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Zelensky’s purge

Zelensky’s purge

Ukraine’s president has removed two top government officials citing many cases of treason in the two powerful organisations they led. What impact have the collaborators had and how serious is the problem?

“Good health to you, fellow Ukrainians! Today I was informed of the results of another operation against criminals who worked for the enemy”

President Volodomyr Zelensky speaking in his nightly address

In his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, President Volodomyr Zelensky said he’d just been informed of the results of an operation that had uncovered Russian collaborators in the State Bureau of Investigation and Security Service.

“President Zelenskyy has sacked his security chief and also top prosecutor, over accusations that some members of their departments were collaborating with Russia.”

BBC News

It was later clarified that Ivan Bakanov and Iryna Venediktova had not been fired by the president, just removed pending an investigation, but they were later dismissed by the country’s parliament.

Both were longtime supporters of Volodymyr Zelensky and worked on his presidential campaign. Neither have been accused of being collaborators themselves.
Ivan Bakanov was even Volodomyr Zelensky’s childhood friend and ran the TV production company which made Servant of the People – a political satire in which the current president played a fictional president.

[Clip from Servant of the People]

So how did someone who worked in TV become the head of Ukraine’s spy agency? And how big is this problem for President Zelensky?

***

“Kyiv remains in Ukrainian control but the southern port of Kherson has become the first major city to be taken.”

BBC News

When the southern port city of Kherson fell to Russia at the beginning of the invasion, some claimed the operation to defend it had been deliberately sabotaged, and blamed Russian collaborators in the city’s security force.

They pointed to the failure to destroy a strategic bridge over the Dnipro river that may have slowed or even stopped the advance of Russian troops.

And one Ukrainian security officer was arrested in Serbia shortly after Kherson fell, having escaped Ukraine with hundreds of thousands of euros and two emeralds in his suitcase.

But now President Zelensky believes there’s a wider network of collaborators inside the security service and state bureau of investigation, citing hundreds of cases of treason in the two powerful organisations.

***

Ivan Bakanov’s firing has received particular attention, because it raises questions about Voldymyr Zelensky’s own judgement.

When he was elected in 2019 he appointed scriptwriters, TV producers and lots of his old friends to government positions – and Ivan Bakanov was one of them. First becoming deputy head of the Ukrainian security service, and then, eventually, its spy chief. 

In the face of criticism President Zelensky promised it represented a fresh start for Ukraine and that by surrounding himself with people he trusted, he hoped to rid the country of years of corruption.

“We fight this corruption, we fight with this, we fight each day.”

President Volodomyr Zelensky being interviewed on Amanpour and Company

Ukraine’s security service is a huge organisation that hasn’t changed much since the country became independent from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Because of its historic relationship with its neighbour, it’s long had problems with its spies collaborating with Russia. 

Ivan Bakanov promised to fix that within three years, but clearly he failed and now he’s gone.

By removing his old friend, President Zelensky wasn’t just acknowledging that he hadn’t delivered on his promise to rid the agency of collaborators. He also inadvertently admitted that it was a mistake to appoint people with no experience to top government positions.

The new spy chief is a man called Vasyl Maliuk, a former deputy head of the security service, who led the anti-corruption and organised crime unit. So he comes to the role with far more knowledge of what needs to be done than Ivan Bakanoov did. 

And the appointment of someone with that kind of experience sends a message that the president wants to root out corruption and Russian collaborators.

“I think there probably has been a sense here for a long time that the Russians have infiltrated this state, that they have been working to undermine it from the inside, and it’s obviously something President Zelensky’s trying to deal with.”

BBC News report

And by identifying the enemy within, he can do what many leaders do when they’re on the backfoot in a war – blame some of his setbacks on them as well.

Today’s episode was written by Lily Isaacs and mixed by Imy Harper.