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Ukraine's President Sidelines Close Allies in Biggest Purge of War


FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands at the podium during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 3, 2022.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sidelined his childhood friend as head of Ukraine's security service, and another close ally as top prosecutor, in Kyiv's biggest internal purge of the war, citing their failure to root out Russian spies.

The careers of SBU security service chief Ivan Bakanov and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova had personified Zelenskiy's policy of putting young loyalists in charge of fighting corruption since the former TV comic came to power in 2019.

But nearly five months after Russia's invasion, the president acknowledged that his two allies had failed to root out traitors and collaborators in their organizations.

Zelenskyy said late on Sunday the two had been removed from their posts. The deputy head of Zelenskiy's administration clarified early on Monday that they had been suspended pending further investigation, rather than fired.

More than 60 officials from Bakanov's SBU security agency and the prosecutor's office were working against Ukraine in Russian-occupied territory, and 651 treason and collaboration cases had been opened against law enforcement officials, Zelenskyy said in a video address.

"Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state ... pose very serious questions to the relevant leaders," Zelenskyy said.

Zelenskiy, now widely feted on the world stage as a decisive war-time leader, had been dogged before the invasion by accusations that he had named friends and other inexperienced outsiders to jobs in which they were out of their depth.

Bakanov, a friend of Zelenskiy's since their childhood in southern Ukraine, had helped run Zelenskiy's media business during his television career. He then led the successful campaign that saw Zelenskyy shift from playing the president on a sitcom to being elected in a landslide in real life.

Venediktova, a jurist who attended a meeting just last week in The Hague discussing the international effort to prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine, had advised Zelenskyy on judicial reform since he entered politics.

3,000 cruise missiles

After failing to capture Kyiv early in the invasion, Russian forces used a campaign of devastating bombing to cement and extend their control of the south and east.

In recent weeks the Russians have stepped up long-distance strikes on targets far from the front, killing large numbers of civilians in what Ukraine calls terrorism. Moscow says it is firing at military targets. Zelenskyy said Russia had used more than 3,000 cruise missiles so far.

Dozens of relatives and local residents on Sunday attended the funeral of 4-year-old Liza Dmytrieva, one of 24 people killed in a Russian missile strike in the city of Vinnytsia last week. The death of the girl, who had Down's Syndrome and was filmed cheerfully pushing a pram the morning she was killed next to it, has had particular resonance across Ukraine.

Kyiv hopes the war is at a turning point, with Moscow having exhausted its offensive capabilities to seize a few small cities in the east, while Ukraine has now fielded long-range Western weapons that can strike behind Russian lines.

Kyiv cites a string of successful strikes carried out on 30 Russian logistics and ammunition hubs, which it says are crippling Russia's artillery-dominated forces that need to transport thousands of shells to the front each day.

Russia said on Monday Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had ordered the military to concentrate on destroying Ukraine's Western-supplied rockets and artillery.

In the south, Ukraine is preparing a counterattack in coming weeks to recapture the biggest swath of territory taken since the February invasion and still in Russian hands. Ukraine reported destroying Russian missile systems, communications, radar, ammunition depots and armored vehicles in strikes in the southern Kherson region.

In the east, Ukrainian forces withdrew at the start of July from Luhansk, one of two provinces Russia claims on behalf of its separatist proxies.

Kyiv says Moscow is planning another assault to capture the last Ukrainian-held pocket of neighboring Donetsk province. Ukrainian emergency services said six civilians were killed on Monday when shells hit a two-story building in Toretsk, a Ukrainian-held Donetsk town close to the frontline.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on Feb. 24 calling it a "special military operation" to demilitarize its neighbor and root out nationalists. Kyiv and the West call it an attempt reconquer a country that broke free of Moscow's rule in 1991.

Despite sanctions, European countries are still Russia's biggest buyers of oil and gas and worry about the economic impact if Moscow should shut off the energy flow.

In recent weeks, Russia cut back gas flows through Nord Stream 1, its main pipeline to Germany, blaming sanctions that had held up the return of a turbine serviced by Germany's Siemens and sent to Canada for repairs. The pipeline is due to reopen this week after scheduled maintenance, and some Europeans worry Moscow might keep it shut.

Kommersant newspaper reported that Canada had flown the turbine to Germany on Sunday, and it would be shipped onward to Russia around July 24. Zelenskyy has criticized Canada's decision to return it.

A German economy ministry spokesperson said the turbine was not due to be used until September, so its absence could not be the real reason for the supply cuts.

Russia is preparing for the next stage of its offensive in Ukraine, a Ukrainian military official said, after Moscow said its forces would step up military operations in "all operational areas."