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‘I’m a lawyer working as defense minister’ Oleksiy Reznikov secured Western military aid for Ukraine, but he may soon have to step down
Since January, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky embarked on an ambitious overhaul of his ministerial cabinet and presidential staff. Oleksiy Arestovych, a communications advisor to the administration, was one of the first to leave. Eleven other senior officials and governors followed suit, including former Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov and deputy chief of staff Kyrylo Tymoshenko. By February, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, too, was rumored to be leaving his seat soon, admitting stoically to the press that “no official is eternal in his seat.” Ukrainian politics scholar Konstantin Skorkin explains what’s happening in the Ukrainian government, and what effect this will all have on Ukraine’s chances of winning the war against Russia.
Update: On February 15, 2023, Oleksiy Reznikov said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had asked him to stay on as Minister of Defense.
How Oleksiy Reznikov became defense minister, and why he may have to leave
Oleksiy Reznikov grew up and started his legal career in Lviv, where he worked with the country’s leading law firms on some of the landmark cases of recent Ukrainian history. In 2004 (the time of the Orange Revolution, provoked by the presidential election falsified in favor of Viktor Yanukovych), Reznikov was part of the legal team that represented the pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, compelling the Supreme Court to order a second vote, in which Yushchenko won by an eight-percent margin.
After the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, Reznikov became deputy mayor of Kyiv under Vitali Klitshchko, organizing the Kyiv Eurovision Song Contest in 2017. When Volodymyr Zelensky became president in 2019, Reznikov joined the staff of Andriy Yermak, who served as assistant to the president and later his chief of staff. In 2019–2020, Reznikov took part in the “three-way contact group” for regulating the Donbas conflict. Later, in 2020–2021, he served as the country’s vice-premier for reintegrating the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas. In November 2021, he was made defense minister.
Despite his purely civilian credentials, Reznikov applied himself extremely well in his new position, particularly in wartime. His great accomplishment was in building a rapport with Ukraine’s Western partners and organizing military aid to Ukraine. It was Reznikov who took part in the talks at Ramstein Air Base, which led to an agreement between Germany, Poland, and other NATO members to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
Reznikov knew how to establish good relationships, both with Ukraine’s Army command and with colleagues abroad. According to military expert Ivan Stupak, Reznikov can telephone U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at all hours, simply because the two of them “see eye to eye.” Similarly, he won over Ukrainian Chief of Command Valeriy Zaluzhny by making a “pact” with him: “We agreed,” Reznikov himself admitted, “that I wouldn’t lecture him on how to fight.” “I’m not an artillery man,” he confessed. “I’m an attorney, a lawyer working as defense minister.”
Reznikov’s career stumbled with a corruption scandal that began on January 21, when the Ukrainian news outlet Zerkalo published an investigation on army purchasing, exposing a procurement scheme in which the Defense Ministry paid double and triple the market prices for certain army provisions. Two days later, Reznikov responded to the publication, accusing the journalists of “manipulating” the facts at a critical moment just before the Ramstein meeting. Later, he would admit that this was a “communicative failure.” Nevertheless, anti-corruption activists accused the minister of protecting the scheme’s perpetrators.
On January 24, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, the deputy defense minister for supply, resigned from his post. Shortly afterward, Ukraine’s State Security Service arrested two entrepreneurs involved in the corrupt procurement scheme. Two other Defense Ministry officials are now under investigation, as well. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, formerly responsible for procurement, is also suspected of embezzling close to $3 million through the purchase of substandard bulletproof vests for soldiers. Volodymyr Tereshchenko, the deputy foreign trade coordinator, is similarly suspected of misappropriating $1.3 million in budgetary funds.
While Reznikov himself has not been accused of direct involvement, he admits responsibility for the actions of his employees and says that he is ready to leave his post if Zelensky orders it. The probability of his resignation is fairly high. Zelensky must remember the lesson of 2019, when corruption scandals in the Defense Ministry cost Petro Poroshenko his presidency, and when Zelensky himself promised voters that he would not permit such profiteering.
At the same time, Oleksiy Reznikov has a powerful patron in Zelensky’s office. Andriy Yermak is now trying to stall the process of Reznikov’s removal. Still, the war has sensitized Ukrainian society to corruption, and Zelensky will likely need to demonstrate resolve. The proximity of the rumored Russian offensive is another factor in the situation: once it begins, it will be too late for staff changes.
What about Kyrylo Budanov? Is he a good candidate for defense minister?
Reznikov’s likeliest successor as defense minister is the current head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov. The 37-year-old general has gained a great deal of popularity since the start of Russia’s invasion. His biography includes intelligence work in the Crimea and heading the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate since August 2020. In November 2021, Budanov predicted that Russia would launch an invasion in late January 2022. Although at that time Ukraine’s leadership treated his forecast with skepticism, Budanov’s stock rose considerably after February 24. The Ukrainian news outlet NV now lists him among Ukraine’s most influential military figures.
Budanov also has a good reputation abroad. His regular interviews with major publications like The Washington Post and ABC News suggest that he is capable of continuing Reznikov’s work of negotiating military aid from Western partners. The bigger question is where Budanov would be more valuable: as a negotiator at the Defense Ministry’s helm or in defense intelligence, where he is now.
But there is a further complication with appointing Budanov as defense minister. According to a law passed by Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada in 2018, only a civilian official can become defense minister. This means that, prior to this appointment, Budanov would have to retire from the military completely. The only alternative would be to amend the law itself. Either of these alternatives would take time, and it isn’t clear how long the two key defense organizations — the Defense Ministry and the Intelligence Directorate — can tolerate being without clear leadership, especially in wartime.
What else is happening with Zelensky’s administration?
Ferment in the Defense Ministry is provoking conflicts inside the Zelensky administration. Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak favors keeping Reznikov at the helm of the Defense Ministry, while the head of Zelensky’s own party, Davyd Arakhamia, backs Budanov. (It was Arakhamia who preemptively announced Budanov’s successorship as a fait accompli.)
Arakhamia may hope to increase his own political clout by shaping high-level cadre decisions, possibly to counter the parliament’s diminished role in wartime Ukrainian politics. Political scientist Yuriy Romanenko also suggests that Arakhamia and his Defense Ministry appointee Yury Gusev may not be on the warmest terms with Oleksiy Reznikov.
In any event, this kind of friction around the defense minister’s post is indicative of serious turbulence in the administration, where consolidation in the early days of the invasion has given way to something quite different: cadre chaos and a struggle between interest groups.
On the eve of another anticipated Russian offensive, Zelensky is trying to impose order on his team through an anti-corruption campaign, hoping to reinvigorate the administration and meet the expectations of both Ukrainian society and the country’s military partners abroad. Given the volumes of incoming U.S. and European military supplies, it is critical to show that this aid will go exactly where it’s intended, instead of being funneled off by corrupt officials.
One way or another, changes in the Defense Ministry aren’t likely to be finalized this week: before new leadership is confirmed, there are behind-the-scenes conversations still to be had.
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