PRECARIOUS POSITION Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov speaks during a news conference in the capital Kyiv on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. AFP PHOTO

‘Ukraine to replace defense chief’

KYIV: Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov will be replaced by the chief of the military intelligence ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive and following corruption scandals, according to a senior lawmaker close to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday.

Legislator David Arakhamia said “Kyrylo Budanov will head the Defense Ministry, which is absolutely logical in wartime,” while Reznikov would be appointed as minister for strategic industries.

“War dictates personnel policies. Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping,” he said. “The enemy is preparing to advance. We are preparing to defend ourselves.”

The 37-year-old Budanov, who holds the rank of major general, has headed the military intelligence since August 2020, while Reznikov was appointed defense chief in November 2021.

One of the best-known faces of Ukraine’s war effort, Reznikov has helped secure Western weapons to buttress Ukrainian forces, but his ministry has been beset by corruption scandals.

Reznikov’s deputy was forced to resign in late January after the ministry was accused of signing food contracts at prices two to three times higher than current rates for basic food items.

Earlier on Sunday, Reznikov told reporters did not say if he planned to stay on at the ministry, but that only Zelenskyy could decide his fate.

“The stress that I have endured this year is hard to measure precisely. I am not ashamed of anything,” he said. “My conscience is absolutely clear.”

An internal audit of procurement procedures was underway at the ministry, Reznikov said, adding that the ministry’s own anti-corruption department had “failed” to do its job and needed to be “completely rebooted.”

The reshuffle comes as Zelenskyy said in his nightly address that “we are preparing decisions and negotiations that should strengthen our soldiers, give Ukraine more international support and more weapons.”

Zelenskyy said this week he wanted talks on Ukraine’s membership in the European Union to begin this year by stepping up the fight against corruption.

His government already launched high-profile raids targeting an oligarch with political connections, and a former interior minister.

Fresh fighting

In eastern Ukraine, heavy fighting was underway in the northern parts of the frontline hotspot Bakhmut. Russia has claimed gains in recent days around the war-ravaged city in Donetsk province.

“In the northern quarters of Artemovsk, fierce battles are going on for every street, every house, every stairwell,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, said in a statement, referring to Bakhmut by its previous name. “The Ukrainian armed forces are fighting to the last.”

Russian forces have been trying to capture Bakhmut for months, in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

In Bakhmut, about 20 people, including two soldiers, attended Mass in the basement of the golden-domed All Saints’ Church.

Three women sang hymns, punctuated by the sounds of mortar shells in the background. The room was lit by two dozen candles and a portable light used by the two priests to read from the bible.

“Today, I prayed that everything will be better for me after I die,” said 20-year-old Serafim Chernyshov, standing outside the church.

“I came to pray for peace,” added Lyubov Avramenko, 84.

Zelenskyy said last Friday that Kyiv’s troops would fight for Bakhmut “as long as we can.”

The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that over the past week, Russia had made “small advances” in its attempt to encircle Bakhmut.

For months, Moscow has targeted Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, including its energy grid, leaving millions in the dark and cold in the middle of winter.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, a missile strike on a residential building on Sunday wounded four people, a local official said. Another strike that hit a university wounded a security guard.

About 280,000 households in the southern city of Odesa were still without power following Saturday’s accident at an electrical substation, already damaged by Russian strikes, said Prime Minister Denys Shmygal.

As a result, schools will be closed in the city on Monday and Tuesday, officials said.

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