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Traitors in the Ranks: Zelensky Purges Ukraine’s Security Services

Zelensky is determined to get the siloviki under the political control of his administration, regardless of any accusations that he is usurping power.

Published on July 28, 2022

Following Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian elite defied the expectations of many to demonstrate a rarely seen unity. Previous disagreements were put aside; there was no mass defection over to Russia’s side; and political life moved to the president’s inner circle, where key decisions are made.

The Russian invasion has put the very existence of the Ukrainian state in jeopardy. But it has also allowed President Volodymyr Zelensky to solve most of the political problems he faced before the war. Since the beginning of Russia’s attack, his rating has skyrocketed, and he has become a hero in the eyes of global public opinion. At home, the position of the oligarchs has weakened thanks to their preoccupation with saving their own fortunes, while the formerly influential pro-Russian bloc has been decimated once and for all.

The only remaining potential rival politician is former president Petro Poroshenko. But if previously Poroshenko could counter Zelensky’s pacifism with his own experience of defending the country, he can hardly compete with Zelensky in that respect anymore. Meanwhile, the testimony of the arrested pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk concerning the shady machinations of Poroshenko’s time in office mean the former president has little hope of repeating his success in Ukrainian politics.

Still, as the fighting drags on, the first cracks in this newfound unity are starting to appear. The loyalty of the siloviki—members of the security services—has become Zelensky’s biggest problem right now.

The scale of the mounting problems became clear when Zelensky fired the heads of two key security bodies in one day: Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and Ivan Bakanov, head of the SBU, Ukraine’s main intelligence agency. The latter had always been considered one of the people closest to the president: a childhood friend who enjoyed Zelensky’s absolute trust. The war has changed that.

After the initial chaos of the first few days of the invasion subsided, the SBU leadership faced many questions. Bakanov was criticized for having disappeared from public view for a month while the core presidential team demonstrated unity to the rest of the country—and, indeed, the world—by remaining in Kyiv. His subordinates faced even more serious allegations. Some security service agents defected to the Russian side in the territory occupied by Russia, while many senior officers proved unable to organize an effective resistance to the invading army, which was a contributing factor to the loss of territory in southeast Ukraine.
The agency’s reputation began to take hit after hit. During a visit to Kharkiv at the end of May, Zelensky fired the local head of the SBU for sabotaging the city’s defense in the first days of the war. The following month, General Andriy Naumov, the former head of the SBU’s internal affairs department, was arrested in Serbia. He had fled Ukraine on the eve of the invasion, and was found with a million dollars in cash on him, along with emeralds.

The final straw was the arrest of Bakanov’s personal advisor, Oleh Kulinich—former head of the SBU in Crimea—on suspicion of collaborating with the Russian security services and passing on classified information. Bakanov’s firing was followed by an ongoing purge among the ranks of the SBU that has also seen the agency’s deputy head and several regional bosses lose their posts.

It was a similar story over at the Prosecutor’s Office, where a significant number of staff also turned out to have been collaborating with the enemy in Russia-occupied territory. Venediktova herself, however, remains in the president’s team, and may yet be appointed ambassador to a European country.

Venediktova and Bakanov’s replacements have been described as protégés of Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential administration, and his deputy Oleh Tatarov, who is responsible for overseeing the security services. Some in the Ukrainian opposition see this as nothing short of the usurpation of power: all the security assets are becoming concentrated in the hands of Yermak, who does not have the constitutional right to hold that power. Furthermore, Yermak himself has faced accusations of working for Russia to disrupt a plan to arrest Russian mercenaries in the summer of 2020. Zelensky is making it clear, however, that he trusts his chief of staff entirely, and sees the consolidation of the country’s security resources in his hands as strengthening his own power. 

With the departure of Bakanov, the most high-profile remaining silovik in Ukraine is incontestably Valery Zaluzhny, chief commander of Ukraine’s armed forces. Russia’s invasion has turned the general into one of the symbols of Ukrainian resistance, like Zelensky himself.

Relatively young at forty-nine, this progressive military commander is also popular in the West. Time magazine included him alongside Zelensky in its list of the most influential people on the planet, while Politico wrote that Zaluzhny “will enter Ukrainian military lore as a historic figure.”

At first, Zaluzhny was also considered to be one of Yermak’s protégés, but in the third month of the war, when the threat to the capital appeared to have receded, there were rumors that the presidential administration had begun to be wary of the popular commander in chief as a future political rival to Zelensky.

When Zaluzhny set up his own charity foundation, it was seen as an attempt to create a base for his own political project. The president and commander in chief also clashed publicly when the General Staff banned all Ukrainians eligible for military service from changing their place of residence without permission from the military authorities. Zelensky slammed this move as modern-day serfdom, and told military officials not to take such measures without his approval.

It’s hardly surprising that the president’s office fears that as hostilities die down, former soldiers will want to see one of their own running the country, and Zaluzhny would be the ideal candidate. This wariness is further fueled by opinion polls confirming high public trust in the armed forces, and by pro-Kremlin media churning out speculative predictions of either a military coup in Ukraine, or Zelensky being “dumped” by the West.

In these circumstances, Zelensky is determined to get the siloviki under the political control of his administration, regardless of any accusations that he is usurping power. Still, since the Ukrainian president is sticking, as before, to reshuffling personnel rather than reforming institutions, there is no guarantee that the new siloviki will turn out to be more effective than the previous ones. Despite purges of their ranks since 2014, there are still too many saboteurs and traitors in their midst: more than 650 investigations into state treason by security service officers have already been opened.

Right now, the survival of the Ukrainian state depends on the army, so there is no reason to expect a conflict with the country’s political leadership—unless, of course, it gets to the point of a hypothetical military disaster or attempts to sign an unpopular peace treaty. But in the future, the political problems mounting up during the stress of war could burst to the surface with serious consequences.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.