Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday he had decided to replace his defence minister, setting the stage for the biggest shake-up of the country’s defence establishment since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
In his nightly video address to the nation, Zelenskyy said he would dismiss Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and would ask Parliament this week to replace him with Rustem Umerov, head of the country’s main privatisation fund.
Reznikov, defence minister since November 2021, has helped secure billions of dollars of Western military aid to help the war effort, but has been dogged by graft allegations surrounding his ministry that he has described as smears.
The decision comes amid a crackdown on corruption in Ukraine that Zelenskyy has been keen to emphasise. Kyiv has applied to join the European Union and the public has become highly sensitive to corruption as the war rages with no end in sight.
“I’ve decided to replace the Minister of Defence of Ukraine. Oleksii Reznikov has been through more than 550 days of full-scale war,” Zelenskyy said.
“I believe the ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society as a whole,” he said.
Zelenskyy said he expected Parliament to approve Umerov’s appointment, adding that Umerov “does not need any additional introduction”. Zelenskyy has to submit Umerov’s candidacy to Parliament for review.
A 41-year-old ex-lawmaker and Crimean Tatar, Umerov has headed Ukraine’s State Property Fund since September last year and played a role in sensitive wartime negotiations on, for instance, the Black Sea grain deal.
He has been praised in Ukraine for his track record at the State Property Fund, which oversees the privatisation of state assets and had been embroiled in corruption scandals before he took charge.
RAPPORT WITH THE WEST
During the war, Reznikov’s defence ministry lobbied the West to overcome various taboos on supplying powerful military kit to Ukraine, including everything from German-made main battle tanks to HIMARS multiple-launch rockets. Kyiv now looks poised to receive US-made F-16 fighter jets soon.
Western military aid has played a crucial role in the war, as Ukraine first forced back Russian troops around the capital Kyiv before launching counteroffensives in the northeast and south.
Its troops are now fighting through heavily-mined areas and Russian defensive lines to try to recapture territory in the southeast and east.
An English-speaker, Reznikov is seen as having built up a strong rapport with allied defence ministers and military officials.
One member of Parliament has tipped him as Ukraine’s possible new ambassador to London.
His apparent exit appears to bring an end to months of domestic media pressure that began in January when Reznikov’s ministry was accused of buying food at inflated prices.
Though he was not personally involved in the food contract, some Ukrainian commentators said he should take political responsibility for what happened.
Last month, a Ukrainian media outlet accused his ministry of corruption during the procurement of winter coats for the army. Reznikov denied any wrongdoing and repeatedly said he was being targeted by a smear campaign.