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Ukraine fires six defense deputies

Heavy fighting ongoing in east by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | September 19, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
A group of Ukrainian servicemen walk along a road close to the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. The General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces announced the reclaiming of the village of Andriivka, 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut on Friday. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko).

KYIV, Ukraine -- Six Ukrainian deputy defense ministers were fired Monday following the dismissal two weeks ago of Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov in a corruption scandal, officials said, as heavy fighting against Russian forces continued in the east.

Russia claimed to have struck key Ukrainian facilities in air attacks overnight, hitting stores of Storm Shadow missiles and depleted uranium ammunition along with electronic intelligence centers and training facilities for Ukrainian military scouts.

The deputy defense ministers fired included Hanna Maliar, Vitalii Deyneha and Denys Sharapov, as well as the state secretary of the Defense Ministry, Kostiantyn Vashchenko, according to the Telegram account of Taras Melnychuk, permanent representative of the Cabinet of Ministers.

Melnychuk provided no explanation of the firings, but the government has been investigating accusations of corruption in the military related to purchasing equipment. Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar lawmaker who took over as defense minister, did not immediately issue a statement.

Reznikov was removed earlier this month after a scandal involving the defense ministry's procurement of military jackets at three times their cost. Reznikov denied the allegations but resigned.

Anti-corruption groups have, over the past few months, singled out lower-level officials for mismanagement in military contracting, or for failing to tackle corruption on their watch.

The deputy defense ministers removed Monday were not the first to lose their jobs during the war. In January, one was dismissed and arrested after reports of the department paying drastically inflated prices for food for the military. Another was replaced last year, and months later a Ukrainian news outlet released what it said was police video of a search of the minister's home, with officers pulling wads of cash out of a sofa.

Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired all 24 chiefs of Ukraine's regional military recruitment offices, after the government acknowledged that dozens of recruitment officers were under investigation for accepting bribes to mark eligible men as exempt from service. And there have been waves of anti-corruption raids and dismissals involving other parts of the government, as well.

Daria Kalenyuk, the executive director of the Kyiv-based Anticorruption Action Center, said Monday's dismissals were a "positive step" that showed that Zelenskyy recognized the problems in the ministry and was intent on finding remedies.

"The Ministry of Defense is one of the least reformed ministries in our country, and it is not able to cope with the challenges of the war," she said in an interview. The timing of the announcement, she added, sent a signal to Ukraine's allies in Washington before Zelenskyy's trip that his government was committed to overhauling the military bureaucracy.

Along with the deputy ministers, Kostiantyn Vashchenko was also dismissed, according to the government statement. He had served as the state secretary for defense, which is a senior managerial position at the ministry. The statement did not name any replacements.

In Ukraine's fight to take back territory seized by the Russian invasion, the chain of command for battlefield decisions runs directly from Zelenskyy to the military's uniformed general staff, largely bypassing the civilians at the Defense Ministry, so the turnover is not expected to have an immediate effect on the course of the war. The ministry's role is primarily not in tactics but logistics -- procurement, salaries and benefits -- where changes may not be felt right away.

Ukrainian anti-corruption groups said the dismissals, though not all of them from positions related to procurement, sent a positive signal about oversight and a crackdown on wartime profiteering.

Much of the Western aid to Ukraine has been in arms, gear and training -- not cash -- supplied directly to the military, and there have been no documented instances of diversions of weaponry. Ukraine's allies have also supplied billions in financial aid, helping shore up a depleted government and battered economy, but that money has not gone to the Defense Ministry, whose budget is drawn from Ukrainian tax revenues.

Even so, some U.S. critics of spending on Ukraine -- notably a faction of Republicans in Congress -- have said that reports of corruption were a reason to place stricter limits on military aid, and some members of NATO are nervous that weapons could be illicitly rerouted from their intended purpose.

The reshuffling of the department came a day after Ukraine's military said it captured the village of Klishchiivka from Russian troops after months of fierce battles. Fighting continued Monday as troops tried to hold the village south of the Russian-held city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.

Its recapture followed the retaking of the nearby village of Andriivka.

"The enemy is trying with all his might to regain lost positions," Maliar said in a briefing Monday before she was fired. "Therefore, our fighters hold back the enemy's attacks there and are entrenched at the achieved frontiers."

Retaking Klishchiivka is considered tactically important, allowing Ukrainian forces to further extend their gains around Bakhmut.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in June that so far has been marked by small victories but no major breakthroughs. Despite being bolstered by NATO-standard weapons worth billions of dollars, Ukrainian military officials have said there are no quick solutions to puncture Russian defensive lines -- only slow, grinding battles that have led to heavy losses.

In his efforts to draw more support, Zelenskyy is headed to the U.S., where he is expected at the White House and on Capitol Hill this week as he visits during the United Nations General Assembly. His visit to Washington comes as Congress debates President Joe Biden's request to provide as much as $24 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

One supporter in Congress, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, met with Ukraine officials and soldiers Monday in Kyiv to assess the military's current needs and discuss ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles, which Biden is considering providing.

"No single capability is going to make the difference between winning and losing," said Kelly, who praised forces for progress, though he said he wished it would move faster.

RUSSIAN ATTACKS

In other fighting, six civilians were killed and 16 injured over the past 24 hours as Russia claimed to have used long-range air-launched missiles and drones to strike U.K.-supplied missiles and depleted uranium ammunition that can be used to destroy tanks.

"The goal of the strike has been fulfilled, all the designated facilities have been struck," the ministry said without providing specifics.

The claims appeared to contradict Ukraine's assertion that it intercepted all 17 cruise missiles launched by Russia and 18 of 24 Shahed drones in the southern regions of Mykolaiv and Odesa early Monday. There was no way to verify the conflicting claims.

Russians attacked residential areas in eight cities and villages in the Donetsk region, including Avdiivka and Kurdiumivka, killing one and wounding four, it said. Five artillery attacks in Kherson killed one person and wounded another. In the nearby town of Beryslav, Russians dropped explosives from a drone near the local bus station, injuring four people, the presidential office said.

Oleh Kiper, regional governor of Odesa, said a recreational facility in the town of Vylkovo was damaged in the attack but no casualties were immediately reported. Vylkovo, often referred to as the "Ukrainian Venice" because of its numerous canals, is located in the Danube delta on the border with Romania.

Romania has recently reported several findings of fragments from drones similar to those used by Russia in attacks on Ukraine's ports on the other side of the Danube.

Neighboring Bulgaria on Monday said a specialist navy team carried out a "controlled explosion" of a mortar shell found attached to a drone in the Black Sea coastal area of Tyulenovo.

Bulgaria's Defense Minister Todor Tagarev said it wasn't clear when or how the drone ended up there, but said it most likely was carried by the sea to the coastal town situated about 18.5 miles south of the Romanian border.

"I have not been informed that our air defense system has detected such an object, but they are difficult to locate," Tagarev said. "Such incidents happen weekly; the Bulgarian army has teams to locate and destroy unexploded ordnance."

Information for this article was contributed by Illia Novikov, Yuras Karmanau, Stephen McGrath and Brian Melley of The Associated Press and by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrew E. Kramer of The New York Times.

  photo  A Ukrainian serviceman walks to his position at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, September 16, 2023. The 3rd Assault Brigade announced Friday they had recaptured the war-ravaged settlement which lies 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, in the country's embattled east. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)
 
 
  photo  U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and a Ukrainian soldier pose for a photo near displayed damaged Russian tanks in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
 
 
  photo  U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., right, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink answer media questions in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
 
 
  photo  A Ukrainian serviceman from the 3rd Assault Brigade who goes by the call sign 'Sheva' eats a piece of bread in a trench on his position at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, September 16, 2023. The brigade announced Friday they had recaptured the war-ravaged settlement which is less 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, in the country's embattled east. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko).
 
 
  photo  Assault unit commander from 3rd Assault Brigade who goes by the call sign 'Fedia' takes cover in a bunker at the frontline in Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, September 16, 2023. The 3rd Assault Brigade announced Friday they had recaptured the war-ravaged settlement which lies 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut,in the country's embattled east. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)
 
 
  photo  U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., answers media questions in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
 
 
  photo  A group of Ukrainian servicemen from 3rd Assault brigade move to take a new position at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. The 3rd Assault Brigade said it took the village after surrounding the Russian garrison in the settlement during what it described as a "lightning operation" and destroying it over two days. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko).
 
 
  photo  EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT - Assault unit commander from 3rd Assault Brigade who goes by the call sign 'Fedia' speaks to his comrade near a body of a Russian soldier at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, September 16, 2023. The brigade announced Friday they had recaptured the war-ravaged settlement which lies 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, in the country's embattled east. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)
 
 
  photo  A Ukrainian serviceman from the 3rd Assault Brigade who goes by the call sign 'Freak' receives a new order by radio channel from his commander at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, September 16, 2023. The brigade announced Friday they had recaptured the war-ravaged settlement which is less 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, in the country's embattled east. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko).
 
 

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