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Zelenskyy fires his childhood friend—Ukraine’s top spy chief—over failure to stop staffer ‘treason’

July 18, 2022, 12:14 PM UTC
Volodymyr Zelenskyy serious press conference
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired Ukraine's prosecutor general and the leader of its domestic intelligence agency on Sunday, after hundreds of treason allegations came forward
Sergei Supinsky—AFP/Getty Images

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired Ukraine’s prosecutor general and the leader of its domestic intelligence agency on Sunday, citing hundreds of treason investigations in the departments they oversee.

The firing is the most significant shakeup of Ukraine’s government since Russia first invaded the country in February and started the war that has plagued the region for 145 days.

Zelenskyy first announced the firing of the country’s top lawmaker Iryna Venediktova and head of Ukraine’s secret service (SBU) Ivan Bakanov—a childhood friend of Zelenskyy—through brief decrees posted on the government website. Zelenskyy later followed up in a televised speech and a Telegram message, noting the firing was in response to a large number of cases accusing employees under Venediktova and Bakanov of collaborating with Russia.

In the speech, Zelenskyy said 651 cases of alleged treason and collaboration with the Russians have been opened against Ukrainian officials across all agencies of the government. Bakanov and Venediktova’s department were especially fraught with cases with more than 60 officials working against Ukraine in Russian-occupied territories, he claimed.  

Venediktova, who has played a key role in prosecuting Russian war crimes, was asked to step down from her position through a decree, while Bakanov was removed from his duty via a separate decree citing “Article 47 of the Disciplinary Statute of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” which pertains to “failure to perform service duties, which led to human casualties or other grave consequences.”

“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,” Zelenskyy said in his televised speech.

The capture of Kherson

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, its forces have managed to capture large swaths of the east and south of the country. While Russian forces were met with fierce resistance when they tried to capture the capital Kyiv and were forced to focus their efforts on taking the eastern industrial Donbas region, it remains an outstanding question how they were able to capture the southern region of Kherson so quickly.

Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city captured by Russian forces and was occupied just seven days after President Vladimir Putin launched his offensive.

Since the capture of Kherson, officials in Zelenskyy’s government blamed Bakanov for intelligence failures, Politico reported in June, noting that Zelenskyy was looking to replace him to reform the SBU.

Leaks may also be inevitable for an organization the size of the SBU. The domestic security and intelligence authority in Ukraine, which was once a local branch of the Soviet-era KGB, has 27,000 personnel, making it Europe’s largest security agency. To put that into perspective, Britain’s MI5 has only 4,400 members, according to the Atlantic Council.

American officials told the New York Times that the move to replace Bakanov may reflect Zelenskyy’s efforts to put more experienced leaders in key security positions.

Bakanov was appointed to the head of SBU in 2019 after Zelenskyy won the election earlier that year. Bakanov was childhood friends with Zelenskyy and the two worked in the entertainment industry together—Zelenskyy as a comedian and Bakanov as the lead director of the Kvartal 95 Studio TV production company.

Bakanov’s successor has yet to be named, but Zelenskyy has appointed Oleksiy Symonenko as acting prosecutor general.

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