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Zelenskyy’s decision to replace top officials spotlights shadow war over security


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine during a news conference in Kyiv last Thursday. “We have a special people, an extraordinary people,” he said.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Valerie Hopkins and Marc Santora


The decision by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to replace his head of domestic intelligence and another top official has cast a rare spotlight on the shadow war between Russia and Ukraine, two adversaries seeking to penetrate their rival’s security networks and gain critical intelligence.


While artillery duels and missile strikes have been the hallmark of the war ravaging Ukraine and the armies of both sides, a clandestine battle is taking place to root out and neutralize anyone deemed to be collaborating with the enemy.


Zelenskyy alluded to the battle in a televised speech late Sunday. In announcing the dismissal of Ivan Bakanov, the leader of Ukraine’s Security Service, and the removal of Iryna Venediktova, the prosecutor general, Zelenskyy noted that hundreds of treason investigations have been opened into employees of law enforcement agencies.

The president did not suggest that either of the officials he dismissed w

as suspected of treason; both are considered allies of Zelenskyy, and Bakanov and the president are childhood friends. But other officials in Zelenskyy’s government had blamed them for failing to effectively root out criminals working in the interests of Russia.


“Everyone has been waiting long enough for more concrete and, perhaps, radical results from the heads of these two bodies to cleanse these bodies of collaborators and state traitors,” a presidential aide, Andriy Smirnov, said on national television Monday morning in defending Zelenskyy’s decision to replace them.


Ukraine had so far initiated 651 criminal proceedings against employees of law enforcement agencies, as well as the prosecutor’s office and pretrial investigation bodies over “treason and collaboration activities,” he said.


“Such an array of crimes,” Zelenskyy said, “pose very serious questions to the relevant leadership.”


While Ukraine is largely united in its opposition to Russia’s invasion, its deep cultural and historical ties with Russia have translated, in parts of the country, to pockets of support for Moscow.


This is true particularly in the south of Ukraine near the region of Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin annexed for Russia in 2014, and in parts of the east near the Russian border. Ukrainian officials have said those ties have translated into practical support for Russian forces since the invasion.


Zelenskyy on Sunday referred to “the transfer of secret information to the enemy, as well as other forms of cooperation with Moscow’s special services,” saying that everyone “that worked in the interests of the Russian Federation will also be held accountable.”


Since the war began, more than 800 people suspected of engaging in sabotage and reconnaissance for Russian have been detained and handed over to the Security Service of Ukraine, Yevhen Yenin, First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, said last month.


The Ukrainians recently foiled a Russian plot to target the leadership of the Ukrainian government, Yenin said, noting that there are now 123 counter-sabotage groups comprising a total of at least 1,500 members operating as part of law enforcement agencies.


U.S. officials said Sunday that they have been working with Kyiv for years to improve its operational security and find Russian moles in the intelligence services.


As the Ukrainians work to fight saboteurs and Russian sympathizers within their ranks, the Russians are contending with an organized and increasingly effective insurgency that has engaged in a campaign to target and assassinate Kremlin-appointed proxies in the occupied territories.


Pro-Russia officials have taken steps to tighten their control over the population in occupied territories, such as criminalizing criticism of Russia. But the Ukrainians continue to report successful strikes on critical Russian ammunition depots deep inside occupied territory.


Serhii Khlan, a member of the Kherson Regional Council, said in a Facebook post Monday that “explosions have been heard in the Nova Kakhovka community since the very morning.” He said that they were Russia’s “munitions burning and exploding.”

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