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Amid graft scandal, Ukraine to appointMuslim defence chief Rustem Umerov

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Ukraine’s recently sacked defence minister seems to have lost a bet.

In late August, Oleksii Reznikov said he would step down if the 233,000 winter jackets for troops that his ministry was expecting from Turkey would turn out to be light windbreakers.

Reznikov’s bet followed a report by the ZN.ua news portal that claimed his ministry had spent $20m on the windbreakers and paid way over the market price.

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The report fuelled yet another scandal in the military, where corruption has been endemic, especially in non-transparent procurement contracts – and where new forms of corruption emerged after the Russian invasion, experts and servicemen have told Al Jazeera.

Reznikov, a 57-year-old ex-lawyer, said on August 25 that he would provide proof of purchase “to make sure that the [bet’s] winner is obvious to the Ukrainian public”.

But on Sunday night, before any documents were made public, he lost his job.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired him, saying the ministry has to find “new approaches and other formats of interaction between the military and the public”.

Reznikov, whose negotiating skills and fluent English helped him convince dozens of Western diplomats and military officials to boost their aid to Ukraine, does not appear to be implicated in the scandals.

Ukrainian media suggested he may become Kyiv’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Ukraine corruption: Zelenskyy pledges to clean up fraud

Zelenskyy, a comedian who came to power on anticorruption slogans, appointed Reznikov in November 2021, three months before the full-scale war with Russia began.

The president said he wants to replace him with Rustem Umerov.

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament, is widely expected to vote for him later this week.

Umerov hails from the Muslim Tatar community in Crimea that largely resisted the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation by Russia in 2014.

He served as a member of parliament and authored a bill to dam a Soviet-era canal that supplied most of the water to the arid peninsula causing the “annihilation of agriculture” and severe water shortages.

He also helped facilitate the release of political prisoners jailed by Crimea’s Moscow-installed “authorities” before becoming the chairman of the Ukrainian State Property Fund in 2022.

In March 2023, Umerov was part of a team that tried to negotiate a truce with Moscow. After the talks failed, Kremlin-controlled media declared him a “US spy.”

He also developed ties with Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials and became a key figure in providing arms supplies from Muslim nations.

So far, Umerov has an immaculate reputation, and corruption monitors hail his appointment.

“We haven’t observed any corruption-related scandals with him,” Daria Kaleniuk, head of the Anticorruption Action Centre, a watchdog in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.

“To the contrary, we’ve been observing his sincere efforts to clean up corruption and use our state property fund for longer-term security strategy to safeguard Ukraine economically,” she said.

She said Umerov would have a chance to “finally start a systemic reform in the ministry of defence, particularly the reform of procurement,” she said.

Umerov’s appointment may serve as Zelenskyy’s signal to Moscow that Kyiv would not trade the peninsula for a peace deal and that its de-occupation remains a priority.

Oligarch arrested

Reznikov’s dismissal coincided with another major development.

On Saturday, a court in Kyiv arrested Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire oligarch and media mogul, on fraud and money laundering charges.

“Between 2013 and 2020, Ihor Kolomoisky legalised more than half a billion hryvnias [$14m] by transferring them abroad and using the infrastructure of banks under his control,” the SBU, Ukraine’s main intelligence agency, said in a statement on Saturday.

The court set his bail at $14m.

Kolomoisky made a fortune in banking, metallurgy and agriculture exports, and his 1+1 television channel propelled Zelenskyy and his District 95 troupe to nationwide popularity.

The channel funded and aired three seasons of the Servant of the People television series, in which Zelenskyy played a dirt-poor history teacher whose angry anticorruption diatribe makes him a YouTube celebrity and helps him win a presidential vote.

The series and its cinematic sequel paved the way for Zelenskyy’s presidency which he won in 2019 with 73 percent of the vote, the highest result in Ukrainian history.

Many initially considered Zelenskyy a political creature of Kolomoisky’s, who has been sanctioned by Washington for “significant corruption” and alleged money laundering in the US.

The arrest looks like his latest step to dissuade the public.

“Without a doubt, there will be no more decades-long ‘business as usual’ for those who plundered Ukraine and put themselves above the law and any rules,” Zelenskyy said in a statement after Kolomoisky’s arrest.

Analysts say the arrest along with Reznikov’s dismissal is part of Zelenskyy’s push to mend ties with Ukraine’s Western backers, especially the US, who have been unhappy about the mishandling of multibillion-dollar military contracts.

“Washington wants to see real results,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

“And there are main topics – Kolomoisky’s case that is already several years old, and the case of corruption in the spending Western aid. Without an answer to these questions, there won’t be stronger cooperation” with the West, he said.

War breeds grassroots corruption

Corruption has been plaguing Ukraine’s military and arms producers.

Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskyy’s predecessor and rival in the 2019 elections, had his approval ratings tank largely due to his failure to tackle it.

He was also involved in one of Ukraine’s largest and loudest corruption scandals when the company of his childhood friend’s son smuggled used spare parts for weapons and military equipment from Russia and resold them to Ukraine’s defence ministry at extortionate prices.

Meanwhile, the war spawned new forms of grassroots corruption in the Ukrainian military.

Oleksander, a 32-year-old trooper, was demobilised in May after stepping on a landmine and losing his right leg on the front line of the southern Kherson region.

He told Al Jazeera that the military owes him one million hryvnia ($27,000) as compensation, but his commanding officer allegedly did not sign the papers, demanding half of the money.

“That’s the only way to get the money,” Oleksander, who also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, told Al Jazeera.

Another serviceman told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity, that one of his brothers-in-arms wanted to expose his unit’s procurement officers who allegedly sold food, fuel and equipment.

The officers allegedly shot him to death and made the death look like suicide, the serviceman claimed.

“He was just a kid,” he said.

Both servicemen refused to provide further details about their allegations, and Al Jazeera could not verify them independently.

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