On Sunday September 3rd, Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky replaced Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov with a 41 year old former lawmaker named Rustam Umerov. Since Russia’s invasion of February 2022 Ukraine’s military and Ministry of Defense have been “dogged by corruption allegations,” and Reznikov’s dismissal was a supposed signal to the United States that the Ukrainian government takes reform seriously and is deserving of continued aid.
But Zelensky’s move to calm concerns invites a lot of uncomfortable questions.
Why did it take so long for him to take action against corruption among his own appointees and close colleagues? Though Zelensky has largely shielded Reznikov, his tenure is well known to have been beset with bribery, theft, and other abuses. Half a dozen deputy ministers were deemed unfit to remain in their roles following his dismissal. If Zelensky was oblivious of their behavior over the last 18 months he is utterly incompetent. If he was aware and did not act he is guilty of being complicit. Neither explanation reflects well on a man trying to prove his trustworthiness.
Secondly, what does this mean for Kyiv’s ongoing counteroffensive? More than three months after the beginning of the long awaited spring campaign there has been little success. The purge in the Defense Ministry might as well be an admission of failure. It certainly undercuts official pronouncements of steady progress, and it seems unlikely the firings would have even happened if things were going well at the front.
And what does this mean for Ukraine’s war effort overall? The ouster of senior defense officials at this point says they were expendable and suggests they lacked much value let alone ability. Incoming Defense Minister Umerov, with no military background, is now charged with the task of hiring competent and effective deputies to manage the reversal of the stasis that has plagued the front line for almost a year.
The past ten months of grinding battle have yielded virtually no gains for Kyiv aside from the capture of a number of villages and small towns. Not since Russia’s forced withdrawal from Kherson last November has there been a significant move in Ukraine’s favor.
A new direction is badly needed, and it remains to be seen whether Umerov is any more effective or less corrupt than his predecessors. The situation is less than confidence inspiring.
Kyiv’s position is further evidence General Mark Milley was correct last fall when he said Ukraine should enter negotiations, as it then had the upper hand. But the White House forced him to backtrack, and Ukraine squandered its best chance for peace. Russia has since fortified its defenses, mobilized and trained fresh troops, all while tightening its grip on the territories it occupies. By contrast Ukraine is running out of troops and is arguably in its worst position since the first months of the war.
The entire matter of cleaning out the Ministry of Defense reeks of desperation, and hours after Reznikov’s removal the desperation was on full display. The Ukrainians claimed a Russian drone detonated in Romania during an overnight attack on the port town of Izmail, near the Ukraine-Romania border. Reacting as if the debris found in Romania was the result of anything but an accident or an interception by their own air defense, the Ukrainians showed themselves desperate to drag Romania, and by extension the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), further into the fight. The Foreign Ministry immediately called for NATO to speed up the delivery of modern missile systems to help Ukraine enhance the security of the bloc.
Shortly after that footage appeared online showing a destroyed Challenger II main battle tank smoldering on a roadside in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhia region. The tank, 14 of which were supplied by the United Kingdom in January, was billed as a key element to Ukraine’s counteroffensive and is among the world’s most sophisticated military vehicles. It has seen service with the British Army in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, but its destruction in Ukraine marked the first time in history a Challenger II was lost in combat. A rather unpleasant reminder of how NATO is already involved.
The decision to send British and other Western tanks was a controversial one preceded by much debate and deliberation. Many critics called it a dangerous escalation in the proxy war between the West and Russia, but officials in Britain and other countries that have armed, funded, and trained the Ukrainians since before February 2022 have long rejected that characterization out of hand. They maintain that the war is just between Ukraine and Russia, and that the Ukrainian president decides where, when, and how it is conducted. The West and NATO are only supporting Ukraine, not engaging in its own undeclared war on Russia.
It looks as if Ukraine’s own national security secretary disagrees with their narrative however.
Speaking alongside former CIA Director David Petraeus at the Kyiv Security Forum on Tuesday September 5th, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Alexei Danilov opined that World War III has already begun. He then plainly stated “if somebody thinks [the war] is about settling scores between Kyiv and Moscow then it’s a mistake. Things are much more complicated.” It was a stunning statement. A senior Ukrainian official all but confirmed what critics have been saying for a year and a half. Principally that Ukraine is not a fully independent actor.
At their most charitable Danilov’s words could be interpreted as simply explaining Ukraine is one part of a broader anti-Russian coalition. At their least charitable they could be interpreted as suggesting Ukraine could not choose to negotiate with Russia even if it wanted to. Ultimately there can no longer be any question if the conflict is a proxy war. Even the Ukrainians are saying so.
All indications are that the Biden administration is satisfied with Zelensky’s anti-corruption gestures and treating matters like business as usual. A new $24 billion aid package is before Congress and Zelensky was honored with a visit to the White House during his trip to the US last week. But the first few days of September reveal it is anything but business as usual in Ukraine. And it seems only an outnumbered group of Congressional Republicans is asking any questions at all.
Jack Stevenson holds a BA in history. He recently started a Substack called Foreign Entanglements.