Ukraine: Zelensky’s purge – a sign of instability?

Zelensky promised a “cleansing” of the two agencies in his address to the Ukrainian people on July 17. Image adapted from a screenshot of his video address by Susan Price/Green Left

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fired two top government officials on July 17: Iryna Venedikova, the prosecutor general; and Ivan Bakanov, head of the domestic intelligence agency, SBU.

The charge against Venedikova and Bakanov is that they “turned a blind eye” to pro-Russian “traitors” in their respective agencies. The deputy head of Zelensky’s office, Andriy Smirnov, said they were ousted for failing to “cleanse” their agencies of collaborators, according to the July 18 New York Times.

The NYT report quoted from Zelensky’s official address on July 17, following the purge, where he said: “Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state, and the connections detected between the employees of the security forces of Ukraine and the special services of Russia, pose very serious questions to the relevant leadership.”

Zelensky promised a “cleansing” of the two agencies, promising that “Actions and any inaction of each official in the security sector and in law enforcement agencies will be evaluated,” in his July 17 address — also reported by the NYT.

The NYT said that Zelensky’s dismissal of Bakanov was likely related to “glaring intelligence failures in the first days of the war in the southern city of Kherson, which the Russians captured almost without a fight”.

According to comments by opposition member of parliament, Volodymyr Ariev, local officials in Kherson “switched sides, and explosives were removed from bridges around the city”, reported the NYT.

Zelensky also stripped two security service generals of their ranks, in late March, “calling them traitors”, wrote the NYT. “[O]ne was in charge of the Kherson region and the other fled Ukraine on the eve of the invasion…”

Unanswered was why this charge against Bakanov was only made in July. These divisions in the government clearly existed early on and continue.

The SBU reportedly has about 27,000 personnel, which indicates the Zelensky purge faces a big task. The agency is “Ukraine’s successor to the Soviet era KGB”, said the NYT and, according to Ariev, “many of its chiefs graduated from KGB schools”. “Its vast size has drawn criticism — by comparison, Britain’s MI5 has just 4,400 employees, according to the Atlantic Council — and it has long faced calls for reform,” said the NYT.

“Business groups have said that the service shook down companies for bribes and that corrupt agents, compromised and facing possible prosecution, became easy marks for recruitment by Russia,” said the NYT.

The front line in the war is now in the Donetsk province in the Donbas.

“By the height of the fighting for the eastern city of Lysychansk [in the Donbas Luhansk province, which Russia now occupies] last month, most civilians had fled, but significant portions of those who remained showed open distain for the Ukrainian defenders,” reported the NYT. One local resident told the NYT journalists: “We are a Russian nation. You can kill us, but you can’t defeat us.”

“Out in the villages and towns on the frontline of the war in eastern Ukraine, the most pro-Russian region of the country, soldiers worry continually about the threat posed by enemy sympathizers reporting their positions or helping direct Russian artillery fire,” said the NYT.

This gives the lie to assertions in much of the US media pedaled by Washington and Zelensky that the Donbas Russian-speakers are all supportive of the Ukrainian government. The NYT journalists also spoke to Donetsk police chief Ruslan Osypenko, who told them that informants “often act on the promise of a position in a future, Russian-controlled administration”.

Corruption runs deep in the Ukrainian government. Zelensky once promised to root it out, but didn’t and is part of it.

The countries that came out of the overthrow of the Soviet Union are saddled with bureaucratic and corrupt regimes, including Russia and Ukraine.

The reason for this is how capitalism was restored in the USSR, where there were no private capitalists except for those in the capitalist enterprises of organised crime. The process has been referred to as “gangster capitalism” where organised crime figures and bureaucrats who organised the transition emerged as the capitalist owners of the means of production.

Through the processes of competition normal to capitalism, some became the very rich “oligarchs” over time in these countries.

We don’t know what Zelensky’s purge will actually do, or what its real targets are. Will the “traitors” include anyone who disagrees with his assessments about the state of the war? Anyone who is not fully aligned with him? Are all Russian-speakers potentially suspects?

The White House is silent on the matter. Washington doesn’t want Americans to know about the divisions in the Ukrainian government.