Zelensky seeks to strengthen Ukraine’s official ranks as Russian shelling continues

Relatives mourning beside coffin of fallen soldier
Relatives mourn Monday beside the coffin of a Ukrainian soldier killed by Russian troops.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

With Russian shelling across the country showing no signs of easing, Ukraine’s leaders Monday sought to strengthen their ranks after President Volodymyr Zelensky removed from office some of his most prominent officials because of alleged “poor performance” in clearing their agencies of “collaborators and traitors.”

Internal investigations and checks will be launched following the replacement of Ivan Bakanov, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, or SBU, and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, said Andriy Smirnov, deputy head of Zelensky’s office. Acting heads of the two agencies have been appointed in the meantime, officials said.

“Six months into the war, we continue to uncover loads of these people in each of these agencies,” Smirnov said of people suspected of collaborating with Russia.


Analysts said the personnel moves were designed to strengthen Zelensky’s control over the army and security agencies led by people appointed before the war began Feb. 24. The president needs an effective prosecutor general’s office and an effective SBU, said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst with the Penta Center think tank.

“In the conditions of a war, Zelensky needs leaders that are capable of tackling several tasks at the same time: to resist Russia’s intrigues within the country to create a fifth column, to be in contact and coordination with international experts, to do their actual job effectively,” Fesenko told the Associated Press.

Bakanov and Venediktova both have held key positions amid Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself from the Russian invasion and to hold attackers accountable for crimes against civilians during the war.

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Bakanov is Zelensky’s childhood friend and former business partner. Bakanov had come under growing criticism over security breaches since the war began, and reports have emerged in the last few months that Zelensky was looking to replace him.

Venediktova, the first woman to serve as Ukraine’s prosecutor general, has won international praise for her relentless drive to gather evidence against Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian officials and military commanders over the destruction of Ukrainian cities and the killing of civilians.

The 43-year-old former law professor has opened thousands of criminal investigations and identified hundreds of suspects while in office, interviewing victims while also coordinating her efforts with foreign donors and officials. When she took office in 2020, Venediktova started as a reformer tasked with curbing inefficiency and corruption in her office.


After appointing the acting chief prosecutor Sunday, Zelensky on Monday signed a decree naming the SBU’s first deputy head, Vasyl Maliuk, as the acting head of the agency. Maliuk, 39, is known for his efforts to fight corruption in the security agencies, and his appointment is seen as part of Zelensky’s efforts to get rid of pro-Russia staffers within the SBU.

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“Maliuk was fighting corruption within the SBU, so [he] has compromising materials on many staff members and can control the personnel, many of whom are looking in the direction of Russia,” political analyst Vadym Karasiov, head of the Global Strategies Institute, told the AP.

Fesenko, the political analyst, said that discontent with the two officials had been brewing for a while and that it was possible that Ukraine’s Western partners pointed out the underperformance of the SBU and the prosecutor general’s office to Zelensky.

Meanwhile, Russia pressed on with its attacks, which Ukrainian officials said were designed to intimidate the civilian population and sow panic.

Zelensky’s office said Monday that Russian shelling over the last day killed at least four civilians and wounded 13 others. Cities and villages in seven Ukrainian regions have suffered from the attacks, the update said.

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The highest number of civilian casualties was reported in the eastern Donetsk region, where the most intense fighting is focused at the moment. Two people were killed there and 10 others were wounded.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said the shelling of the region was incessant. Four strikes have been carried out on the city of Kramatorsk, he said, urging civilians to evacuate from the area.

“We’re seeing that the Russians want to sow fear and panic among the civilians — the shelling continues day and night,” Kyrylenko said in televised remarks. “The front line is moving, so civilians must leave the region and evacuate.”

The southern city of Mykolaiv was shelled Monday morning, while two people were killed and two others were wounded in the shelling of residential buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“The shelling either intensifies or dies down, but the Russian army doesn’t stop the fire on the Kharkiv region and keeps civilians in constant tension,” Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Sinegubov told Ukrainian TV.

Also Monday, a funeral was held at a monastery in Kyiv for a Ukrainian solider who was killed when his car hit a land mine near Izium on Thursday. His family was unable to bury him in their hometown in eastern Ukraine because it remains under Russian occupation.

The monastery was packed with mourners paying their last respects to the soldier, who was born in 1994. Whenever the priest paused during the service, the voice of the soldier’s mother echoed through the church.

’We will love you forever and ever. We will miss you so much,” she cried, caressing the closed coffin. “Why do we need to live in this cursed war?”

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Meanwhile, a new round of talks on the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports could take place in Turkey later this week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said.

Turkey last week hosted a meeting between United Nations officials and military delegations from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to discuss a U.N. plan that would allow Ukraine to export grains through the Black Sea and Russia to export grain and fertilizers. The date for the new meeting was not yet announced.

Some 22 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukraine because of the war.