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Zelenskiy vows changes will bolster Ukraine amid defence minister uncertainty


President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said personnel changes on the border and front line will bolster Ukraine’s military efforts amid uncertainty over the future of his defence minister, just as Russia advances for the first time in six months in the east.

In his Monday evening address, Zelenskiy said he wanted to combine military and managerial experience in local and central government but did not directly address confusion about whether his defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, would be replaced.

On Sunday, David Arakhamia, head of Zelenskiy’s parliamentary bloc, said Reznikov would be transferred to another ministerial job, but on Monday he wrote that “there will be no personnel changes in the defence sector this week.”

Zelenskiy’s government is cracking down on official wrongdoing, the biggest political and administrative shakeup since Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago.

Zelenskiy says he needs to show that Ukraine was a safe steward of billions of dollars of Western military and other aid.

“We are bolstering our managerial positions,” Zelenskiy said in his address, following a meeting of his top command involving the country’s commander-in-chief, sector commanders and the head of intelligence.

“In a number of regions, particularly those on the border or on the front line, we will appoint leaders with military experience. Those who can show themselves to be the most effective in defending against existing threats,” he said.

In eastern Ukraine, where there have been relentless battles for months, a regional governor has said Russia was pouring in reinforcements for a new offensive that could begin next week.

Russia launched five missile and 12 air attacks as well as 36 shelling incidents over a 24-hour period, hitting southern targets such as Kherson, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a Monday evening statement.

Ukrainian aircraft have launched nine strikes on areas of concentration of Russian forces and two anti-aircraft positions, it said. Reuters could not immediately verify battleground reports.

Ukraine is itself planning a spring offensive, but awaiting delivery of promised longer-range Western missiles and battle tanks.

The European Union said Zelenskiy has been invited to take part in a summit of EU leaders, amid reports he could be in Brussels as soon as this week, in what would be only his second known foreign trip since the invasion began.

Zelenskiy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Reznikov, a 56-year-old lawyer, has been the face of Ukraine at international meetings where allies have pledged billions of dollars in weaponry, and has been warmly received in Western capitals – including Paris just last week.

Arakhamia had said the 37-year-old head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, would replace Reznikov, who would become minister of strategic industries.

One obstacle to replacing Reznikov with Budanov, a fast-rising officer decorated for operations that remain secret, is a rule requiring the defence minister to be a civilian.

Ukraine’s defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment and Reuters could not immediately reach Reznikov or Budanov.

Reznikov said on Sunday that any decision was up to Zelenskiy but that he had heard nothing about a transfer. He said he would reject the strategic industry job because he lacked the expertise.

The war is reaching a pivotal point as its first anniversary approaches, with Ukraine no longer making gains as it did in the second half of 2022 and Russia pushing forward with hundreds of thousands of mobilised reserve troops.

Russia said its forces had captured Mykolaivka, a village in the eastern Donetsk region.

There was no immediate response from Ukraine, which has disputed other Russian battlefield reports.

Russia’s main target has been Bakhmut, where its state media said the Wagner mercenary group had gained a foothold. Ukraine said on Monday evening that Russian forces had trained tank, mortar and artillery fire there in the past 24 hours.

Wagner chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, accused by Ukraine of sending thousands of Russian ex-prisoners to their deaths around Bakhmut, released a video purportedly showing him in a tactical bomber that had just struck the town.

He said he would fly a fighter on Tuesday and challenged Zelenskiy to an aerial duel.

Russia’s state Investigative Committee said on Monday it was examining the alleged use of chemical weapons by Ukrainian forces near Bakhmut and nearby Soledar.

Ukraine’s Armed Forces said they had never used chemical weapons anywhere at any time and accused Moscow of engaging in disinformation and of itself using banned weapons.

Since its invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, which it has cast as defending itself from an aggressive West, Russia has taken control of parts of Ukraine it says it will never return.

Ukraine has said that restoring its territorial integrity is not open for negotiation.

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Ukrainian servicemen stand at a self-propelled howitzer, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near the frontline town of Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine February 6, 2023. REUTERS/Yevhen Titov

Ukrainian service members ride a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near the frontline town of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine February 6, 2023. REUTERS/Yevhen Titov

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov attends a joint news conference, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine October 26, 2022. REUTERS/Max Hunder