Ukraine sacks army recruitment chiefs in anti-graft shakeup

KYIV (Reuters): President Volodymyr Zelenskiy broadened his battle against graft on Friday, firing all the heads of Ukraine’s regional army recruitment centres as the war with Russia enters a critical stage.

Zelenskiy said a state investigation into centres across Ukraine had exposed abuses by officials ranging from illegal enrichment to transporting draft-eligible men across the border despite a wartime ban on them leaving the country.

He said 112 criminal cases had been opened in a wide-ranging probe launched after a graft scandal at a recruitment office in Odesa region last month. He used harsh rhetoric likely to be welcomed by Ukrainians appalled by cases of wartime corruption.

“This system should be run by people who know exactly what war is and why cynicism and bribery during war is treason,” he said, adding that those fired would be replaced by recent veterans and soldiers wounded at the front.

Ukraine has made cracking down on graft a priority as it fends off Russia’s full-scale invasion and seeks membership of the European Union and has fired or prosecuted a string of high-ranking officials implicated in sleaze.

Friday’s move comes at a particularly sensitive moment for Kyiv with its long-touted counteroffensive hampered by extensive Russian defences across swathes of the southeast.

Zelenskiy said that any sacked army recruitment officers who are not being investigated should head to the front to fight for Ukraine “if they want to keep their epaulettes and prove their dignity”.

“But let me emphasize: the army is not and never will be a substitute for criminal punishment. Officials who confused epaulettes with perks will definitely face trial,” he said in his statement.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed or wounded in fighting since Russia invaded in February 2022.

Ukraine has increasingly faced recruitment challenges as the war, now in an brutally attritional phase, nears the 18-month mark. The military has been occasionally hit by scandals involving graft or heavy-handed recruitment tactics.

Last month, the head of the Odesa region’s recruitment centre was ordered into pre-trial detention on suspicion of illegal enrichment. Ukrainian media reports found his family had acquired lavish property in Spain.

Videos purporting to depict army recruiters aggressively pursuing or becoming violent with would-be draftees have gone viral on social media in the country, which has been under martial law since the invasion.

Zelenskiy said top general Valery Zaluzhny would be responsible for implementing Friday’s decision and that new candidates for the posts would first be vetted by Ukraine’s domestic security service, the SBU.

Despite recent moves against graft, Ukraine still ranks 116th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index.

A Transparency-commissioned opinion poll in June found that 77% of Ukrainians believe corruption is among Ukraine’s most serious problems.

Zelenskiy was elected in 2019 on a campaign pledge to stomp out graft.