Ukraine purges officials and governors in biggest shake-up of war

By Tom Balmforth and Olena Harmash

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine dismissed more than a dozen senior officials including governors of several major battlefield provinces on Tuesday in the biggest shake-up of its wartime leadership since Russia's invasion last year.

Separately on Tuesday, a long-awaited decision on whether allies could send German-made heavy tanks to Ukraine finally confronted Berlin, after Poland said it had formally sent its request to the German government.

U.S. officials said Washington was also moving towards supplying some of its tanks to Kyiv.

Among Ukrainian officials who resigned or were dismissed on Tuesday were the governors of the Kyiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and adjacent Dnipropetrovsk are frontline provinces now. Kyiv and Sumy were major battlefields earlier in the war.

A deputy defence minister, a deputy prosecutor, a deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office and two deputy ministers responsible for regional development were among the others who left.

Some, though not all, had been linked with corruption allegations. Ukraine has a history of graft and shaky governance, and is under international pressure to show it can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western aid.

Zelenskiy aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted: "The president sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand – justice for all."

The purge came two days after a deputy infrastructure minister was arrested and accused of siphoning off $400,000 from contracts to buy generators – one of the first big corruption scandals to become public since the war began 11 months ago.

The Defence Ministry said Deputy Defence Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, responsible for supplying troops, had resigned to retain trust after what it called untrue media accusations of corruption. It followed a newspaper report that the ministry overpaid for food for troops, which the ministry denied.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy chief of staff in Zelenskiy's office, announced his own resignation, also citing no reason. He had helped run the president's 2019 election campaign and more recently had a role in overseeing regional policy.

As the shake-up unfolded in a series of announcements, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a cabinet meeting that Ukraine was making progress in its anti-corruption campaign. "It is systemic, consecutive work which is very needed for Ukraine and is an integral part of integration with the EU," he said.

DECISION TIME ON TANKS

Poland's announcement that it had officially asked for Berlin's permission to re-export German-made tanks to Ukraine appears to leave German Chancellor Olaf Scholz little room to continue putting off a decision in the main debate among allies over how best to support Ukraine.

"I hope that this answer from Germany will come quickly, because the Germans are delaying, dodging, acting in a way that is difficult to understand," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference. "We can see that they do not want to help Ukraine defend itself in a wider way."

A German government spokesperson said: "We will treat the proceedings with the urgency they deserve."

Two U.S. officials, meanwhile, told Reuters the United States appeared to be dropping its opposition to sending some of its M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. While the Abrams is considered less suitable than the Leopard for Ukraine due to its heavy fuel consumption, the move could encourage Germany to follow suit.

Kyiv has pleaded for months for Western tanks, which its says it desperately needs to give its forces the firepower and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and recapture occupied territory in the east and south.

Scholz's Social Democrats have held back, wary of moves that could spur Russia to escalate the war, and what they see as a risk of the NATO alliance being drawn into the conflict.

Germany's Leopards, fielded by armies across Europe, are widely seen as the best option, available in large numbers and easy to deploy and maintain. But Germany has resisted pressure to pledge any of its own Leopards, and until now had said its allies had yet to formally request permission to send theirs.

"The Germans have already received our request for permission to transfer Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine," Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak wrote on Twitter.

"I also appeal to the German side to join the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks. This is our common cause, because the security of the whole of Europe is at stake!"

The chief of staff of Germany's military said that whether to send tanks was a political decision. A senior official said the choice lay ultimately with Scholz and his cabinet.

Front lines in the war, which stretch more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) through eastern and southern Ukraine, have been largely frozen in place for two months despite heavy losses on both sides. Russia and Ukraine are both widely believed to be planning offensives.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus, Writing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Timothy Heritage)

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