A major shockwave rocked Ukraine’s political circles on July 17, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy unveiled decrees suspending the head of the SBU Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov, as well as Persecutor-General Iryna Venediktova.
Zelenskyy said both officials failed to uncover numerous Russian collaborators among their subordinates, prompting him to dismiss Venediktova and Bakanov – his childhood friend.
Initial clarifications from Zelenskyy’s office suggested these were merely suspensions, but on July 19, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, voted to dismiss the two.
It is however unclear what will ultimately happen to Venediktova, as Ukrainian newspaper ZN reported she intends to dispute her dismissal in the courts.
Meanwhile, Oleksii Symonenko – Venediktova’s deputy – will run the Office of the Prosecutor-General (OPG) in the interim. Similarly, Bakanov’s deputy, Vasyl Malyuk, is now acting head of the SBU. Both Symonenko and Malyuk are thought to have ties to Zelenskyy’s chief-of-staff Andriy Yermak, and Malyuk in particular has been accused of being rather close to a scandal-plagued deputy of Yermak’s, Oleh Tatarov.
Beyond just treason
Zelenskyy sacking two of his top officials made headlines but was hardly completely unexpected. Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko told NV that Venediktova and Bakanov were slated to be replaced even before the war.
Rumors that Venediktova could be on her way out started circulating as early as January, when she refused to indict former President Petro Poroshenko. Opting to avoid a potentially politically controversial move, Venediktova went on holiday, leaving her deputy Symonenko to seal the deal, so to speak.
“Venediktova was very worried back in January – about the whole case against Poroshenko,” said Fesenko.
“She has lost the president’s confidence then. Bakanov was even considered to replace her as Prosecutor-General. There was a long list of potential candidates for that office, mulled by Zelenskyy’s administration.”
There have been numerous cases pressed against Poroshenko under Zelenskyy’s administration – though none have gone anywhere, and much-publicized failures by the PGO to do as much as serve the former president with a notice have led to scandal, and perhaps a loss of trust, by the president in his prosecutor-general.
However, it seems that dismissing Bakanov and Venediktova took a back seat to much more urgent matters as the war broke out. Eventually, invasion-related concerns produced additional reasons to sack the officials.
The high number of apparent traitors in the SBU and PGO was the official reason Zelenskyy gave for the sackings. In particular, the president cited the SBU's Crimean department chief Oleh Kulinich being outed as a traitor as an example of Russian infiltration in the two structures. According to Ukrainian law enforcement, Kulinich was working for Russian security services, feeding them classified information.
And he was not alone: former head of SBU internal security Andriy Naumov fled Ukraine hours before the Russian invasion. He was later apprehended in Serbia, hauling a suitcase full of cash which he failed to declare at customs.
Zelenskyy said there are at least 651 high treason cases currently in the works against Ukrainian law enforcement and security officials. Over 60 suspects have stayed behind in Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine, collaborating with Russian invaders.
A well-informed government source told NV of further impetus behind these dramatic personnel changes. First, Kulinich’s case played a major role, and was a part of a “major operation, which uncovered much.” Second, Bakanov’s conduct in the opening weeks of the war raised some questions, as well as the apparent ease with which Russia rolled through Kherson Oblast.
Venediktova lost favor due to the PGO moving rather slow on some key criminal investigations. She is also thought to be under the sway of some “controversial individuals,” in particular – Oleksandr Hranovskyi, a former MP for Poroshenko’s BPP party. Ironically, civil society observers initially criticized Venediktova’s appointment, after the ouster of reformer Rouslan Riaboshapka, her predecessor – as a Zelenskyy loyalist.
Nevertheless, Zelenskyy’s press secretary, Serhiy Nykyforov, told NV that the high quantity of traitors in the SBU and PGO is indeed the “primary reason” behind the dismissal of Venediktova and Bakanov.
NV asked why Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky was not similarly dismissed, despite several reports of Russian collaborators among his subordinates. The presidential spokesperson replied that those cases need to be “investigated further.”
“It’s important who we’re talking about – rank-and-file employees, or heads of regional departments,” said Nykyforov.
MP Andriy Osadchuk, who sits on the parliamentary Law Enforcement Committee, told NV that he had learned of Bakanov and Venediktova’s dismissals from the news.
The committee was consulted on the matter, and Osadchuk confirmed he’s not aware of why exactly the two top officials were fired.
“Judging (by what the president had to say), Bakanov was sacked because the head of state has reasons to believe he (Bakanov) committed a crime,” said Osadchuk, MP for the Holos (Voice) party.
“As to why they were both (Bakanov and Venediktova) were dismissed at the same time – there could be a connection between the two. Perhaps, some actions – or PGO's inaction – were frustrating the president. But that’s all speculation on my part.”
Nevertheless, there were some substantial issues with Venediktova, added Osadchuk. For instance, she hailed the reform of the PGO as complete a year ago, even as many posts in the agency remained vacant.
“How could one claim the reform has been concluded, when there isn’t anyone to do the actual work?!” Osadchuk asked rhetorically.
“While the other day the president confirmed there were dozens of not just inactive, but outright treasonous prosecutors.”
Venediktova’s and Bakanov’s deputies will take over from their former bosses – for the time being.
Malyuk headed the SBU’s anti-corruption unit since early 2020, before becoming Bakanov’s deputy, and eventually getting sacked by Zelenskyy in July 2021 – for failing to stem the flow of illicit imports across Ukraine’s borders.
After Russia invaded in February, Malyuk was reinstated as the deputy chief of the SBU.
Symonenko is going to be the PGO's acting head, even though he’s not the most senior of Venediktova’s several deputies.
Symonenko was famously responsible for thwarting the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine's (NABU) efforts to conclude an investigation into property developer Ukrbud – a case which prominently featured Tatarov.
Several experts suggested to NV that both Symonenko and Malyuk have ties to that very same Tatarov. Ukrainian journalist Mykhailo Tkach established they attended Tatarov’s lavish birthday party last year.
Anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin had the following to say on Symonenko’s new charge:
“Congratulations to Tatarov for managing to install his proxy as the new Prosecutor-General.”
According to Shabunin, Symonenko helped Tatarov avoid a conviction on corruption charges – in a case that was spearheaded by Oleksandr Klymenko, who was supposed to lead the Special Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO). Klymenko’s appointment has been stalled for almost two years, making even ambassadors of G7 countries rather frustrated.
The selection committee finally certified Klymenko as the official nominee to lead SAPO, but his appointment now has to be approved by the PGO, meaning that Symonenko now has the final say in the matter.
Shabunin pointed out that it was Symonenko who used an illegitimate court ruling to transfer Tatarov’s case from NABU to the SBU. SAPO prosecutors were pulled from the investigation shortly thereafter.
“Symonenko then celebrated shutting down the probe into Tatarov at his (Tatarov’s) birthday party,” said Shabunin.
Meanwhile, even before the news of Malyuk’s mandate to lead the SBU broke, Shabunin made a prescient prediction:
“I think the president or his chief-of-staff will replace Bakanov with some other proxy of Tatarov’s – Malyuk, for example.”
Two sources in the ruling Servant of the People party told NV that Malyuk will remain as acting SBU head “for a long while,” as Zelenskyy isn’t keen on going through an arduous parliamentary confirmation process. Same goes for Symonenko – being somewhat of a dark horse, he could be tapped to run PGO without getting confirmed by the parliament.
“Zelenskyy wants to avoid making a potentially bad hire,” political scientist Petro Oleshchuk told NV, suggesting that Malyuk’s capabilities will likely be first tested in an interim capacity.
An SBU employee confided to NV that Bakanov remains an employee of the service, albeit lacking a post. This could mean that Zelenskyy is perhaps looking to give his old-time friend some other charge within the agency.
The President’s Office said that it’s yet unclear for just how long Malyuk and Symonenko would remain acting chiefs of their respective agencies.
“On one hand, it’s important for these crucial structures to have leadership, in order to effectively do their work,” said Nykyforov.
“On the other, these acting heads should have the opportunity to prove their mettle, before they could be more permanently appointed.”
According to Oleshchuk, new PGO and SBU heads indicate that Tatarov’s influence in Zelesnkyy’s administration is ascendant, and will only grow stronger if the acting chiefs become permanent.
Essentially, by way of Tatarov, presidential chief-of-staff Yermak now has loyal people at the helm of both agencies – as opposed to Bakanov and Venediktova, who firmly were Zelenskyy’s people. Venediktova was part of the president’s political project from the very beginning, campaigning for Zelesnkyy back in 2019.
Another source, close to the president, told NV that Yermak and Tatarov have now elevated their status and influence, but added that it’s only temporary. While Malyuk will likely be kept on as the SBU’s permanent head, the administration intends to find someone else to eventually replace Symonenko.
The latter endeavor could prove difficult, as ZN reported that Venediktova is convinced she was improperly dismissed, and is determined to carry on at the PGO.