President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has vowed to take action against corruption in the wake of an official's dismissal for embezzlement, stressing that the focus on the war would not detract from tackling an endemic issue in his country.
Corruption plagued Ukraine long before Russia launched its full-scale invasion in late February. And while fighting Russian aggression has been the primary focus of Zelenskyy's government, corruption has remained a priority -- especially as weapons and aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars flood into the country, and the price tag for reconstruction efforts is estimated to be in the billions.
Zelenskyy, who came to power in 2019 on a promise of cleaning up corruption, acknowledged in his overnight address Sunday that the government's "main focus is on defense, foreign policy and war."
"But this does not mean that I do not see or hear what is being said in society at different levels," he said, citing issues with energy and military procurement, and saying his government would "take the necessary powerful steps."
Zelenskyy said he hoped the dismissal of a deputy minister Sunday would send a "signal to all those whose actions or behavior violate the principle of justice."
"I want this to be clear: There will be no return to what used to be in the past," Zelenskyy said.
While Zelenskyy did not name the official, Ukraine's infrastructure ministry identified him as Vasyl Lozynsky, a deputy minister in the office. His firing came after Ukraine's top anti-corruption agency and the anti-corruption prosecutor's office "exposed and stopped the activities of an organized criminal group involved in the embezzlement of budget funds," according to Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine's infrastructure minister.
The agency, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, said Lozynsky was part of that group and had been detained while getting a $400,000 bribe for helping with equipment and machinery purchasing contracts. Detectives were working to identify other people involved in the organization, the NABU said in a statement.
The contracts were related to restoring critical infrastructure facilities and providing light, heat and water during the winter, the anti-corruption prosecutor's office said in a statement. Over the past several months, Russia has pummeled Ukraine with strikes on infrastructure targets designed to spread misery among civilians.
POLAND PLANS AID
Poland said Monday it would ask Berlin for permission to send German-built Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine as its Western allies move to supply Kyiv with more powerful military hardware to thwart Russia's invasion.
Germany has hesitated to approve sending tanks to Ukraine. But Polish officials took heart from remarks Sunday by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that Berlin wouldn't seek to stop Poland from providing Leopard 2 battle tanks.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn't specify when the request to Germany will be made. He said that Poland is building a coalition of nations ready to send Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine.
Poland needs the consent of Germany, which builds the tanks, to send them to a non-NATO country.
But even if Germany doesn't grant permission, Warsaw will make its own decisions, Morawiecki said at a news conference.
Ukraine says tanks -- and especially the Leopards -- are vital to its war effort. Both sides' battlefield positions are mostly deadlocked during winter, with new ground offensives expected in the spring. Russia's forces are much larger than Ukraine's, so Kyiv wants to gain an advantage in weaponry and fuller backing from its Western allies.
Poland has become a leading advocate in the European Union for giving military aid to help Ukraine prevail 11 months after the Kremlin's forces invaded. Germany's hesitation has drawn criticism, particularly from Poland and the Baltic countries on NATO's eastern flank that feel especially threatened by Russia.
Although Berlin has provided substantial aid, it has been criticized for dragging its feet on providing military hardware.
German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said it was important for Germany not to take a "reckless" step it might regret, adding that a decision will not be rushed.
"These are hard questions of life and death," he added. "We have to ask what this means for the defense of our own country."
Pressed on how long a decision on sending tanks might take, Hebestreit said: "I assume that it's not a question of months now."
Information for this article was contributed by Cassandra Vinograd of The New York Times and by Monika Scislowska of The Associated Press.