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Congress mulls more money for Ukraine, as Zelenskyy replaces his defense minister

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Congress mulls over whether to approve more money for Ukraine, Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is replacing his defense minister. To understand what this means, we turn to Michael Bociurkiw, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Michael, thanks for being on the program.

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: Good morning. So this announcement came in the middle of Ukraine's counteroffensive to try and take back some control of Ukrainian territory from Russia. What did you make of the timing?

BOCIURKIW: Interesting timing. Actually, the exit of Oleksii Reznikov, the former defense minister, was widely expected, especially after the revelations of corruption charges in the army not directly related to him but in his ministry. But, you know, it's got to be said, this is just a blip on the radar screen if you consider all the changes in the top echelons of the Russian military establishment under Mr. Putin. So Reznikov has been there for over 500 days. President Zelenskyy praised him for his service. And it was suggested that it's time for a change - new challenges ahead - and that Reznikov actually is said to have requested leaving, as well.

FADEL: Interesting. Do you see this more as a attempt to clean up corruption? I mean, you mentioned corruption, military contractors inflating the price of food, cases where men allegedly paid bribes to avoid military service. Or is it about this grinding counteroffensive that hasn't yielded the successes that were expected?

BOCIURKIW: I think it's more the first one. For domestic and international consumption, there's a huge, huge, I would say, anger in Ukraine - and I've been based there since the start of the war - to clean up corruption because it's regarded as especially distasteful or disgusting during a time of war when people are dipping their hands into the money pot. And then, of course, internationally, you mentioned - your reporter mentioned about 20 billion on the table right now for Ukraine. And it's really, really important for the Zelenskyy administration to send out those signals that the cleanup is happening. There's the billions coming in, but there's also going to be hundreds of billions coming in in international money for reconstruction of Ukraine.

FADEL: So about the international audience, as well, because President Biden is anticipating pushback from members of Congress who want accountability of how U.S aid to Ukraine is used. Do you think this will have an impact, this change?

BOCIURKIW: Well, if indeed there is opposition, I think that is something that the Russians are betting on. They want to run out the clock on this war to the next elections, hope a Trump or one of his circle gets in and then will cut a deal that is not in favor of Ukraine but in favor of Russia. So I think that is part of the Russian military strategy. It's going to be a long war of attrition unless the Ukrainians can indeed break through and push the Russians back.

FADEL: Now, when Zelenskyy made this announcement, he said it was time for a, quote, "new approach." So what do we know about the new defense minister, Rustem Umerov, and how his approach might be different?

BOCIURKIW: Well, I got to say he sure ticks a lot of boxes. He's got very strong international partnerships, especially with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And these, by the way, these personal relationships, helped him negotiate prisoner exchanges with both countries, as well as that Black Sea Grain Initiative. He was also able to turn around his ministry - it's called the State Property Fund - first half of 2023. It brought in $49 million by auctioning off state property. And then finally, he's a Crimean Tatar and a Muslim. And I spoke to his party leader earlier today, Kira Rudik. And she says, that specific background of his shows that we'll never give up on Crimea. So that must have raised a few eyebrows in Moscow when this appointment came through.

FADEL: And how will it impact the war, do you think?

BOCIURKIW: Well, I think the war is mostly in the hands of General Zaluzhny. He's very popular in Ukraine. Yeah, and they've been making some recent successes. And just quickly, the main strategy right now, I think, is to sever that land bridge that connects the Russian mainland with Crimea. Ukrainians seem to be making substantial progress in that regard. So watch this space.

FADEL: Michael Bociurkiw, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Odesa, Ukraine. Michael, thank you.

BOCIURKIW: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.