Changing of the guard in Kyiv Corruption in high office poses a danger to Ukraine’s vital relations with Western partners
Towards the end of the Russian invasion’s first year, a score of high-profile resignations were announced among Ukraine’s top officials, abruptly and in close succession. No sooner did Oleksiy Arestovych step down from his media advisor’s position on Zelensky’s team, than the Deputy Chief of Staff Kyrylo Tymoshenko also had to resign. Other staffing changes rippled through the Ukrainian ministries and regional administrations, amidst corruption scandals that struck the public as particularly flagrant in time of extraordinary hardships for most Ukrainians. Even more serious is the possible effect of corruption among Ukrainian officials on Kyiv’s relations with its partners in the West, whose military aid is vital to Ukraine’s capacity to win the war with Russia. The scholar of Ukrainian politics Konstantin Skorkin reviews the events that led to staffing changes in and around Zelensky’s office, explaining why unity is now less important for the Ukrainian government than uncompromising integrity, on all levels.
Why Tymoshenko had to go
Kyrylo Tymoshenko had a special place on Zelensky’s team. Born and raised in Dnipro, he made a successful media career, working as a journalist, producer, and political consultant. Back in 2014–2015, he was on the staff of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, then-governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. In the 2019 presidential election, Tymoshenko joined Zelensky’s campaign, creating the famous “Think” video, in which Zelensky challenged his opponent Petro Poroshenko to debate him at the Kyiv Olympic stadium.
As the deputy head of the President’s Office, Tymoshenko still managed strategic communications — but the spectrum of his powers grew, and so did his political clout. It was Tymoshenko who coordinated Zelensky’s ambitious program for renovating Ukraine’s transportation and social infrastructure. He was also in charge of the administration’s relations with the regions and local governance, including city councils and mayors’ offices. Tymoshenko was regularly featured in the various ratings of Ukraine’s most influential people. In 2021, for instance, the Ukrainian magazine Focus placed him eleventh among Ukraine’s most popular public figures.
The war made Tymoshenko a key member of Zelensky’s inner advisory circle. He contributed to the administration’s key decisions, and managed the efforts to rebuild damaged infrastructure.
But in the second half of 2022, Tymoshenko was regularly embroiled in scandal. At first, in August, he was implicated in machinations with humanitarian aid, which had been uncovered in Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau launched an investigation, which led to the exposure of a profiteering scheme involving Zaporizhzhia Governor Oleksandr Starukh and Tymoshenko himself as the point man in the President’s Office.
Then, in October, Tymoshenko was spotted driving an SUV donated by General Motors for evacuating civilians from areas adjacent to the combat zone. Although forced to acknowledge the abuse of office and give up the car, a month later he was driving the latest electric Porsche model. On inquiry, its title turned out to be in the name of Vemir Davityan, another political connection from Zaporizhzhia. Next, it emerged that Tymoshenko had moved into a lavish mansion that belonged to one of Ukraine’s biggest construction tycoons, Ihor Nikonov. Although Tymoshenko claimed he’d moved there “for safety reasons,” this failed to elicit the sympathy he might have hoped for.
The cumulative effect of all these revelations was that, on January 23, Tymoshenko was finally forced to submit his resignation. The following day, President Zelensky approved his request to step down. The message was clear: no one, not even the president’s inner circle, is exempt from responsibility, regardless of prior service record.
Falling like dominoes
Tymoshenko’s resignation started a chain reaction in the government, resulting in the removal of six different officials at the level of deputy minister.
Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who answered for the army supply, resigned amidst a scandal involving purchasing provisions for the army at double and triple the market prices. On the eve of his resignation, the Ukrainian media outlet Zerkalo Nedeli cited some documents obtained from the Defense Ministry, claiming that officials had colluded with an obscure distributor to embezzle funds allocated to the Ukrainian military. When the journalists outed the scheme, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov accused them of deliberately undermining the ministry’s credibility on the eve of the Ramstein talks with NATO partners.
Another corruption scandal involved the Deputy Infrastructure Minister Vasily Lozinsky, charged with taking a bribe to assist a scheme for purchasing generators at prices above market. Lozinsky is now under house arrest.
As for Oleskiy Symonenko, Ukraine’s deputy prosecutor general, he left his seat after Ukrainska Pravda revealed that he’d spent his vacation in Spain, traveling there in a car that belonged to the Lviv entrepreneur Grigory Kozlovsky, and also under the protection of Kozlovsky’s armed convoy. This and other cases of the Ukrainian elites enjoying a good time abroad during the war finally prompted the National Security and Defense Council to ban Ukrainian officials from all foreign travel apart from official business.
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Verkhovna Rada now plans to remove several officials, whom Tymoshenko put in charge of wartime administrations in different parts of Ukraine. There are also rumors of other possible lame ducks: Energy Minister German Galushchenko, Youth and Sport Minister Vadym Gutzeit, and Strategic Industry Minister Pavlo Riabikin. Even Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who has been in office since 2019, is now bruited to be in danger of removal.
A signal to Western partners
Since the early days of the Russian invasion, Zelensky’s team showed remarkable unity, which, incidentally, had no precedent in the administration’s pre-war days. Nearly all officials remained in office, all joining the intensive effort to defend Ukraine. But as warfare moved into a chronic phase, that monolithic power structure began to show its cracks.
The wartime economy presented many new opportunities for looting the military’s budget. Meanwhile, officials’ special privileges have become more conspicuous in the context of mobilization and martial law. Hardship has sensitized Ukrainian society to abuses of power.
In spite of wartime limitations on freedom of speech, Ukrainian media and NGOs haven’t stopped exposing cases of blatant corruption. In this situation, Zelensky must assure Ukrainians that their officials will not be permitted to luxuriate at a time when ordinary people suffer. He must also assure Ukraine’s foreign partners that corruption will not be tolerated, and that their military aid will not be misappropriated by the Ukrainian elites. This is why the European Commission’s approval in the current wave of dismissals probably matters a great deal to Kyiv.
The key question of this ongoing anti-corruption campaign is not so much about the future of Denys Shmyhal as about the fate of the Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, who has, up till now, enjoyed Zelensky’s confidence and stood behind many of the key cadre decisions. Although Yermak’s position seems fairly stable at the moment, the past weeks have shown that this is no reason to think of him as irreplaceable.