Why Zelenskyy removed the heads of the SBU and PGO

19 July, 02:57 PM
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Ivan Bakanov and Iryna Venediktova at a joint press conference (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Ivan Bakanov and Iryna Venediktova at a joint press conference (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy removed the head of the Security Service Ivan Bakanov and Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova from their duties on July 17, which turned out to be the biggest political news in recent weeks. On July 19, Ukraine’s parliament confirmed their sacking.

The New Voice of Ukraine compiled what there is to know about this important step on the part of the Ukrainian leader.

Why Zelensky dismissed Bakanov and Venediktova, what preceded this decision

Presidential decrees on the removal of Ivan Bakanov and Irina Venediktova were made public late on July 17.

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The decree regarding Bakanov states that he was suspended from his duties in accordance with Art. 47 of the Disciplinary Charter of the Armed Forces of Ukraine – that is, for "failure to perform (improper performance) of official duties, which caused casualties or other grave consequences or created a threat of such consequences."

Within hours of the decrees appearing, Zelenskyy, in another evening address, personally commented on the decision, explaining that he had taken these steps in light of the high amount of treason and collaboration cases appearing within Ukrainian law enforcement and security structures. He cited the following figures:

  • 651 criminal proceedings registered on high treason and collaboration activities of bodies among employees of the prosecutor's office, pre-trial investigation bodies, and other law enforcement agencies;
  • in only 198 proceedings have the relevant persons been charged;
  • while more than 60 employees of the prosecutor's office and the SBU remain in occupied territory and are working "against our state."

“Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the nation, as well as the ties recorded between the employees of the law enforcement agencies of Ukraine and the special services of Russia, raise very serious questions for the relevant leaders,” Zelenskyy stated.

“Each of these questions will receive a proper answer.”

NV
Фото: NV

Separately, the president mentioned the latest example of a high-profile investigation into probable treason in the ranks of the SBU – the detention on the same day, July 17, of Oleh Kulinich, the former head of the SBU department in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, who was fired in March 2022. Kulinich was detained by officers of the State Bureau of Investigation. The SBI claimed that he had passed on to the Russians "information constituting a state secret." He was charged under three articles:

  • Part 1 Art. 111 (high treason),
  • Part 1 Art. 255 (creation, management of a criminal organization),
  • Part 5 Art. 27, Part 1 Art. 114 (assistance in collecting information constituting a state secret for the purpose of transferring to a foreign state, foreign organization, or their representatives).

Oleh Kulinich served as head of the SBU department for Crimea from October 2020 to March 2022.

“This person was dismissed by me from his position at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and, as we see, this decision was absolutely justified,” Zelenskyy said in an evening address.

“Sufficient evidence has been collected to inform this person of suspicion of treason. All his criminal actions are documented. Everything he did during these months, as well as earlier, will be given a proper legal assessment.”

Zelenskyy explained that Kulinich’s arrest was “about the transfer of secret information to the enemy and other facts of cooperation with the Russian special services” and stressed that in addition to Kulinich, “everyone who, together with him, was part of a criminal group that worked in the interests of Russia, will be held accountable.” Zelenskyy also referred to the high-profile case as the "self-cleansing" of the special services.

Andriy Smirnov, deputy head of the Presidential Office, also explained that Zelenskyy’s administration “had been waiting for quite a long time for more concrete and, possibly, radical results from the leaders of these bodies [the SBU and the Office of the Prosecutor General] with regard to ridding of collaborators and state traitors.”

However, Smirnov noted that even after five months of the war, "collaborators continue to be exposed in these law enforcement agencies almost every week." That is why they decided to remove Venediktova and Bakanov “in order to make it impossible for these two officials to have a potential influence on criminal proceedings” against SBU agents and prosecutors suspected of collaborating with the aggressor country.

In his address, commenting on the dismissal of Bakanov and Venediktova, Zelenskyy also noted the need to appoint a new head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO) – to solve a problem that has long become the ground for criticism of Ukraine by anti-corruption activists and Kyiv's Western partners.

“Why is this issue sensitive? The answer is obvious," Zelenskyy said.

“Without an established head of such an institution, its full-fledged functioning is also impossible. By the way, the same applies to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. The term of office of the previous leader has expired. And there must be a competitive procedure for the selection of a new head of NABU. I instructed the Prime Minister of Ukraine to intensify the process of launching the relevant competition.”

What else is known about the claims against Bakanov and Venediktova?

Almost a month ago, at the end of June, Politico magazine was the first to report Zelenskyy’s intention to fire Bakanov from the post of head of the Security Service, allegedly due to a series of unsuccessful operations and losses in Kherson.

Citing the words of four officials close to the president and a Western diplomat who advised Kyiv on reforms, the publication then noted that Zelenskyy was seeking to “replace Bakanov with someone more suitable.” It was also said that the head of the SBU was probably not able to properly cope with new challenges after the Russian invasion on February 24.

Commenting on this information, Zelenskyy at the time said that "if he wanted to fire Bakanov, he would have already fired him" and spoke about "the inspection of all law enforcement agencies." Back then, the president stressed that personnel changes in the leadership of law enforcement agencies would depend on the findings of such an inspection.

Zelenskyy recalled that "some representatives of various law enforcement agencies have disappeared somewhere instead of being in place and protecting their state and people."

"For different reasons,” Zelenskyy said on June 27.

“All these reasons – I travel around the regions and listen to the reports personally. And therefore, the change in the leadership of any law enforcement agency – I stress, any – depends only on this. Which is what I am doing.”

NV’s sources in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, and those close to the president both have said that the list of Zelenskyy's claims to the SBU did include the rapid loss of Kherson and problems within the Service.

When the invading Russian troops, having left Crimea, quickly captured Kherson and almost reached Mykolayiv, and then swiftly surrounded Mariupol, this breakthrough in the President’s Office was seen as a clear miscalculation by the SBU.

Zelenskyy stripped the rank of general of the former head of the SBU department in Kherson Oblast, Serhiy Kryvoruchko, and fired Andriy Naumov, head of the internal security department of the SBU, making it clear that he considers them "traitors." And in May, Zelenskyy fired Roman Dudin, head of the Kharkiv department of the SBU. The reason is that he "did not work to protect the city from Russian aggression."

NV sources also said that for some time Zelenskyy weighed all the pros and cons of the dismissal of Bakanov, since it meant significant changes in the SBU amid the war. Political scientist Petro Oleshchuk explained to NV that the most serious obstacle to Bakanov's dismissal was the lack of a worthy replacement.

“The president needs to have an iron-clad, concrete candidacy,” the expert noted, suggesting that the SBU should be headed by a person with the appropriate management skills for such an important position and who enjoys Zelenskyy’s full confidence.

MP Serhiy Rakhmanin, a member of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence, in June 2022 commented to NV on reports that Ivan Bakanov was allegedly not in Kyiv on the day of the Russian invasion on February 24: “I can only say one thing from myself: On February 24, that is, on the first day of the war, I was a participant in a meeting that took place with the president,” he recalled.

“I represented the Golos faction. I saw first-hand all the heads of central government bodies who were either at their workplaces or in direct contact with the president. The only person I did not see was Ivan Bakanov.

 The MP added that he would not dare to claim that the head of the Security Service was not in Kyiv or Ukraine.

Ivan Bakanov, 47, is a longtime and close friend of Zelenskyy. Previously, he headed the Kvartal 95 production studio, an entertainment studio owned by Zelenskyy, and was also the head of Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, and one of the key figures in Zelenskyy's election campaign.

After Zelenskyy’s victory in the 2019 presidential election, Bakanov first received the post of first deputy head of the SBU, and from August 29, 2019, he took over at the helm of the agency.

This decision was repeatedly criticized in Ukraine, with arguments that Bakanov was appointed not for his professional qualities, but as a person whom Zelenskyy trusts to the greatest extent. Bakanov took 18th place in a list of the 100 most influential people in Ukraine, compiled by NV in 2021.

A year ago, in July 2021, Zelenskyy fired Bakanov's two first deputies, and a number of complaints about the agency were voiced in the Office of the President.

“It is fundamental for the President to significantly intensify the work of the SBU in order to finally put an end to all smuggling schemes,” said presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak at the time.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen enough work of the Service in this direction lately. We need new management solutions. Greater mobility and speed in decision-making are needed. We need, finally, for criminal cases to be brought to their logical conclusion, which deal with specific challenges to our national security.”

Irina Venediktova, 43, took over as head of the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine on March 17, 2020, following the dismissal of Rouslan Riaboshapka. Prior to that, she served as the acting director of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), and was also an MP from the Servant of the People party, and headed the Parliamentary Committee on Legal Policy. She was a member of Zelenskyy’s campaign as an expert on judiciary reform.

Venediktova, who after the start of the full-scale war with Russia supervised the investigation of Russia’s war crimes and Ukraine's cooperation with international structures in this respect, has also repeatedly provided reasons for criticism against her. In particular, she had to explain why the case of the deputy chief-of-staff of the President’s Office, Oleh Tatarov, was transferred to the SBU from NABU.

Then, Venediktova unexpectedly changed the group of prosecutors in a bribery case where Tatarov figured as a suspect, which is why Zelenskyy’s deputy chief-of-staff was not served a notice of suspicion in time.

“Venediktova and her role in protecting ‘friends’ for the President’s Office completely satisfies her employers,” Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, deputy chairman of the Anti-Corruption Committee of the Verkhovna Rada, said in an interview with NV at the end of 2020. This is how he explained the fact that Venediktova retained her position, despite the demands of the Office to “perform better” — to conduct mass arrests of corrupt officials.

How Ukraine reacted to the dismissal of Bakanov and Venediktova

Major-General of the SBU reserve and an expert from the Ukrainian Center of Analytics and Security, Ihor Huskov, told Radio NV that Bakanov should voluntarily resign.

“I consider it necessary today for Ivan Bakanov, with all due respect to him, to take political responsibility for the appointment of officials who are today accused of working for the Russian special services or neglecting their official duties and shying away from them,” Huskov is convinced.

Such a step, according to the expert, will help reduce media pressure on the SBU.

“The Security Service should work in information silence,” Huskov believes.

“It should report concrete results on detained Russian agents or liquidated sabotage and reconnaissance networks. It should not be at the epicenter of high-profile scandals over personnel appointments. This should be ensured precisely by the voluntary resignation of Ivan Bakanov, if there is such a thing as an officer's honor and dignity.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center NGO, Vitaliy Shabunin, has criticized Oleksiy Symonenko, who will lead the Office of the Prosecutor General after Venediktova. Shabunin hinted that he was close to the infamous deputy head of the President's Office, Oleh Tatarov.

“I congratulate Tatarov on the actual appointment of his avatar Symonenko to the post of Prosecutor General,” Shabunin wrote.

“The latter got Tatarov off jail for a corruption crime, which is being investigated by the winner of the competition for the head of the SAPO (Klymenko). After the illegal decision of the Pechersk Court, it was Symonenko who transferred the case of Tatarov from NABU to the SBU. Immediately after the transfer of the case to the SBU, the SAPO prosecutors were removed from it. And Symonenko celebrated the ‘murder’ of the investigation together with Tatarov at the latter’s birthday.”

Journalist Yuriy Butusov opines that "of course, there was a reason to remove both Bakanov and Venediktova."

“But Lee Kuan Yew said that in order to fight corruption, the president should put his friends in prison, as opposed to changing on the sly some under his control to others even tamer,” Butusov noted, considering the removal of two heads of law enforcement agencies a sign of even greater concentration of powers in the hands of Zelenskyy’s chief-of-staff Andriy Yermak and his deputy Oleh Tatarov.

ICTV channel host Oksana Sokolova wonders why the head of state made the decision to "virtually dismiss" Bakanov and Venediktova only now.

“Hundreds of traitors who became collaborators are still working for the Russian enemy,” Sokolova noted, admitting that “the role of many in the preparation of the Russian invasion will still be exposed” and calling unprofessionalism “a terrible thing” for the heads of such important departments. She also drew attention to the "sensational" wording of the reasons for the removal of both officials.

Lawyer Agia Zagrebelska, co-founder of the Anti-Trust League NGO and former state commissioner of the Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine (2015-2019), drew attention to how Western media present information about the dismissal of Venediktova and Bakanov. In particular, she cited Reuters, which states that Zelenskyy "dismissed the head of the SBU and the country's prosecutor general, citing hundreds of cases of probable treason and cooperation with Russia, while Moscow seems to intend to intensify military operations."

Reuters also notes that Zelenskyy's statistics on a significant number of treason cases "shows a huge problem of Russian infiltration into Ukrainian structures."

NV journalist Dmytro Bobrytskyi noted that Zelenskyy's decision to simultaneously remove two heads of law enforcement agencies "is in line with his style of a radical personnel destroyer."

Sergey Khlan, a Kherson Oblast council member, commenting on the decision concerning Bakanov and Venediktova, urged "not just to remove them, but to make sure that everyone is held accountable for their actions or inaction."

“The passage through Chonhar translates not only into occupied Kherson Oblast, but also the encirclement of Mariupol, Berdyansk, Mykolaiv Oblast,” Khlan said.

“The investigation had to be carried out urgently from day one, to remove the leaders and deal with all the rats in power.”

The discussion around the dismissal of Bakanov and Venediktova was not bereft of satirical comments.

Political scientist Mykola Davidyuk jokingly noted that "now the Russians have no clue as to what is going on here."

Andriy Ianitskyi, a journalist and director of the Journalism Center of the Kyiv School of Economics, suggested that commentators on social networks decide: “People, you need to make your mind up. Bakanov and Venediktova in power — bad. Bakanov and Venediktova gone — also bad.”

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