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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacks the country's defense minister

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

First we turn to Ukraine, where the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has sacked the country's defense minister.

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The move comes after corruption scandals involving military contractors. It also comes near the end of a grinding and costly summer counteroffensive that so far has failed to bring major victories against Russia.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann is following developments in Kyiv and joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So this is being called the biggest shake-up in Kyiv since the Russia invasion. Why the shake-up now?

MANN: You know, Leila, in making this announcement, Zelenskyy wasn't specific about the timing. But he said change is needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He says there the current defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, served during the first 550 days of this war. Then Zelenskyy says, I believe the ministry needs new approaches and other forms of interaction with the military and society at large, so clearly acknowledging some of that public dissatisfaction.

FADEL: So new approaches. Let's talk about these corruption scandals. What were they?

MANN: There have been two big scandals here. Journalists and government investigators found numerous cases where military contractors were inflating the prices of food procured for the military, often charging two to three times the market price for basics like eggs and cabbages. And there's been evidence some defense ministry officials were involved in that scheme. The government's also investigating a large number of cases where men allegedly paid bribes to avoid military service. Zelenskyy didn't blame Reznikov for those scandals, but he did make this announcement right after talking about the need for Ukraine to keep cleaning up corruption and implementing better policies to root out crooked officials.

FADEL: And who will replace Reznikov?

MANN: Well, this is interesting. Zelenskyy tapped a guy named Rustem Umerov. He's a member of parliament. He's also a Muslim Ukrainian, an ethnic Tatar with deep roots in Crimea. That's one of the regions occupied by Russia since 2014. Umerov's been involved in international negotiations surrounding the treatment of Tatars and Ukrainians living in occupied territories for years. Some of those talks apparently involved backchannel negotiations with Russians. He also took part in failed peace talks that happened right after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. I should say, this appointment needs approval by Ukraine's parliament, but that's expected to be a formality.

FADEL: Very interesting. It may really signal a new approach here. As we mentioned, this change also comes near the end of the summer's big counteroffensive. Ukraine hoped to score big gains, pushing Russia back out of occupied lands in the east and south. But as we mentioned, progress has been slow. Did that play into this decision?

MANN: Yeah, you know, everything here does ultimately come back to what's happening on the battlefield. Zelenskyy has been doing a lot of cheerleading lately, telling Ukrainians their army is gaining ground, promising that these sacrifices will pay off. But there's anxiety over the pace of the war and the huge loss of Ukrainian lives. I spoke late yesterday with Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesman for the unified military command where most of the heavy fighting is happening. He said Ukraine is gaining ground but slowly and at a steep price.

OLEKSANDR SHTUPUN: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "This isn't going to be an easy walk for our soldiers," Shtupun said. "The enemy's defensive structures are quite dense, and a large amount of ammunition is needed to destroy them." So this is what Umerov is going to face when he takes over a situation where progress is really slow. And we are close now to the autumn rains that are going to turn this battlefield to mud, which means the chances for breakthroughs going forward will be even harder.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann with us from Kyiv. Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.