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Ukraine shakes up wartime leadership amid corruption allegations

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Ukraine dismissed more than a dozen senior officials including governors of several major battlefield provinces on Tuesday in the biggest shakeup of its wartime leadership since Russia’s invasion last year.

Separately on Tuesday, a long-awaited decision on whether allies could send German-made heavy tanks to Ukraine finally confronted Berlin, after Poland said it had formally sent its request to the German government.

U.S. officials said Washington was also moving toward supplying some of its tanks to Kyiv.

Among Ukrainian officials who resigned or were dismissed on Tuesday were the governors of the Kyiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and adjacent Dnipropetrovsk are front-line provinces now, while Kyiv and Sumy were major battlefields earlier in the war.

A deputy defence minister, a deputy prosecutor, a deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office and two deputy ministers responsible for regional development were among the others who left.

Corruption allegations

Some, though not all, had been linked with corruption allegations. Ukraine has a history of graft and shaky governance, and is under international pressure to show it can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western aid.

“There are already personnel decisions — some today, some tomorrow — regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and in law enforcement,” Zelenskyy said in an overnight video address.

Zelenskyy aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted: “The president sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand: justice for all.”

A Ukrainian soldier looks out of an APC during combat training in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Kateryna Klochko/The Associated Press)

The purge came two days after a deputy infrastructure minister was arrested and accused of siphoning off $400,000 US from contracts to buy generators — one of the first big corruption scandals to become public since the war began 11 months ago.

The Defence Ministry said Deputy Defence Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, responsible for supplying troops, had resigned to retain trust after what it called untrue media accusations of corruption. It followed a newspaper report that the ministry overpaid for food for troops, which the ministry denied.

The prosecutor’s office gave no reason for the sacking of Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko, who had been under fire in Ukrainian media for taking a holiday in Spain. Though Zelenskyy did not name any officials in his address, he announced a new ban on officials holidaying abroad.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy chief of staff in Zelenskyy’s office, announced his own resignation, also citing no reason. He had helped run the president’s 2019 election campaign and more recently had a role in overseeing regional policy.

As the shakeup unfolded in a series of announcements, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a cabinet meeting that Ukraine was making progress in its anti-corruption campaign.

“It is systemic, consecutive work, which is very needed for Ukraine and is an integral part of integration with the EU,” he said.

Decision time on tanks

Poland’s announcement that it had officially asked for Berlin’s permission to export German-made tanks to Ukraine appears to leave German Chancellor Olaf Scholz little room to continue putting off a decision in the main debate among allies over how best to support Ukraine.

“I hope that this answer from Germany will come quickly, because the Germans are delaying, dodging, acting in a way that is difficult to understand,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference. “We can see that they do not want to help Ukraine defend itself in a wider way.”

A German government spokesperson said: “We will treat the proceedings with the urgency they deserve.”

WATCH | Poland says it’s ready to send battle tanks to Ukraine:

Poland says it’s ready to send battle tanks to Ukraine

Poland has said it will send German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine regardless of whether Berlin chooses to enforce an agreement that can prohibit their export to third countries.

Two U.S. officials, meanwhile, told Reuters the United States appeared to be dropping its opposition to sending some of its M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. While the Abrams is considered less suitable than the Leopard for Ukraine due to its heavy fuel consumption, the move could encourage Germany to follow suit.

Kyiv has pleaded for months for Western tanks, which its says it desperately needs to give its forces the firepower and  mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and recapture occupied territory in the east and south.

Scholz’s Social Democrats have held back, wary of moves that could spur Russia to escalate the war, and what they see as a risk of the NATO alliance being drawn into the conflict.

Germany’s Leopards, fielded by armies across Europe, are widely seen as the best option, available in large numbers and easy to deploy and maintain. But Germany has so far resisted pressure to pledge any of its own Leopards, and until now had said its allies had yet to formally request permission to send theirs.

“The Germans have already received our request for permission to transfer Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine,” Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak wrote on Twitter.

“I also appeal to the German side to join the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks. This is our  common cause, because the security of the whole of Europe is at stake!”

The chief of staff of Germany’s military said that whether to send tanks was a political decision. A senior official said the choice lay ultimately with Scholz and his cabinet.

WATCH | In one region of Ukraine, the schoolhouse is a makeshift tent with internet:

In one region of Ukraine, the schoolhouse is a makeshift tent with internet

Young boys in the embattled Ukrainian region of Kharkiv have cobbled together an outdoor school, because it offers the key to connecting with their teachers: the internet. Much of Kharkiv’s infrastructure has been destroyed by Russian bombing.

“At the end of the day, the decision will obviously be taken at the chancellery, in consensus by the government,” Tobias  Lindner, state secretary at the foreign ministry, said at a defence conference in Berlin organized by Handelsblatt.

Front lines in the war have been largely frozen in place for two months despite heavy losses on both sides. Russia and  Ukraine are both widely believed to be planning offensives. A Ukrainian official said the upcoming spring and summer would be decisive.

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