Why Defense Minister Reznikov hasn’t been removed from his post, despite a decision to do so

8 February, 12:41 PM
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov (Photo:REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi)

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov (Photo:REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi)

For a while, the head of state left Oleksii Reznikov in the post of the minister of defense – the threat from the Russians and the support of public opinion leaders turned out to be more important than a series of internal corruption scandals.

On the night of February 5-6, in the gray building on Bankova - the Office of the President - the lights in the windows of some of the main offices were on for a long time. The fate of Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov was under intense discussion in those halls.

At that time, one of the close associates of the country's president, the head of the Servants of the People (SotP) parliamentary faction, David Arakhamia, announced the resignation of the head of the defense ministry. He said that Reznikov would be transferred to a more suitable position - to the Ministry of Strategic Industries (Minstrategprom), which deals with the defense industry. His post would be filled by Kyrylo Budanov, a young and ambitious general and the current head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service (HUR).

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Servant of the People MP Mariana Bezuhla, the deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada committee on national security issues further explained that the current head of the Ministry of Strategy and Industry, Pavel Ryabikin, would be dismissed.

The announcement of Reznikov's transfer to his new position took place against a negative background for the top official himself: scandals involving overpriced purchases of products for military personnel, the immediate resignation of two of his deputies and the announcement, as well as one more representative of the Ministry of Defense, of suspicion of corruption. In addition, billions of dollars were included in the relevant charges.

"The security agencies at this stage should be headed not by politicians, but by personnel security officers," Arakhamia wrote that evening on his Telegram channel.

Meanwhile, Reznikov himself explained that he had learned about his possible resignation from the media, claiming that he had not been offered a position in the Ministry of Strategy and Industry, and if he had, he would have refused.

As several sources in parliament told NV, the key reason for Bankova’s dissatisfaction with Reznikov was the negative media publicity caused by the scandal surrounding the food procurement for the Armed Forces.

Overnight, the president held several meetings devoted to the future fate of the minister, both with a narrow circle of close associates and in a more extended one, with the participation of a number of representatives of the SotP faction. According to sources, they discussed corruption in the Ministry of Defense, risks facing the ministry, and the minister's failures.

Yet by morning, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had decided to postpone Reznikov’s dismissal.

Then, Arakhamia contradicted his earlier statements on his Telegram channel – saying instead that the Rada would not yet vote on Reznikov’s resignation.

NV spent the entire day of February 6th finding out what arguments saved the minister.

"The night of deep thoughts"

"We are waiting for the appointment of heads of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and SBU,” wrote Arakhamia early on February 6.

“No personnel changes in the defense sector will take place this week.”

This meant that the President and the Cabinet would officially propose appointing the current "acting" heads of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and SBU, Igor Klimenko and Vasyl Maluyka, respectively, to full-time status. Reznikov, it seemed, had gotten a pass.

Bezuhla tried to add some details explaining the unfulfilled government reshuffle. On Facebook, she wrote that there will be no resignations this week due to the risks of government instability and an upcoming meeting of defense ministers of partner nations, in the Ramstein format.

Yet a more serious reason for keeping Reznikov in place was the expected arrival of a new Russian offensive in the near future, she wrote.

A representative of the Zelenskyy administration anonymously added: Reznikov would stay on as Defense Minister for the following week, and beyond.

Another associate of the president clarified in a conversation with NV that the minister's immunity will last until the end of February. But personnel purges will begin immediately in the ministry itself.

The decisive factor for Reznikov's retention was not only the fact that part of the presidential team had stood up for the minister, but that also some public opinion leaders spoke out in the minister’s defense as well. For example, Valery Pekar, a professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, wrote: “The defeat of the Ministry of Defense during the war is worse than any other misfortune.”

“Even though corruption is still everywhere, don't forget who the main enemy is,” Pekar opined.

“To blow up the working mechanisms of the entire structure and make it so that no one wants to go there, because it is a ‘damned place’, and to break the process of interaction with Western partners is even worse."

Political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko believes that the question of full dismissal of Reznikov was not raised at all - only what ministerial portfolio to give him instead of his current posting.

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"But he [Reznikov, who is a professional lawyer] was thinking about one position [Minister of Justice], though he was offered another one [Minstrategprom],” Fesenko speculated.

“He did not agree with this decision, and probably contacted [presidential chief-of-staff Andriy] Yermak, and perhaps the president himself, after which the decision was either postponed or canceled.”

Meanwhile, military intelligence chief Budanov likely didn’t want to the post of defense minister either, Fesenko believes, as that would require Budanov to leave military service – by law, the head of the Ministry of Defense must be a civilian.

Fesenko considers the situation with the Ministry of Defense to be a double mistake by administration: a properly-conducted personnel rotation should instead be agreed upon with its subjects.

Deputy of the liberal opposition Holos faction, MP Roman Kostenko – colonel of Ukraine’s SBU security service and member of the parliamentary committee on national security, suggested that Bankova's original idea to appoint Budanov in Reznikov’s place was to placate the Ukrainian public.

"Budanov has become very popular recently,” he said.

“It would be a political decision, not a military one.”

The good-bad minister

All the MPs and experts interviewed by NV expressed confidence in Reznikov’s “excellent” diplomatic skills.

"He has his own experiences with regard to interaction with allies," one member of the Zelenskyy administration told NV.

MP Kostenko agrees with that assessment. According to him, the minister has done a lot to strengthen the country's defense capabilities, and he enjoys the respect of his colleagues in Ramstein.

According to Kostenko, Reznikov's biggest weakness – a weakness stemming from the Ministry of Defense structurally – was dependence on Bankova, which appoints deputies to the ministry.

“I could become the Minister of Defense too, but with only one deputy out of nine," the MP explained.

"The rest would be assigned from the [Office of the President].”

Kostenko does not support Reznikov's resignation: he says that Ukraine faces more serious problems – a probable oncoming Russian offensive in the spring.

"The best new minister will spend at least a few months building relationships and learning the specifics of the job," he said.

According to Oleksandr Kovalenko, a military-political observer from the Information Resistance group, with the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Reznikov made an important contribution to the supply of high-tech weapons to Ukraine.

"This is an element of his ability to manage at the international level," Kovalenko explained.

Serhii Zhurets, editor-in-chief of Ukrainian military news portal Defense Express, also had high praise for Reznikov's diplomatic abilities. However, he believes that the issue is not so much with the head of the Ministry of Defense as with the attention of the partner countries to Ukraine itself and its needs.

But on the "internal front", the minister has turned out to be a far-from-ideal leader.

"There are general difficulties associated with the intensification of production processes, which required more active cooperation with the Ministry of Strategy and Industry, Ukroboronprom," explained Zhurets.

"But, as we can see, he didn't succeed."

In addition, although the ministry under  Reznikov's tenure claims to have provided all military personnel with body armor and clothing, there are actually reports that representatives of the Ministry of Defense supported projects to supply uncertified "armor". In addition, the food procurement scandal falls squarely under the minister’s purview.

Zhurets also expressed confusion on why the Ministry of Defense didn’t properly supply the Armed Forces with the necessary ammunition and drones, and said that he has the impression that Reznikov took the post without understanding his areas of responsibility. And that's why he followed a direction that was clear to him - external contacts.

"He tried [to act in other directions], because in the summer of last year, an arms procurement agency was created, which was supposed to minimize the shadow elements in this issue," Zhurets said.

"The agency was created, though the effectiveness of its work is not yet fully understood - whether it benefited the army or not."

He has similar questions regarding the liquidation of special arms exporters initiated by the minister.

Now, Reznikov’s future will be hindered by a proverbial “sword of Damocles”: if Reznikov’s deputy ministers are indeed found guilty of corruption by the courts, then the minister would need to take responsibility: “It would only be right”, Zhurets said.

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