Ukraine: Why is Zelenskyy shaking up his administration?

Ukraine’s president suspends his spy chief and top prosecutor in Kyiv’s biggest internal purge during its war with Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suspended the head of the domestic security agency and the prosecutor general on Sunday [Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP Photo]

Two top Ukrainian officials have been suspended pending investigations but have not been formally dismissed, a senior presidential aide has said.

On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ivan Bakanov had been removed as head of the SBU domestic security agency and Iryna Venediktova had been removed as prosecutor general, citing dozens of cases of collaboration with Russia by officials in their agencies.

Here’s what we know so far:

Who are the suspended officials?

Bakanov, 47, is a childhood friend and former business partner of Zelenskyy. He helped run Zelenskyy’s media business during his television career and then led the campaign that saw Zelenskyy shift from playing the president on a sitcom to being elected in a landslide victory in real life.

Zelenskyy appointed him to head the Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba Bespeky Ukrayiny, or SBU) in August 2019.

Venediktova, 43, the first woman to serve as Ukraine’s prosecutor general, has won international praise for her relentless drive to gather war crimes evidence against Russia.

When she took office in 2020, Venediktova was tasked with implementing reforms to curb inefficiency and corruption in her office.

What did Zelenskyy say about the suspensions?

Zelenskyy said on Sunday that more than 60 of the suspended officials’ employees were working against Ukraine in Russian-occupied territory.

He said 651 criminal proceedings had been registered relating to high treason and collaboration by employees of prosecutor’s offices, pretrial investigation bodies and other law enforcement agencies.

“Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state … pose very serious questions to the relevant leaders,” Zelenskyy said. “Each of these questions will receive a proper answer.”

Andriy Smirnov, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said: “Six months into the war, we continue to uncover loads of these people in each of these agencies.”

What do analysts make of the move?

Doug Klain of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center told Al Jazeera that security breaches during the war are why Zelenskyy had lost confidence in his security chief since February, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Just today Ukraine’s [ex-head of Crimea’s SBU] was arrested on charges for high treason and passing intelligence to Russians. He’s one of many high officials in the intelligence services who have been charged with collaborating with the invaders,” he said.

As for Venediktova, Klain said she has been accused of failing to reform her office and of allowing bribery investigations to be sabotaged.

“For the prosecution of war crimes, that is one of the top priorities for Ukrainians and it’s something that the international community has taken very serious interest in aiding them with,” Klain said.

How unusual is this move?

Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, said it’s “unusual for Zelenskyy to make changes like this.

“Before the war, his cabinet was like a revolving door, but since the war started he has kept by and large the same group around him, including these two very senior figures,” Fisher said.

What happens now?

Acting heads of the two agencies have been appointed. On Monday Zelenskyy named Vasyl Maliuk, an experienced security official and corruption fighter, as the acting head of the SBU.

The day before, Zelenskyy replaced Venediktova with her deputy Oleksiy Symonenko as the new prosecutor general in a separate executive order published on the president’s website.

The two suspended officials are now under investigation.

Fisher said that “while there is no suggestion that either figure was actively working against Ukraine, this is more a question of accountability, a failure of leadership at their respective departments”.

Zelenskyy could ask Ukraine’s parliament to dismiss both officials from their posts, depending on the findings of the probe.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies