Another war in Donbass

Within weeks, Zelensky transmitted to his people and the world the conviction that it was possible to resist assaults in the Donbass and in the South. It did not prevent the unsolved question of Ukrainian identity to come back full force, when fighting in Donbass put Zelensky in an awkward position: up to then, his forces had been shelling enemy’s positions in occupied territories. But, in the East, the line between “invaders” and “liberators” was less clear cut. The population who did not want to live under separatists, backed by Russia, had left years ago to other parts of Ukraine or abroad. The others were living a semi-independence under Russia tutelage, with more efficient social services and cultural rights, and Russian passports that opened the job markets in Russia and CIS countries where Russian is still a lingua franca. Even those who did not want to be “reunited” with Russia were viewing anything coming from Kiev with suspicion and believed that their “natural” Donbass included the administrative borders of Lugansk and Donetsk.

New front

This means that, in Donbass, Zelensky has been entering uncharted territory –  Ukrainians were destroying Ukrainian territory and killing Ukrainians – unless Kiev had been recognising it a separate territory. On the top of that, after 6 weeks of brave but inequal battles in the East, Zelensky had to order a strategic retreat, to give troops time to rest, to regroup, and to receive more Western weapons before launching a reconquest. A situation which required some decisive actions, to reassure both national and international public opinion. Ukrainians, even in the narrow circles of the presidency, were searching for culprits after 5 months of war; Westerners, including in openly pro-Ukrainian media, were talking about the lack of traceability of huge quantities of weaponries and financial aides sent into such a corrupted country.

This is the background in which, on 17 July, Zelensky dismissed two close collaborators, Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova, his foreign adviser during his presidential campaign, and the chief of the SBU Ivan Bakanov a childhood friend. According to Zelensky, they had failed to control their subordinates at regional and local levels, notably in occupied zones by Russians and separatists. Unspecified “Ukrainian authorities” had on their desks, he said, 650 dossiers they overlook, including dozens of employees in both offices who currently work with Russia-imposed authorities in occupied territories “against our state”.

On 19 July, the Ukrainian parliament endorsed Zelensky’s request to dismiss them. It also confirmed the nomination of Olexandr Klymenko to head Ukraine’s Specialised Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO). His endorsement by the president, on 12 June, has been barely noticed. But, in a typical Ukrainian story, SAPO had been created in 2015 as part of the government’s drive to reset anticorruption bodies; its first-ever head, Nazar Kholodnytsky, was dismissed in 2020; Klymenko won the selection contest to succeed him in 2021; a special commission took half a year to validate his victory; the presidential nomination came only in July 2022.


The two dismissals came as a shock because Venediktova and Bakanov were typically Zelensky’s inner circles, a close-knit group of old friends and associates. Acceding to power in March 2019, unexpectedly and triumphally, without political affiliation, Zelensky had the choice between appointing professionals he did not trust; or appointing people he trusts personally, without political connection and professional experience. In conditions of war, what was then saluted as a sign of new times has become a liability.

Subsequent official declarations have confirmed that Zelensky had tried to kill two birds with one stone when he sacked those collaborators. In return for signs that he was serious about fighting corruption, Western countries had agreed to increase the deliveries of weapons indispensable to stop the Russian forces and to mount successful operations to regain lost territories. They wanted to trace the arms delivered and the billions of financial aid that will be sent to Ukraine. Hence Zelensky decision to make SAPO functioning, to reform the SBU, and to nominate an independent procurator.


In Ukraine itself, the popular support stays vibrant and the communicator talents of Zelensky still convincing. But, even among his close circles, there is an awakening that irradiating self confidence in Ukraine’s future is one thing; that the existence of growing concerns about fatalities among fighters, fears about general conscription, and the gap between official declarations of successes on the ground followed by retreats and devastation is another. The easier answer is classical: to expose culprits, in this case the head of the SBU and the general prosecutor, whose infiltration by spies and traitors might explain the falls of territory into Russian control. In the same time, Zelensky did not gave much detail about the technical ways to reform the SBU and the general prosecutor, whose interdependence was serving clans and business interests more than national ones.

The question is now “who next” because the decision to target the intelligence milieu has been a way to shelter the military, which might not last. Two days before the double sacking, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksi Reznikov declared to a British newspaper that President Volodymyr Zelensky had ordered the military leadership to draw up plans to recapture Ukraine’s south. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk called on locals in Kherson and Zaporizhya regions to evacuate; senior Kherson Region councilor Yury Sobolevsky told the regions’ residents to either leave or to prepare for hostilities as Ukrainian troops could soon launch a counter-offensive.

This publicity about future military operations raised alarms, and not only in social media. It is an open secret that relations between the defence minister Reznikov and the commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny are not good. After the 17 July dismissals, Zaluzhny is seen as a potential target for Zelensky’s “unprofessional” team who had been claiming that “people living in the occupied zones in the southern regions of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Hopry, Mariupol, Kalanchak, Henichesk will be liberated and had to know it – as well as the “collaborators””. If the de-occupation” fails, Zaluzhny might be or removed for professional failure, or exposed as a saboteur.

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