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Ukraine’s spy chief and senior prosecutor removed amid fears of Russian infiltration

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the number of treason and collaboration cases opened against law enforcement officials in Ukraine so far poses “very serious questions to the relevant leadership.”
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy removed two top law enforcement officials after a large number of treason and collaboration cases came to light in their departments.

In two separate decrees Sunday, Zelenskyy dismissed Ukraine's first female prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, who has been leading the country's efforts to prosecute Russian war crimes, and the chief of the state security agency, known as SBU, Ivan Bakanov, the president's longtime friend and former business associate.

The dismissals are the highest-profile political firings since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, and highlight the challenges Ukraine faces to ensure government agencies are not infiltrated by the Russians.

Addressing the dismissals in a late night video message Sunday, Zelenskyy said more than 60 officials in Bakanov’s and Venediktova’s offices were working against Ukraine in Russian-occupied territory. The cases are among 651 treason and collaboration cases that had been opened against law enforcement officials in Ukraine so far, according to the president.

The number of cases pose “very serious questions to the relevant leadership,” he added.

Briefing of Iryna Venediktova and Ivan Bakanov in Kyiv
Ukraine's spy chief, Ivan Bakanov, left, and prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, in Kyiv, on May 11, 2021. Volodymyr Tarasov / Future Publishing via Getty Images file

On Monday, the deputy head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andrii Smirnov, said Bakanov and Venediktova had not been fired but instead were “temporarily removed from their positions” so as not to interfere in the ongoing investigations into their staffers.

Zelenskyy needs parliament's approval to formally fire them.

For the time being, both Bakanov and Venediktova have been replaced by their deputies. There was no immediate reaction from either official. NBC News reached out to both for comment.

The firings come as Ukraine braces for Moscow to intensify its offensive in the eastern region of the Donbas after a brief battlefield pause during which the Russian command allowed its troops to rest and regroup.

Zelenskyy used this relative lull to tackle the problem of collaborators within his security service, something that he found “disturbing,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst and the head of the Ukrainian think tank Penta.

Both Bakanov and Venediktova are longtime members of Zelenskyy’s political team, and it must have been a difficult decision for the president, he added.

But Fesenko said it was “unavoidable” amid swirling questions around the duo’s effectiveness in their respective jobs, especially Bakanov’s perceived lack of judgment in appointing security officials who are now suspected of collaborating in Russia-occupied areas.

Within days of the invasion, Russia took control of large chunks of Ukraine’s south, including the entire Kherson region, and Zelenskyy’s government had faced questions about withdrawing from the region without much of a fight.

“Bakanov has been punished for giving up the south of Ukraine and it’s obvious that the Ukrainian security service could not only prevent it, but the traitors within its ranks actually helped it happen,” Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, said. “He should have been punished earlier.”

Ultimately, both Fesenko and Goncharenko said they didn't see the firings impacting the course of the war.

If anything, Fesenko said, it would allow Kyiv to clean up the agency responsible for the nation’s security as it prepares for the next phase of the Russian offensive.

“I hope it means that Ukraine’s security service will finally undergo complete cleansing to rid it of Russian agents,” Goncharenko said.