on Monday, leaving a key post in its war effort in doubt even as it braces for a new Russian offensive.
The questions left dangling over Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov were the first public sign of serious disarray in Ukraine‘s wartime leadership, until now remarkably united during almost a year of all-out Russian military assault.
A day after announcing that Reznikov would be sidelined, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to row back for now, saying no personnel changes in the defense sector would be made this week.
David Arakhamia, chief of the parliamentary bloc of Zelensky’s party, had said the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, would take over the defense ministry, while Reznikov would be made minister of strategic industries.
But Zelensky remained silent on the issue, while Reznikov said on Sunday he had not been informed of any move and would reject the strategic industry job if offered it.
The confusion caps a two-week purge of the Kyiv leadership, the biggest shakeup since the Russian invasion. Central and regional officials have been swept from office, security forces raided the home of a billionaire, prosecutors announced a huge fraud case at the biggest oil company and refinery, and ex-officials have been stripped of citizenship.
Zelensky has touted the crackdown as an opportunity to demonstrate that Kyiv can be a safe steward of billions of dollars of Western aid. But it risks destabilizing the leadership after nearly a year in which Kyiv’s political class had solidly united against Russia’s invasion.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have been advancing for the first time in six months in relentless battles in the east. A regional governor said Moscow was pouring in reinforcements for a new offensive that could come as soon as next week.
‘EVERYTHING WILL BE RESOLVED’
Reznikov, a 56-year-old lawyer, has been the face of Ukraine at international meetings when allies have pledged billions of dollars in arms and has been warmly received in Western capitals including Paris just last week.
Although there have been investigations into corruption at the defense ministry, most notably accusations that it signed a contract to overpay for food for troops, he has not been personally accused of any wrongdoing.
Two senior lawmakers on Monday noted the defense minister must be a civilian – an apparent obstacle to his immediate replacement by Budanov, a 37-year-old military officer.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta think tank, said he expected Budanov to request retirement from the military before his appointment, while Reznikov could be given a post of special envoy, making use of his stature abroad.
Reznikov said on Sunday that any decision on a reshuffle was up to Zelensky, but that a planned transfer to a new ministry was news to him. As for the proposed strategic industry post, “I would refuse it, because I do not have the expertise,” Reznikov was cited as saying by Ukrainian Fakty ICTV online media.
Budanov, identified by Arakhamia as Reznikov’s replacement, is an enigmatic young officer decorated for his role in secret operations, who rapidly rose through the ranks to head up the military’s Main Directorate of Intelligence.
OFFENSIVE AT ANY TIME
The war is reaching a pivotal point as its first anniversary approaches, with Ukraine no longer making gains as it did in the second half of 2022 and Russia now pushing forward with hundreds of thousands of mobilized reserve troops.
Ukraine is planning its own counter-offensive, but waiting on promised Western battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
Russia could launch the new attack for “symbolic” reasons around the first anniversary of its invasion, but its resources are not ready from a military point of view, Reznikov, told a news conference on Sunday.
“Despite everything, we expect a possible Russian offensive in February. This is only from the point of view of symbolism; it’s not logical from a military view. Because not all of their resources are ready. But they’re doing it anyway,” he said.
Russia’s main target has been the town of Bakhmut, where Russian state media said on Monday the Wagner mercenary group had gained a foothold, citing Denis Pushilin, the Russian-backed chief in Ukraine‘s Donetsk region.
A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside Bakhmut said on Sunday night that Ukrainian forces were still in control of the town, although more Russian forces were appearing daily.
“Reinforcements are also arriving for us. As far as I know the intention isn’t to surrender Bakhmut,” he said.
The United States and other Western governments have pledged billions of dollars in new military assistance including tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to help Ukraine withstand a new attack as well as to help Kyiv launch a counteroffensive.
“Not all of the Western weaponry will arrive in time. But we are ready. We have created our resources and reserves, which we are able to deploy and with which we are able to hold back the attack,” Reznikov said.
ZELENSKY URGES BAN OF RUSSIAN ATHLETES FROM OLYMPICS
Ukraine has sent letters to companies that back the International Olympic Committee urging them to keep Russian athletes out of the Paris Olympic Games, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday.
Zelensky has been spearheading a drive to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in the games under a neutral flag. Zelensky has said their presence would normalize Russia’s invasion of his country and make “terror” acceptable.
“Ukraine has sent appropriate letters to the companies that provide the biggest support for the International Olympic Committee,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
“These are large international companies who clearly have an interest in ensuring that their reputation and support is not used for war propaganda.”
The IOC said in late January that the Olympic Council of Asia had offered Russian and Belarusian athletes the chance to compete in Asia, drawing an outcry from Kyiv which has called for Russian athletes to be banned over Russia’s invasion.
The committee said later it was standing by sanctions imposed against Russia, which invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago, and Belarus whose authorities provided support for the invasion.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters