Russian spies in Ukraine and loss of key region: Zelensky turns heads

Russian spies in Ukraine and loss of a key region: Zelensky brings down heads


Infiltration of Russian spies and losses of a strategic region in the south: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fires his chief of security services and the general prosecutor, first major reshuffle since the beginning of the Russian invasion of his country.  

The announcement came on Sunday evening, first in the form of presidential decrees suspending the head of the security services (SBU) Ivan Bakanov, childhood friend of the head of the State, and Prosecutor Iryna Venediktova.

In his daily video address, Mr. Zelensky then criticized them for insufficient efforts in the fight against Moscow spies and collaborators. 

More than 650 investigations for “high treason” and “collaboration with Moscow are targeting Ukrainian prosecutors and law enforcement officials, which raises “very serious questions” about the two leaders, the president said. 

At his request, Parliament voted on Tuesday to dismiss Mr. Bakanov and Mrs. Venediktova.

“Everyone expected” from them “more tangible results” in the “cleansing of collaborators and traitors” infiltrated , detailed on Monday a deputy head of the presidential administration, Andriï Smyrnov. 

Negotiations undermined

“The president and his cabinet were not happy with the work of Bakanov and Venediktova” for a long time and the Russian invasion has further exacerbated the tension, Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fessenko told AFP. 

At least three senior SBU officials have been charged with high treason for Moscow in recent months. One of them, Oleg Koulinitch, sacked in March and arrested on Sunday, had been based in Kherson. 

Located at the gates of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea annexed by Moscow in 2014, this strategic region was very quickly occupied by Russian troops after the start of the invasion, which earned the government to be accused of having poorly prepared his defense. 

“Supposed to help Bakanov, this man collaborated with the Russian special services. It was a very serious failure, in my opinion it was the straw that broke the camel's back for Zelensky”, analyzes Mr. Fessenko. 

Zelensky also sacked the head of the SBU in this region, Serguiï Kryvoroutchko, at the end of March. Another regional SBU official is suspected of delivering secret minefield maps to the Russians that were supposed to prevent their advance, according to the head of the regional council. 

Mr. Zelensky announced a “managerial review” in the SBU on Monday evening, saying that 28 of his agents should be fired soon for “unsatisfactory results” and in the process sacking one of Bakanov's deputies. 

Ms. Venediktova notably led the investigation into the atrocities committed by Russian forces since the start of the invasion, in particular in the town of Boutcha, near Kyiv, which has become a symbol of Moscow's “war crimes” in Ukraine.

According to the influential news site Ukraïnska Pravda, she has drawn the wrath of the presidency by the media coverage deemed excessive of her activities but above all by the launch of rapid trials of Russian soldiers. 

These trials undermined the very difficult negotiations on the exchange of prisoners of war with Russia, a priority of President Zelensky, underlines the site.

Docile replacements

For many in Ukraine, however, this reshuffle looks like a maneuver to strengthen the head of state's control over the police, the successors of Mr. Bakanov and Mrs. Venediktova being considered more docile. 

Mr. Zelensky replaced the dismissed officials with their respective deputies – Vassyl Maliouk and Oleksiï Symonenko – by appointing them as interim. 

“It is clear” that these men “will carry out all the political orders” of the presidency, believes Tetiana Shevtchouk, an expert from the Ukrainian NGO Center for Action against Corruption, quoted by the Forbes Ukraine website.

While Ukraine, under pressure from the West, is about to have an independent anti-corruption prosecutor, the new public prosecutor will have the means to “block or cancel” the latter's decisions according to the wishes of the presidency, warns the director of this NGO, Vitaly Chabounine .