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Monday, March 27, 2023

Changing the Minister of Defense, a difficult choice for Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is considering changing his defense minister, Oleksiï Reznikov, against the backdrop of a new corruption scandal. The identity of his successor – the current director of military intelligence – had even been revealed. But that change was pushed back Monday. These hesitations can be explained by the importance of this position in the context of the war in Ukraine. Sunday evening, his fate was sealed. But on Monday morning, the future finally seemed much less bleak for Oleksiï Reznikov, the current Ukrainian Minister of Defense. No changes in the ministry would take place this week, according to a Ukrainian politician who preferred to remain anonymous, quoted by the Reuters news agency on Monday (January 6th).

However, barely 24 hours earlier, David Arakhamia, the leader of the presidential majority in Parliament, had detailed a specific reshuffle scenario. Oleksiï Reznikov was to cede his post to Kyrylo Boudanov, the current head of military intelligence, and take the head of the much less strategic Ministry of Strategic Industries.

Guilty silence?

It was supposed to be one of the most important political musical chairs operations of the current anti-corruption campaign which agitates the government and the Ukrainian political landscape. A change to a very sensitive wartime post that was to see one of the historic figures of the Zelensky government – ​​Oleksiï Reznikov has been in office since November 2021 – being replaced by a loyalist of President Zelensky who has enjoyed a meteoric rise for a year.

Uncertainty about Oleksiï Reznikov’s fate “illustrates how vulnerable Volodymyr Zelenskyy feels despite record popularity, and at the mercy of a shift in public opinion”, says Ryhor Nizhnikau, a specialist in Ukrainian politics at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Oleksiï Reznikov is not, in fact, personally implicated in a corruption affair, but he has become an “enemy to be killed for part of public opinion”, assures Ryhor Nizhhnikau.

At 56, the minister enjoyed until recently “a good reputation within the government”, underlines Ryhor Nizhnikau. When he took over as head of the Ministry of Defence, “it was an institution in poor condition, which malfunctioned and was rocked by several corruption scandals. As a minister, he fixed the situation and put his administration in a marching order to face the war against Russia. In this, he won the respect of Volodymyr Zelenskyy”, sums up this expert.

But a new corruption case came to shake the ministry on January 23, 2023. He was accused of having grossly overpaid contracts for the delivery of food to the army. Several members of Oleksiï Reznikov’s team were then suspected of having embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in this affair.

This scandal could not have come at a less opportune time for Oleksiï Reznikov. It comes as Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads a larger clean-hands operation, and the case touches on the war effort. “While everyone is trying to participate to the extent of their means in support of the troops at the front, there is a question of embezzled money which should have helped the soldiers who are fighting,” explains Ryhor Nizhnikau.

The outcry was immediate and Oleksiï Reznikov “was accused of letting it go and not having reacted strongly enough after the revelations”, notes Jeff Hawn, a specialist in the war in Ukraine and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitical research.

The diplomat vs the special forces man

The Minister of Defence, who until then enjoyed a rather flattering reputation as a reformist, was then relegated to the status of a vestige of an outdated political system where everything was a question of informal networks of influence, based on endemic corruption.

But Oleksiï Reznikov has retained powerful support, especially on the international scene. “The question is whether it is appropriate to replace a minister with whom the Western powers have learned to work and who had a rather good reputation, especially in Washington, at a pivotal moment in the war when it is necessary to prepare for a probable new Russian offensive”, underlines Ryhor Nizhnikau.

Not easy to find the right replacement either. Kyrylo Budanov, who seems to be the favorite of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has undeniable advantages. “He is a soldier who owes his political career to the current president, and as such, he is loyal to him,” says Ryhor Nizhnikau.

It was, in fact, Volodymyr Zelenskyy who made Kyrylo Budanov the head of military intelligence in 2020. At the time, this general was only 34 years old, which made him one of the youngest heads of the insight into Ukrainian history.

Age also plays in favor of Kyrylo Bogdanov. He belongs to the same generation as the Ukrainian president and can hardly be accused of being a man of the old political world, perverted by the practices of yesteryear. “There is also no corruption case that would have tainted military intelligence since he took the lead,” said Jeff Hawn.

His feats of arms also give him a certain prestige. He was part of the special forces and distinguished himself in Crimea and in the Donbass during the 2014 war. Kyrylo Bogdanov also escaped in 2019 a car bomb attack whose alleged perpetrators are Russian agents, according to the Ukrainian authorities. What reinforces its prestige with the Ukrainian public opinion?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy must also remember that he “was one of the few to warn him at the end of 2021 that Russia was going to declare war on Kiev”, underlines Ryhor Nizhnikau. Moscow has also officially accused Kyrylo Budanov of having organized the highly publicized bombing of the Kerch bridge between Crimea and Russia in October 2022 and of having carried out sabotage operations on Russian territory against military installations. So much success to his credit, in the eyes of Kiev, even if the main interested party refuses to confirm his involvement.

Target Crimea?

But Kyrylo Bogdanov also has a flaw: he is a soldier, which is legally incompatible with the function of Minister of Defense. “The Ukrainians wanted to make sure that this ministry did not fall into the hands of the military to avoid the excesses of the Soviet era”, underlines Jeff Hawn.

However, the obstacle is not insurmountable. Volodymyr Zelenskyy could make him his acting Defense Minister, “which would allow him not to have to ask Parliament for his opinion”, stresses Ryhor Nizhnikau. “Kyrylo Boudanov could also give up his military duties or Volodymyr Zelenskyy could request a derogation from Parliament which would probably be granted to him given his popularity”, notes Jeff Hawn. So many shenanigans that could be likened to a forced passage that opponents of Volodymyr Zelenskyy will not fail to recall the day when the president will no longer be at the top of the polls.

Above all, the appointment of Kyrylo Bogdanov would be a “very clear signal about Ukraine’s war objectives”, assures Jeff Hawn. For this specialist, the battle for this post could, indeed, determine the ambitions of Kiev vis-a-vis Russia. “Oleksiï Reznikov represents the choice of diplomacy: he is the man who will be able to negotiate a ceasefire. The appointment of Kyrylo Budanov would suggest that Kiev has opted for the maximalist option of total liberation war”, assures Jeff Hawn.

The current head of military intelligence has, in fact, never made a secret of his military ambition: to liberate the Donbass and take back Crimea in stride. “We must do everything to recover Crimea before the summer of 2023,” he said. at the Washington Post at the end of January 2023. Not sure that all Western allies are ready to follow Kiev in a war aimed at pushing the Ukrainian advantage to Sevastopol.

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