Operation ‘carte blanche’ : Ukraine’s new defence minister cleans house

Six Ukrainian deputy defence ministers were dismissed on Monday, September 18, a clean sweep that comes just two weeks after a new minister has taken the reins. The fight against corruption is not the only cause of this upheaval in one of Ukraine’s most strategic ministries. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the factors behind the overhaul.  

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All six of Ukraine’s deputy defence ministers were dismissed on Monday, September 18, by new Defence Minister Rustem Umerov, according to a message posted on Telegram by the Ukrainian government’s secretary general, Oleh Nemchinov. Even Hanna Maliar, the high-profile deputy minister who had held her position since 2021, did not escape the purge. 

No official reason was given for this decision, but “a complete overhaul is underway”, reported media outlet Oukraïnska Pravda, citing an anonymous government source. 

Cleaning out the stables 

The reports suggest that the dismissals are part of Roustem Umerov’s effort to clean out the stables following the departure of Oleksiy Reznikov, his predecessor who is now mired in a series of corruption scandals. 

Ukraine’s defence ministry has long had a reputation as a hotbed of corruption, and Oleksiy Reznikov was primarily accused of not having done enough to put an end to the problem. Roustem Umerov, a loyal follower of President Volodymyr Zelensky who was appointed to the post at the beginning of September, is likely trying to make a name for himself and mark a new departure. 

Ryhor Nizhnikau, a specialist in Ukrainian politics at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, is not entirely convinced by this justification for the purge: “This is not about anti-corruption. Some of them came in recently with good reputations and were given tasks that had to do with fighting corruption.” 

Others, like Hanna Maliar, have never been seriously accused of dipping into the coffers, even as their every move is closely scrutinised due to the high-profile nature of their positions. “Hanna Maliar was the face of the ministry, and at some point was a good candidate for the role,” says Nizhnikau.  

Satisfying the West

“[Hanna Maliar] was considered as a possible challenge from the inside that Umerov got rid of,” adds the analyst, for whom the sweep was above all a show of political strength. “Umerov simply wants to show that Zelensky has given him ‘carte blanche’ to change things, and that’s what he does by reshuffling the ministry,” says Nizhnikau. The new deputy ministers have not yet been officially named. 

The move can also be seen as a gift from Umerov to Zelensky, who is due to address the UN in person for the first time since Russia’s invasion on Tuesday, September 20. “Zelensky … can now say at the UN assembly: ‘Look at all we are doing to fight against corruption’,” says Nizhnikau. 

At the same time, Volodymyr Zelensky can use the reshuffle to call on Ukraine’s donors to be more patient. He “can buy more time with donors, because he can say that they now have to wait to see the results” of the new appointments, notes Nizhnikau. 

However, the clean sweep is also a risky decision in the context of the ongoing counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Oumerov arrived at the defence ministry without any military experience, and will now be without the main collaborators who could have explained the workings of the ministry to him. “It’s nonetheless a bit of a worrying sign: the first thing this guy with no prior military experience (Umerov) does is firing everyone who could have helped him to learn the tasks of his job,” Nizhnikau says.

There is also the need to train the new deputy ministers who will be appointed. The transition period is likely to slow the decision-making process in the ministry of prime strategic importance to the war effort – in particular, it is responsible for handling the shipment of ammunition and other military equipment to the front. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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