Ukraine sent mixed messages over the fate of its defence minister on Monday, leaving a key post in its war effort in doubt even as it braces for a new Russian offensive.
The questions left dangling over Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov were the first public sign of serious disarray in Ukraine’s wartime leadership, until now remarkably united during almost a year of all-out Russian military assault.
A day after announcing that Reznikov would be sidelined, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to row back for now, saying no personnel changes in the defence sector would be made this week.
David Arakhamia, chief of the parliamentary bloc of Zelenskiy’s party, had said the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, would take over the defence ministry, while Reznikov would be made minister of strategic industries.
But Zelenskiy remained silent on the issue, while Reznikov said on Sunday he had not been informed of any move and would reject the strategic industry job if offered it.
The confusion caps a two-week purge of the Kyiv leadership, the biggest shakeup since the Russian invasion. Central and regional officials have been swept from office, security forces raided the home of a billionaire, prosecutors announced a huge fraud case at the biggest oil company and refinery, and ex-officals have been stripped of citizenship.
Zelenskiy has touted the crackdown as an opportunity to demonstrate that Kyiv can be a safe steward of billions of dollars of Western aid. But it risks destabilising the leadership after nearly a year in which Kyiv’s political class had solidly united against Russia’s invasion.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have been advancing for the first time in six months in relentless battles in the east. A regional governor said Moscow was pouring in reinforcements for a new offensive that could come as soon as next week.
Reznikov, a 56-year-old lawyer, has been the face of Ukraine at international meetings when allies have pledged billions of dollars in arms, and has been warmly received in Western capitals including Paris just last week.
Although there have been investigations into corruption at the defence ministry, most notably accusations that it signed a contract to overpay for food for troops, he has not been personally accused of any wrongdoing.
Two senior lawmakers on Monday noted the defence minister must be a civilian – an apparent obstacle to his immediate replacement by Budanov, a 37-year-old military officer.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta think tank, said he expected Budanov to request retirement from the military before his appointment, while Reznikov could be given a post of special envoy, making use of his stature abroad.
“Everything will be resolved,” Fesenko told Reuters.
Ukraine’s defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment regarding Reznikov and Reuters could not immediately reach Reznikov or Budanov directly.
In announcing plans for the change, Arakhamia said Ukraine’s armed forces should be overseen by people with a background in defence or security in wartime: “War dictates changes in personnel policy,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
But Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak noted on Sunday that Reznikov was respected by allies: “Reznikov was extremely efficient in terms of communication with our partners. And this is a very important component in this case.
“Negotiations are not just mathematical formulae but also personal relationships. And trust. Unfortunately, today we are losing a measure of trust in us,” Podolyak said.
Reznikov said on Sunday that any decision on a reshuffle was up to Zelenskiy, but that a planned transfer to a new ministry was news to him. As for the proposed strategic industry post, “I would refuse it, because I do not have the expertise,” Reznikov was cited as saying by Ukrainian Fakty ICTV online media.
Budanov, identified by Arakhamia as Reznikov’s replacement, is an enigmatic young officer decorated for his role in secret operations, who rapidly rose through the ranks to head up the military’s Main Directorate of Intelligence.
The war is reaching a pivotal point as its first anniversary approaches, with Ukraine no longer making gains as it did in the second half of 2022 and Russia now pushing forward with hundreds of thousands of mobilised reserve troops.
Ukraine is planning its own counter-offensive, but waiting on promised Western battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
Russia was sending more reserves and equipment into eastern Ukraine, Serhiy Haidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region said on television, adding that shelling was no longer round-the-clock as Russian forces prepare for a full-scale offensive.
“After Feb 15 we can expect (this offensive) at any time,” he said.
Russia’s main target has been the town of Bakhmut, where Russian state media said on Monday the Wagner mercenary group had gained a foothold, citing Denis Pushilin, the Russian-backed chief in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside Bakhmut said on Sunday night that Ukrainian forces were still in control of the town, although more Russian forces were appearing daily.
“Reinforcements are also arriving for us. As far as I know the intention isn’t to surrender Bakhmut,” he said.